H-Diplo Review Essay 422- "Protecting China’s Interests Overseas"

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H-Diplo Review Essay 422

23 March 2022

Andrea Ghiselli.  Protecting China’s Interests Overseas: Securitization and Foreign Policy.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2020.  ISBN:  9780198867395 (hardcover, $100.00).

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Andrew Szarejko | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Shaio Zerba, University of Mississippi

In February 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Defense began construction of a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) support facility in the tiny country of Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. The logistical facility was China’s first overseas military base. Over the past decade, China’s military presence has increased across the Middle East and North Africa to support nontraditional security missions such as humanitarian assistance, anti-piracy, and disaster relief. Beijing’s basing decision appears to be an extension and consequence of its expanding commercial presence overseas. Given China’s long-held global posture to adhere to the noninterference principle and ‘keeping a low profile,’ how did this military basing decision come about? Why was this foreign policy choice made? Who were the important actors involved? Andrea Ghiselli’s Protecting China’s Interests Overseas: Securitization and Foreign Policy aims to provide some answers to these questions. Ghiselli examines the evolution of China’s foreign policy agenda to incorporate the protection of Chinese interests abroad. His book tells the story of how Chinese leaders expanded and emphasized the “interest frontiers” (1) through securitization of the problem.

While the protection of China’s interest frontiers is an emerging topic of study in Chinese foreign policy,[1] Ghiselli is the first to examine it through the framework of securitization theory. Developed by the Copenhagen School of Security Studies with Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde, in the 1990s, the main precept of securitization theory is that any particular international issue is not inherently a threat to security, but designated a threat by decision-makers.[2] Securitization of an issue involves four main components: 1) a securitizing actor—an entity that makes the securitizing statement; 2) a threat—an object identified as potentially harmful; 3) a referent object—an object needing protection; and 4) an audience—a target of the securitization act that needs to accept the issue as a threat. Although protecting Chinese interests overseas has a security and military component, Ghiselli contends this was not an obvious development in Chinese foreign policy. Using the components of securitization theory, he shows how China’s policy choices were not necessarily given, but in fact were crafted by individuals.

According to Ghiselli, in every securitization process there is an essential actor who constructs “a threat by describing an issue as detrimental to the security of a referent object” (9). In this case, Ghiselli first identifies the securitization actor as the civilian leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He then explores party leaders' shifting perspective on nontraditional security and the role of the state in protecting interests abroad. Traditionally, Chinese Party leaders have considered their core interests as protecting China's territorial integrity, preserving internal order, and asserting control over Taiwan. [3] While the security of the interest frontiers, as Ghiselli puts it, was not considered a core interest, threats to Chinese businesses and bodily harm to Chinese nationals could not be easily dismissed by party leaders. As early as 2009, President Hu Jintao identified the security challenges to the interest frontiers and added nontraditional security operations to the PLA's mission set. [4] Following China's extraordinary evacuation of over 36,000 Chinese nationals from war-torn Libya in 2011, the PLA began to embrace their role in nontraditional missions.[5] Ghiselli argues the Libya evacuation enabled party leaders to craft a narrative linking the threat to Chinese nationals abroad and the need to expand Chinese security capacity overseas. Thereby, this unifying event rallied and motivated various state bureaucracies to develop the regulatory tools and capabilities to protect the interest frontiers.

Following his discussion of the securitization actor, Ghiselli further examines the threat and the referent object. In the early 2000s, China initiated the “Go Global” policy to encourage economic growth and promote Chinese investments abroad. As a consequence of this economic strategy, Chinese state-owned enterprises proceeded overseas with little to no risk analysis or coordination with the state. [6] Following Chinese industries, Chinese nationals increasingly traveled and settled in volatile regions, often facing dangerous conditions. All the while, Chinese businesses did little to limit the moral hazard associated with these high-risk ventures. With the “Go Global” policy, Chinese policymakers encountered an unexpected problem—the growing number of Chinese businesses and citizens going abroad extended beyond the reach of the state. According to Ghiselli, while Chinese leaders recognized the inherent dangers, they viewed it as a problem for individual businesses to solve. As a result of this disconnect, Chinese policies, regulatory tools, and security capabilities had not kept pace with the growing demand to protect against threats to Chinese interests overseas. 

The most important contribution of this book is Ghiselli’s meticulous analysis of publicly available sources, many of which are accessible online, [7] to examine the debate surrounding the protection of the interest frontiers. Ghiselli notes that the securitization process does not happen in a vacuum. Consequently, key functional actors can play an important role in helping the securitizing actor and audience understand the nature of the threat to the referent object (114). While the inner workings of Chinese policymaking may seem impenetrable, Ghiselli proffers much can be gleaned by studying the publications, writings, and speeches of politicians, academics, senior military leaders, and the press. As such, he devotes a large portion of his book to analyzing the debate within the “inner circle” (key policymaking individuals and organizations in the party and the government) and “outer circle” (the news media, universities, and think tanks). According to Ghiselli, “These sources reveal the reasoning of the different branches of the Chinese policymaking system” (250). Through these sources, the reader can see the evolution of Chinese identity and the strategic narrative surrounding the security response to protecting the interest frontiers. 

For those interested in Chinese security, another significant feature of this book is Ghiselli’s treatment of Chinese civil-military relations (CMR). [8] Through defense white papers, published doctrine, and statements from military leaders, Ghiselli unpacks the PLA’s view of its role in supporting missions beyond the traditional “core.” To most observers, Chinese CMR remains opaque and the relationship is rarely examined in the formulation of Chinese foreign policy. The common assumption is that the CCP, and the CCP General Secretary, acting as Chairman, has complete control of the PLA. Thus, whatever President Xi Jinping or his predecessors established as policy would be consistently and robustly followed. As in other bureaucracies, agents or the enacting audience do not necessarily implement a principal’s wishes to the letter. As Andrew Scobell contends: “the PLA obeys the Party, but the Party does not tell the PLA what to do.”[9] In this vein, Ghiselli asserts the PLA did not fully accept its role in the defense of China’s interest frontiers (50). The ground-centric military leadership did not view humanitarian assistance, anti-piracy, and disaster relief missions as their main responsibility. The majority of the PLA leadership believed that it was up to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and other civilian bureaucracies to handle nontraditional security issues. Additionally, senior officers worried that their lack of overseas operational experience would expose PLA vulnerabilities. However, these reservations changed drastically after the PLA’s high-profile involvement in the Libya noncombatant evacuation operation in 2011. According to Ghiselli, Chinese public opinion has consistently given high approval ratings of the multiple military operations to save Chinese civilians abroad. Cementing their place in pop culture, these evacuation operations have inspired an entire genre of Chinese blockbuster movies. Basking in the glow of their success and popularity, PLA leaders eventually embraced the new role—organizing and shifting resources to fulfill both traditional and nontraditional security missions. 

Ghiselli leaves the reader with some parting thoughts. First, the deployment of the Chinese military to the Middle East and North Africa was not necessarily motivated by the desire to diminish American influence in these critical regions. Ghiselli makes the case that Chinese military deployments were a reaction to threats to China’s growing interests overseas. Next, Ghiselli asserts there’s the misperception that policy consensus is easily arrived at in a closed political system. Moreover, China is not unique in its policymaking. As in other countries, actors involved in the formulation and implementation of policy have their own interests, preferences, and means to further them. As Ghiselli states “most of the analyses pay little attention to the other actors within the Chinese foreign policy machine that are involved in protecting China’s interest frontiers” (6). Even Xi Jinping has to deal with bureaucratic politics and policy fragmentation. Finally, Ghiselli pushes back against the widely held assumption about the monolithic efficiency of the Chinese state. Evoking Robert Jervis’s observation that states perceive other states as more centralized and better organized than they are,[10] Ghiselli contends the vast majority of the events related to China’s interest frontiers were often reactionary. In short, Chinese leaders did not put together a “well-thought-out plan” (242).

If protecting the interest frontiers was not a “well-thought-out plan,” as Ghiselli suggests, did individual actors matter? Perhaps the flag following trade was an inevitable structural outcome of China’s growing commercial interests abroad. No matter where scholars stand on the structure-agency debate in explaining state behavior in international relations, [11] the journey and not the destination makes Ghiselli’s work essential reading.


Shaio H. Zerba is Director of the Center for Intelligence and Security Studies at the University of Mississippi. She previously taught in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University and the Department of Political Science at the United States Air Force Academy. Her research interests include security studies, Chinese foreign policy, and comparative civil-military relations.


[1] Mathieu Duchâtel, Oliver Bräuner, and Hang Zhou, Protecting China’s Overseas Interests: The Slow Shift Away From Non-interference (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2014), Shaio H Zerba, “China’s Libya Evacuation Operation: a New Diplomatic Imperative—Overseas Citizen Protection,” Journal of Contemporary China 23:90 (2014): 1093-1112, Jonas Parello-Plesner and Mathieu Duchâtel. China’s Strong Arm: Protecting Citizens and Assets Abroad, (Routledge for The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2015), Peter Connolly, “Protecting Citizens Overseas: The policy, the power and Now the Movie….” China Story Yearbook (2018): 319-325, Toshiro Jeffrey Baum, “The Responsibility of Power: Shifts in Chinese Conceptualisation of the Legitimacy of Overseas Intervention to Protect Nationals Abroad,” Global Change, Peace & Security 32:3 (2020): 259-273.

[2] Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, and Jaap De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998).

[3] Guifang Wang, “National Interests and Choices of the China Security Strategy,” China Military Science 1 (2006): 76-83, Chih-yu Shih and Jiwu Yin. “Between Core National Interest and a Harmonious World: Reconciling Self-Role Conceptions in Chinese Foreign Policy,” Chinese Journal of International Politics 6:1 (2013): 59-84, Jinghan Zeng, Yuefan Xiao, and Shaun Breslin. “Securing China’s Core Interests: the State of the Debate in China,” International Affairs 91:2 (2015): 245-266.

[4] James Mulvenon, “Chairman Hu and the PLA’s ‘New Historic Missions,’” China Leadership Monitor 27:9 (2009).

[5] Shaio H Zerba, “China’s Libya Evacuation Operation: a New Diplomatic Imperative—Overseas Citizen Protection,” Journal of Contemporary China 23:90 (2014): 1093-1112.

[6] James Reilly and Wu Na, “China’s Corporate Engagement in Africa.” Africa in China’s Global Strategy (2007): 132-55, Lee Jones and Yizheng Zou, “Rethinking the Role of State-owned Enterprises in China’s Rise,” New Political Economy 22:6 (2017): 743-760, Andrea Ghiselli and Pippa Morgan, “A Turbulent Silk Road: China’s Vulnerable Foreign Policy in the Middle East and North Africa,” The China Quarterly 247 (2021): 641-661.

[7] Some examples of online resources which publish Chinese policy documents, defense white papers, and leadership speeches include the PRC Central website (http://english.www.gov.cn/), The Chinese Ministry of National Defense website (http://eng.mod.gov.cn/), The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs website (https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/), and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army sponsored website (http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/).

[8] Nan Li, Chinese Civil-Military Relations in the Post-Deng Era. (China Maritime Studies Institute: US Naval War College, 2010), Kiselycznyk, Michael, and Phillip Charles Saunders. Civil-Military Relations in China: Assessing the PLA’s Role in Elite Politics. (National Defense University Press, 2010), James Mulvenon, ““Safeguarding the Core and Following Commands”: Party-Army Relations Before the 19th Party Congress,” China Leadership Monitor 53 (2017), Andrea Ghiselli, “Civil–Military Relations and Organisational Preferences Regarding the Use of the Military in Chinese Foreign Policy: Insights from the Debate on MOOTW,” Journal of Strategic Studies 43:3 (2020): 421-442.

[9] Andrew Scobell, “Civil-Military ‘Rules of the Game’ on the Eve of China’s 19th Party Congress,” The National Bureau of Asian Research, October 11, 2017, p. 5, accessed July 28, 2021. https://www.nbr.org/publication/civil-military-rules-of-the-game-on-the-eve-of-chinas-19th-party-congress/

[10] Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976): 319-342.

[11] Alexander E. Wendt, “The Agent-Structure Problem in International Relations Theory,” International organization 41:3 (1987): 335-370, Walter Carlsnaes, “The Agency-Structure Problem in Foreign Policy Analysis.” International Studies Quarterly 36:3 (1992): 245-270, Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton, “The Gordian Knot of Agency—Structure in International Relations: A Neo-Gramscian Perspective.” European Journal of International Relations 7:1 (2001): 5-35.