To Protect Overseas Interests, China Likely to Rely More on Contractors and Host Nation Forces Than Its Own Military

For Release

March 27, 2018

A new RAND Corporation study concludes that China is far less likely to involve its military in security activities abroad than has been the case for the United States or for imperial powers of previous centuries. To bolster security for the Belt and Road Initiative and other economic activities abroad, China will instead rely heavily on civilian contractors and host nation-provided forces, with Chinese military and paramilitary forces playing an important but limited role.

China's ascent as the world's second-largest economy has brought the country tremendous prosperity, but integration into the global economy has also exposed growing numbers of its citizens and their assets to threats in other countries.

The RAND report examines the question of how China can provide security for its growing array of overseas economic and strategic interests. It also seeks to understand how China's approach might provide opportunities or raise concerns for the United States.

According to Chinese authorities, 30,000 of the country's commercial enterprises are located overseas and more than 100 million Chinese citizens travel abroad annually. Maritime piracy, civil conflict and other threats in distant lands menace the markets, resources and investments upon which China's economy now depends.

“How China decides to protect its overseas interests carries important implications for international politics and for the country's own economic prospects,” said Timothy Heath, author of the report and senior international defense research analyst at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “The size and strength of any military forces stationed abroad could affect the course of an international crisis or prospects for collaboration with the United States on shared concerns.”

The report assesses China's approach to protecting overseas interests, which can also shed light on the economic feasibility of major Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure investment projects in fragile states. If China lacks a reliable way to protect its interests in unstable countries, ambitious infrastructure and investment projects could suffer heavy losses or remain unrealized.

The author also finds that with only modest increases in military capability abroad, the People's Liberation Army may not be able or willing to provide the United States much more help against shared threats such as maritime piracy and natural disaster than it currently does.

The report is a product of RAND's continuing program of self-initiated independent research. Support for such research is provided in part by donors and by the independent research and development provisions of RAND's contracts for the operations of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers.

The research was conducted within the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD), which conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security and intelligence communities and foundations and other nongovernmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis.

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