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What to Expect from Xi Jinping’s “Non-War” Military Operations

July 13, 2022
6 min read
Photo credit: Peter Sherman Crosby / Shutterstock.com

On June 15, 2022, Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi Jinping’s new guidelines for “non-war military operations” went into effect.

The guidelines consist of 59 articles in six chapters, as outlined by the Chinese Ministry of Defense’s spokesperson Tan Kefei. The actual guidelines are not yet public, prompting speculation about their purpose.

One initial interpretation perceives the guidelines as Xi Jinping following quickly in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin’s “special military operations,” the deceitful euphemism used by Russia’s president to describe the invasion in Ukraine.

In this vein, China’s leadership could exploit the new rules to create a smoke screen for military operations by labeling them “non-war” operations.

In this vein, China’s leadership could exploit the new rules to create a smoke screen for military operations by labeling them “non-war” operations. In the words of Eugene Kuo Yujen, an analyst at Taiwan’s Institute for National Policy Research, the guidelines function as “a copy of Putin’s ‘special operation’ language,” and he adds that “it sends a very threatening signal to Taiwan, Japan, and the surrounding countries in the South China Sea.”

Another analyst from Beijing, Wu Qiang, spoke to Australian media outlet ABC News and said that “this is about seeking to define a future military intervention in Taiwan as a ‘non-war’ operation.”

That is possible. There is no doubt that establishing Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan figures high on Xi Jinping’s priority list, including through military means.

Still, the new guidelines might also serve different purposes.

There is no doubt that establishing Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan figures high on Xi Jinping’s priority list, including through military means.

For over a decade, China’s government has seen instability abroad impact its many Chinese workers and companies. Their international presence creates a new risk map for Chinese interests as these workers and businesses become embroiled, often unwillingly, in local conflicts.

The Chinese evacuation of over 35,000 workers in Libya in 2011 following Muammar Gaddafi’s bloody demise was a first test case. Chinese military assets were deployed for the first time abroad to assist the rescue mission. Other similar evacuations followed in Sudan in 2013 and in Yemen in 2015, seeing the novel deployment of two Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) frigates assisting in securing free passage for Chinese nationals in harm’s way in the war-torn country.   

Protection of its nationals overseas was added to the official Chinese foreign policy playbook at the Party Congress in 2012, in conjunction with Xi’s rise to power. The military has listed the protection of nationals abroad as part of its contingency missions for years. Since 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce has exhorted Chinese companies to carry out risk assessments and, if necessary, employ private security companies for protection in risky environments. It is only in the last resort, if such tactics fail, that China’s government and military are ready to step in.

In this interpretation, the new guidelines also serve as the codification of an existing practice of the conditions for deploying China’s military to secure its nationals and assets abroad.

This would also fit with what its government has laid out publicly until now. According to the Global Times, the state-run paper, the guidelines serve to “handle emergencies, protect people and property,” which fits with this kind of mission.

And it would fit with China’s huge and growing risk map for workers and companies across the world. Xi’s signature project, the Belt and Road Initiative, has pushed Chinese companies even more actively abroad and into danger zones.

The Global Security Initiative, although currently mostly generic commitments to multilateralism and territorial integrity, launched by Xi in April, could also fit with a more active role in engaging in conflict mediation abroad to secure stability. For example, the Chinese ambassador to Somalia already penned an article in Somali labeling the initiative as part of China’s commitment to Somalia and efforts to jointly respond to various traditional and non-traditional security threats.”

For sure, it would fit with China’s growing need for military base agreements and security arrangements globally. In 2015, its military broke new ground with a base agreement with Djibouti serving to resupply PLAN anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and securing better options for Chinese military contingency options in the African region. Recently, China established a still not fully public security agreement with the Solomon Islands. Similarly, security arrangements and a Chinese base have been established in Tajikistan with a view to contingency planning for Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover and for anti-terror operations.

Increasingly, the protection of nationals abroad is also a matter of public opinion, which is amplified by nationalistic media outlets such as the Global Times and on social media. It was even the theme of the 2017 Chinese blockbuster movie Wolf Warrior II. “Don’t kill the Chinese,” exclaims the African rebel leader in the movie, “it is big trouble.” And big trouble it becomes for the rebels as they face Leng Feng, the ex-PLA special ops, one-man army—aka Wolf Warrior—who heroically rescues a group of Chinese factory workers caught in the mayhem of civil war inside an African country.

What does the protection of its nationals reveal about the evolution of China’s foreign policy? There is a benign answer, which flows from Beijing, and a malign answer, which seems more likely.

The more realistic version sees a narrow pursuit of Chinese interests with a patriotic tinge, with similarities to Putin’s aggressive stance on protecting Russian speakers beyond the country’s borders.

In the benign version, China’s growing protection of nationals leads Beijing to deliver a global public good with its military. It fits into the narrative of the Global Security Initiative, with China upholding the global order in its own image. In Wolf Warrior II, Chinese factory workers insist on bringing African co-workers and their spouses to safety; China’s protective arm extends beyond its own people. Similarly in Yemen in 2015, Chinese warships rescued 279 foreign nationals, an example used by Chinese officials to highlight the benefits of a global Chinese military presence.

The more realistic version sees a narrow pursuit of Chinese interests with a patriotic tinge, with similarities to Putin’s aggressive stance on protecting Russian speakers beyond the country’s borders. In Wolf Warrior II, that is reflected in the final rescue scene, where Leng Feng raises the Chinese flag while standing on top of a truck. The scene reportedly made moviegoers in China break out into the national anthem. The flag has the desired calming (or scaring) effect on the rebel aggressors. “It’s the Chinese!” they exclaim, and the warring forces hold their fire to let the convoy of Chinese pass through.

China’s adoption of new guidelines on non-war operations will be a next step in bringing its military presence out into the world—and likely another step away from the peaceful rise it once promised to the global community.