Chinese evacuations and power projection (part 1): overseas citizen protection (The Strategist)

As China’s national and international economic interests have steadily grown, so has the People’s Liberation Army’s ability to protect them. China’s expanding, social-media-savvy middle class now expects the military to protect the country’s citizens overseas. That expectation has been reinforced formally by the strategic direction for the PLA to ‘protect the security of strategic SLOCs [sea lines of communication] and overseas interests’.

From a Chinese perspective, the increasing number of Chinese citizens living, working and travelling abroad has imposed an obligation on the state to protect them.

The Chinese leadership used to assume that, in most cases, other foreign powers would evacuate Chinese citizens along with their own from situations of unrest abroad. But things have changed over the past decade, and Beijing has introduced new policies and capabilities that have in turn generated new expectations among the Chinese population. More recently, President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative has generated a further imperative to provide security abroad.

China’s approach to overseas citizen protection can be explained as the response of a rising power to the need to protect its people and interests overseas as its influence expands and its capability develops, acting as a responsible global power. Alternatively, the policy could be seen as a justification for the projection of power to underwrite China’s growing competitive stake in world affairs.

It’s important to note that Beijing uses the term ‘overseas Chinese’ to describe ‘Chinese citizens residing abroad and foreign citizens of Chinese descent’. That includes Han Chinese and any of the other ethnic groups from China, as well as people in other countries whose families haven’t been citizens of China for several generations. For example, 1.2 million Australian citizens identified themselves as having Chinese ancestry in the 2016 census, and only 41% of them were born in China. The use of ‘overseas Chinese’ as an official term, particularly in relation to China’s obligations to protect, clearly raises questions of sovereignty.

China’s 1982 constitution expresses the state’s intention to protect its people and interests abroad. But the Chinese Communist Party didn’t have the capacity to enforce its policy of ‘overseas citizen protection’ (海外公民保护) until recently. The catalyst for change occurred in 2004 when 14 Chinese workers were killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The domestic uproar compelled the CCP to acknowledge that large numbers of Chinese were living in high-risk environments overseas.

As a study by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute reveals, China conducted small-scale non-military operations to extract citizens in times of crisis or disaster from Solomon Islands, East Timor, Tonga and Lebanon in 2006, Chad and Thailand in 2008, and Haiti and Kyrgyzstan in 2010. Before that, the only evacuations of note had been from Indonesia in the mid-1960s and Kuwait in 1990.

In 2011 came the largest Chinese evacuations to date. During the Arab Spring uprisings, China repatriated 1,800 citizens from Egypt, 2,000 from Syria and 35,860 from Libya, along with 9,000 from Japan after the Tohoku earthquake.

The evacuation from Libya was the first to significantly involve the PLA, mainly in a coordination role. The operation took 12 days and involved 74 civilian aircraft, 14 ships, and around 100 buses.

After that experience, China’s military purchased more airlift and amphibious capability for situations in which civilian charters wouldn’t be available, such as in remote locations or high-threat environments. While that equipment can be required for evacuation operations, it is also fundamental to force projection.

The evacuation from Yemen in 2015, carried out exclusively by the military, was the first time the Chinese navy evacuated citizens of other countries as well. Between 30 March and 2 April, the naval command diverted a flotilla of three PLA Navy vessels from a counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden to the port of Aden.

They evacuated 629 Chinese nationals and 279 citizens from 15 other countries (including Germany, India and the UK) to Djibouti. Chinese observers viewed the operation as a successful demonstration of the navy’s new rapid-reaction capabilities, developed through missions in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast.

Beijing continues to face a rising expectation to protect its people overseas, as shown by the public reaction to the killing of Chinese citizens by militants in Syria, Mali and Pakistan. Other evacuations have included the extraction of Chinese workers from Samarra in Iraq in 2014, Chinese embassy and medical staff from Sudan (after two Chinese peacekeepers were killed) in 2016, and Chinese citizens from Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean after a hurricane. Last year, China evacuated more than 2,700 tourists from Bali after a volcanic eruption.

The Central Military Commission decided in 2018 to expand the PLA Marine Corps from 20,000 to 100,000, with some units to be stationed overseas. One source claims 10,000 of these marines will be based at China’s first declared overseas military base, in the port of Obock in Djibouti, and more are likely to be based at Gwadar in Pakistan. They will protect Chinese oil imports from the Middle East at strategic nodes along the ‘belt and road’.

The new marines and bases are part of China’s strategy of ‘far seas protection’ (远海护卫), which requires the navy to safeguard overseas interests, including resources, strategic sea lanes, overseas citizens, investments and commercial entities. It has led to the development of a blue-water navy capable of operating globally with aircraft carriers and amphibious capabilities.

As the PLA’s capability to project force and protect Chinese citizens overseas continues to grow, so does the CCP’s readiness to implement the policy of overseas citizen protection, and the Chinese people’s expectation that it will do so.

As China’s global influence expands, unexpected friction could arise when the policy of overseas citizen protection is applied to situations outside China’s traditional core interests. Such actions are at odds with Beijing’s frequently enunciated foreign policy principle of ‘non-interference’.

One hypothetical example would be a recurrence of the anti-Chinese riots experienced in Tonga and Solomon Islands in 2006 and Papua New Guinea in 2009. Significant numbers of Chinese citizens could be at risk in Melanesia, where traditional partners (such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States) expect to provide the forces for evacuation and, if necessary, stabilisation operations.

Without adequate preparation, clear communication and shared understanding, an evacuation operation by the PLA in the South Pacific could lead to unintended consequences, raising questions of sovereignty, citizenship and jurisdiction. Such a development could be disadvantageous to the host nation, its traditional partners and China. This concept has been described elsewhere as ‘accidental friction’.

In part 2, I will explore recent trends in Chinese filmmaking that aim to generate patriotic pride in domestic audiences, while also attempting to normalise the perception of Chinese power projection within the international community.

Counterterrorism cooperation in the Maghreb: Morocco looks beyond Marrakech (The Strategist)

Seven years after its last major terrorist attack, Morocco’s multifaceted strategy for dealing with Islamist extremism appears to be paying off security-wise—but at the expense of liberal reforms.

Morocco lies in an unstable region with an ongoing Islamist terrorism problem but, with some international help, it seems to have regained control and hasn’t had an internal terrorist attack since April 2011. The kingdom portrays the fight against Islamist extremism as a war of ideas that can be won by preaching a tolerant, moderate and non-violent form of Islam.

Before that, there were several terrorist attacks. In May 2003, suicide bombers carried out the deadliest terrorist attack in Morocco’s history, in Casablanca—45 people died, including the 12 suicide bombers who came from the nearby shanty town of Sidi Moumen. In 2007, several suicide-bomb attacks in Casablanca killed the perpetrators and one other person. In April 2011, 17 people were killed in Marrakech when a bomb concealed in a bag was detonated at the Argana café, a popular tourist spot; the dead included a group of French students.

After the 2003 Casablanca attack, Morocco implemented a counterterrorism strategy based on a three-pillar system: strengthening internal security, fighting poverty, and undertaking religious reforms.

It also stepped up international security cooperation.

Assistance from the US under its Antiterrorism Assistance program ensured that Morocco and its neighbours have common methodologies for countering terrorism.

Since 2001, the Western Mediterranean Forum, also known as the ‘5 + 5 Dialogue’, an informal political, economic and cultural grouping of five countries from the Maghreb region (including Morocco) and five from southern Europe, has been a mechanism for addressing common terrorism concerns.

In 2004, 14 regional countries, including Morocco, established the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force to focus on the threat of terrorism-financing activities across the region.

In 2005, the US initiated the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership to help 11 West African and North African countries (including Morocco) counter radicalisation and boost their counterterrorism capabilities.

Morocco hasn’t taken the lead on any of these counterterrorism initiatives, but since 2011 it has become more proactive.

One example is its involvement in the Global Counterterrorism Forum, an international forum of 30 member states, including Australia, established in 2001. Morocco was a founding member and in 2016 became co-chair of the forum’s coordinating committee.

In 2013, Morocco, together with the US, announced the Initiative to Foster Cooperation Networks among Justice Sector and Other Law Enforcement Practitioners in the Sahel and Maghreb Region, with the aim of facilitating cross-border investigations.

Morocco and the US also promoted the Border Security Initiative, adopted in 2016 by the Global Counterterrorism Forum and the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre to secure porous national borders through cross-border cooperation.

Morocco and Algeria are the most influential countries in the Maghreb, but their ongoing border dispute has at times been an impediment to regional cooperation on counterterrorism.

The conflict in Syria and Iraq has also had significant repercussions for Morocco. Between 2014 and 2016, some 1,600 young Moroccan men and women travelled to join Islamic State in Syria. Return of veteran extremists continues to be a major security concern.

In response to the Islamic State challenge, Morocco adopted three major national counterterrorism measures.

The first was a ‘home affairs’ approach to security. In October 2014, the Ministry of the Interior launched Operation Hadar (Arabic for ‘vigilance’), requiring the security forces to work together to combat terrorism. This resulted in enhanced security at airports, train stations and border posts.

The second measure was to strengthen the legal system. In 2015, the Moroccan parliament amended the country’s counterterrorism laws to criminalise a range of possible terrorism-related activities, including travel to Syria.

The third measure was establishment of the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation as the lead agency for counterterrorism in Morocco. Since 2015, it has been responsible for numerous terrorism-related arrests and is credited with preventing several terrorist attacks in Morocco.

European countries have also worked closely with Morocco, providing counterterrorism training and equipment, and conducting joint operations with Moroccan security forces.

Morocco is said to be a capable security partner that closely monitors its population and controls domestic religious activities. But to do so, it relies on a repressive political and security system. The powerful Moroccan security service, the General Directorate of Territorial Surveillance, is believed to abduct and torture regime ‘enemies’—including political activists, suspected terrorists and separatist dissidents. Morocco continues to resist outside calls for liberal reform.

Australia now has an embassy in the capital, Rabat. Former foreign minister Julie Bishop announced the embassy’s opening on 16 November 2016, describing Morocco as ‘an important addition to Australia’s diplomatic network in Africa’.

Although Australia participates in international counterterrorism forums with Morocco, because of its distance from our region, we have no bilateral counterterrorism relationship with Morocco—nor do we have any official counterterrorism involvement in the Maghreb.

The regional factors bringing Turkey and Iran together (The Strategist)

US President Donald Trump’s policy of putting economic pressure on Iran to force regime change by inciting a domestic revolt seems to be failing. There is little doubt that renewed sanctions have hurt Iran economically, as witnessed above all by the precipitate fall of the Iranian currency in their wake. However, economic pressure has not led to a revolt against the regime and the currency has stabilised after the initial shock. Indeed, the American action may have consolidated support behind the regime, which can now deflect criticism of its economic performance on to the imposition of American sanctions.

In this context, Iran’s relations with Turkey provide a very interesting case study. Both Tehran and Ankara have regional ambitions that have sometimes led to friction between them, as was the case over Syria until recently. However, economic complementarities and congruence of strategic interests have helped to keep their relationship on a relatively even keel.

When the Trump administration announced that it was going to reimpose sanctions on Iran, Turkey made it clear that it wouldn’t follow American diktats but would comply only with sanctions imposed by the UN. Economic interdependence provides part of the explanation for the Turkish stand. Bilateral trade between Iran and Turkey isn’t limited to oil and gas. The volume of trade between the two neighbours stood at US$11.7 billion at the end of 2017, up from US$9.7 billion in 2016, and both countries have committed to eventually raising the level to US$30 billion.

However, it’s not just oil and trade that determine Turkish–Iranian relations; there’s also a convergence of political objectives. Turkish and Iranian strategic interests coincide on Kurdish secessionism, which threatens the territorial integrity of both countries. That’s why Iran didn’t oppose Turkish incursions into Syria to prevent the creation of a Kurdish enclave abutting its borders, even when the two countries supported opposite sides during the civil war. Now that Turkey is reconciled to Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad remaining in power in Syria, the major political disagreement between Ankara and Tehran has lost its importance.

Iran’s support to Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the time of the failed coup in July 2016 greatly helped in patching up differences. The Iranian foreign minister stayed up all night as the coup was unfolding to monitor the Turkish situation and telephoned his Turkish counterpart five times to express Iran’s support for the government, thus strengthening personal bonds between the leaders of the two countries.

There’s also an increasing conjunction of interests between the two countries vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. Tehran has been engaged for years in a fierce competition with Riyadh over primacy in the Gulf and over their respective roles in the wider Middle East. Syria had been the primary battleground for their rivalry since 2011. Now that the Syrian civil war is almost over, Yemen has become the major arena of conflict between them. Saudi Arabia and its ally the United Arab Emirates are engaged in open warfare with the Houthis who are in control of the Yemeni capital and are supported by Iran. The Saudi–UAE aerial bombardments have ravaged an already desperately poor country, killing thousands of civilians. An estimated eight million people are on the verge of starvation.

Ankara has increasingly come to see Riyadh as its primary antagonist in the competition for influence in the Sunni countries of the Middle East. It finds Tehran a useful ally in tying down Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, thus making it easier for Turkey to emerge as the preeminent Sunni power in the rest of the region.

Saudi Arabia’s imposition of an economic blockade on Qatar further strained relations between the two countries. Turkey has a military base in Qatar, which it reinforced following the imposition of the blockade, and the emir sent a contingent of Qatari troops to provide security to the Turkish president at the time of the coup in 2016. Turkey reciprocated in 2017 by flying in essential commodities to Qatar in tandem with Iran in order to render the Saudi blockade redundant. The convergence of interests on Qatar between Tehran and Ankara arises from the primary reason for the Saudi blockade: Qatar’s cordial relations with neighbouring Iran, with which it shares the world’s largest gas field.

Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has greatly infuriated the Turkish government, especially the president, who has taken it as a personal insult. Erdoğan has asked for the extradition of Khashoggi’s murderers to Turkey to stand trial and has clearly implicated Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in the crime, without naming him directly. Turkish–Saudi relations are currently at the lowest point in their history. This has worked to Iran’s advantage and has further cemented relations between Tehran and Ankara.

Turkey and Iran are thus moving towards a joint front against Saudi Arabia and its allies, whose numbers are dwindling as the Gulf Cooperation Council unravels. The United States would be wise to take this configuration of forces into account while formulating its future policy on the Middle East.