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Research Questions

  1. How will China protect its citizens and their economic assets in distant countries?
  2. What sort of military capabilities or other arrangements might China pursue accordingly?
  3. What will China's approach to security abroad mean for the United States and its allies and partners?

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 potential harm. This report examines China's pursuit of security for its overseas interests. It surveys Chinese writings and Western reporting to describe the country's likely approach to protecting its economic and strategic interests abroad. The report concludes that China is likely to pursue a distinctive approach that features a far more limited military role than has been the case for the United States or imperial powers of previous centuries. Instead, China will likely rely on a blend of military, paramilitary, civilian contractors, and host-nation forces to carry out a more limited range of nonwar missions and tasks to safeguard international interests. This approach carries both opportunities and concerns for U.S. interests abroad. The PLA could prove a helpful partner to the United States in a variety of nonwar missions, such as humanitarian aid/disaster relief and counterpiracy operations. However, Chinese use of paramilitary forces and provision of arms to host-nation–provided forces could complicate the interests of the United States and its allies in some regions.

Key Findings

  • China is likely to pursue a distinctive approach that features a far more limited military role than has been the case for the United States or imperial powers of previous centuries.
  • China's military will likely play a smaller role in the overall set of forces involved with overseas security.
  • China will rely heavily on less politically sensitive methods, such as funding host-nation security efforts and encouraging commercial security contractors to assume some of the work of personal and asset security.
  • Due to its limited investment in power projection capabilities, China is likely to have little option but to accept a higher degree of disorder and risk in some of the countries in which it is expanding its economic presence.
  • Despite the incentives in favor of a smaller overseas military presence, China is likely to increase its investment in certain capabilities.


  • China's interest in funding host nations as a lower-risk means of protecting its interests carries potential implications for international security. China's reliance on a combined approach to security abroad raises the possibility that a partner country's agreement to support one type of security force could lead to follow-on to allow other security forces.
  • 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 than it currently does.
  • The areas in which China is most willing to collaborate with the United States are likely to feature a low risk of escalation, a low probability of entrapment in costly commitments, and opportunities to burnish the country's reputation as an international leader.
  • Good candidates for cooperation with the United States that already exist and will continue to persist include humanitarian aid and relief operations, cooperation to address pandemics, counterpiracy operations, exchanges of information and intelligence on shared concerns, and collaboration in UN peacekeeping operations.
  • China appears interested in finding ways to enhance security for its interests in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. However, it will likely still continue to minimize its military commitments even as it seeks to step up security for economic interests abroad.
  • China's efforts to shape the terms of international law enforcement and paramilitary cooperation to reflect the country's pursuit of separatist activists, officials wanted for corruption, and other political targets has already drawn scrutiny and concern from Western countries.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute (NDRI), a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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