Securing the Belt and Road: Prospects for Chinese Military Engagement Along the Silk Roads
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Securing the Belt and Road
Prospects for Chinese Military Engagement Along the Silk Roads

by Nadège Rolland
September 3, 2019

Read the full text of the introduction to the NBR Special Report “Securing the Belt and Road Initiative: China’s Evolving Military Engagement Along the Silk Roads” below.

On August 1, 2017, the day of its 90th anniversary, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officially inaugurated its first permanent overseas support facility under the blazing Djiboutian sun. The event indicated a dramatic departure from the previously prevailing claim that China “does not station any troops or set up any military bases in any foreign country” as a matter of policy.[1] It also highlighted the long-term role assigned to the PLA in protecting China’s expanding national interests, a role that Hu Jintao had granted the Chinese military back in 2004 as part of its “new historic missions.”[2] For the past fifteen years, recognizing that “security risks to China’s overseas interests are on the increase,”[3] the PLA has taken on the new challenges created by globally expanding national interests and entanglements, pushing farther away from China’s shores, broadening its strategic horizons, and enhancing its power-projection capabilities. The 2015 defense white paper put an unprecedented emphasis on maritime interests and on the PLA’s responsibility to protect them as one of its core missions.[4]

Chinese strategic planners generally agree that the “boundaries of China’s national security” are defined by the expansion of its overseas interests and that “where national interests expand, the support of the military force has to follow.”[5] Since its introduction in late 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been pushing the boundaries of China’s national interests well beyond the traditional focus on the country’s immediate neighborhood. China’s Ministry of National Defense publicly denies that BRI has any military or geostrategic intent.[6] Even if that is truly the case, the priority Beijing has given to BRI for the last six years has created an overall acceleration and geographic expansion of Chinese overseas activities that will inevitably generate the need for some level of state and military protection.

Latin America, Oceania, and Africa have been incorporated within BRI in addition to the 65 Eurasian countries originally included in 2013. “New strategic territories”—defined as the polar regions, the deep sea, cyberspace, and outer space[7]—have also been connected under the BRI umbrella, as illustrated by the creation of a “Silk Road on ice” in the Arctic region, three ocean-based “blue economic passages,” the Digital Silk Road, and the Space Information Corridor. BRI’s wide geographic scope extends over remote regions where the security situation can be volatile due to political instability, social unrest, and religious extremism,[8] potentially putting at risk the safety of a growing number of Chinese businesses, workers, and assets.[9] By the end of 2014, over one million Chinese nationals were working overseas. Two years later this number had doubled, with 90% of the Chinese workers employed in BRI countries in Asia and Africa.[10] In recent years, Chinese citizens abroad have been killed, kidnapped, and attacked and the number of such incidents is expected to rise.[11] Conflicts in Libya and Yemen have already compelled the emergency evacuation under PLA supervision of Chinese nationals.[12] Nontraditional security threats such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and transnational organized crime could affect the security of both Chinese citizens and infrastructure. Traditional security threats are also a cause of concern, primarily on the Maritime Silk Road, where the main security challenge to China’s interests is posed by the U.S. Navy and more generally the U.S. forward military presence in the western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf regions.[13]

As they try to find appropriate responses to the risks and challenges inherent to BRI’s development, Chinese strategic thinkers need to navigate around three major constraints. The first is image management. Since the beginning of China’s military modernization, the government has been mindful about international perceptions of its growing military might. As strategic planners contemplate whether and how to extend the PLA’s reach in BRI countries, they are painstakingly trying to mitigate impressions that the military could be used as an aggressive instrument of Beijing’s expansionist ambitions.[14] Second, Chinese strategists need to think about potential future operations within the framework of China’s claimed commitment to respect the principle of noninterference in other countries’ domestic affairs. They also have to take into account—and perhaps adjust—China’s domestic legal framework to allow future military interventions overseas. Policymakers may also need to rethink China’s long-standing rejection of military alliances—perhaps extending “security guarantees” to countries along the Belt and Road routes, as suggested recently by Xi Jinping.[15] Finally, in addition to these normative constraints, planners need to address the gap that is growing between the requirement to protect far-flung national interests and the actual military capabilities available to the PLA.

There remains the question of whether and how Beijing may consider using its military might to deal with contingencies affecting its interests in BRI countries. Will the initiative’s regional and global development serve as a justification for an increased Chinese overseas military presence and an expansion of the PLA’s scope of action? Will China use its BRI investments (e.g., ports, airports, railways, and fiber-optic and satellite networks) to support military projection? Will the traditional and nontraditional security threats attached to BRI enhance or hamper Beijing’s military options? How can China reconcile its preference for nonmilitary means with the need to secure and protect its interests and citizens? Are there indirect options under consideration that might allow China to defend its overseas interests with less than large increments of military force?

The present report is an attempt to address these crucial questions. The publication is the result of a two-year project conducted by the National Bureau of Asian Research, with the generous support of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security.[16] This project has also gained from the intellectual guidance of senior advisers Andrew Erickson, who is professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, and Paul Haenle, who holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. In order to analyze how BRI affects the security calculations of the PLA and other Chinese security actors, the contributors to this report have paid particular attention to the Chinese strategic community’s perspectives in an effort to reflect the options that are being debated within China.[17] Their collective work gives a comprehensive snapshot of current Chinese thinking on how to respond to the security risks associated with the global expansion of BRI.

In the opening essay, Mathieu Duchâtel describes how China’s expanding global footprint, especially via BRI, provides strong incentives for adapting existing normative and legal constraints on the use of military force overseas. In the “new era,” in which Xi intends to propel China onto the center stage of the world, the military not only is a tool used to defend sovereignty from foreign threats but has become an instrument of global power projection. For the leadership to respond to overseas security crises, Duchâtel explains that “all options are now on the table” and the decision to act militarily will be political rather than legal.

For any type of deployment overseas, the PLA will need robust command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities to help enhance its situational awareness. Michael S. Chase examines how the Digital Silk Road and the Space Information Corridor support China’s pursuit of its interests in space and cyberspace. Economic and strategic goals clearly overlap in these domains, and the potential enhancement of C4ISR capabilities, thanks to BRI’s digital and satellite networks, aligns with the objectives of the newly established PLA Strategic Support Force, which oversees space and network warfare capabilities.

BRI increases the urgency for the PLA to further develop a flexible expeditionary force capable of more complex, larger, and lengthier deployments away from China’s shores. Kristen Gunness examines in detail how the different PLA components are addressing the capability gap: upgrading, improving, and producing new maritime capabilities while working on strategic airlift; strengthening special operations forces; and possibly augmenting border security capabilities to conduct land-based expeditionary missions. The PLA will likely be able to sustain maritime operations overseas relatively soon (by 2025), assesses Gunness.

BRI is not focused on China achieving a “dominant position,” explains Guifang (Julia) Xue in her essay on the potential dual use of support facilities. Yet she observes that “investing in ports located in strategic positions no doubt helps China diversify its supply of overseas energy and raw materials, safeguard its SLOC [sea lines of communication] access and security, and improve its overall geopolitical position.” The question therefore is not whether China will need naval bases, but rather how to manage the “concerns and anxiety” about its military intentions along the Belt and Road routes as it opens more of them. Xue reckons that China will not need to establish multiple bases for missions that will essentially be small-scale and low-intensity. A permanent military presence could also be too economically and politically burdensome. She advocates instead for dual-use logistical bases, which are essentially commercial ports that could be used to host naval ships when necessary.

Indirect options are also under consideration. Among them is increasing military diplomacy, international cooperation, and involvement in peacekeeping operations so as to showcase China’s “harmless use of overseas military force.”[18] Raffaello Pantucci examines in particular how China’s longer-term penetration of Central Asia’s security apparatuses through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, training and joint exercises, military aid, and military sales could gradually upend Russia’s security predominance in the region and overturn the two countries’ traditional division of labor between economics and security. Pantucci illustrates how BRI could be the precursor of China’s expanded security footprint in third countries using a multiplicity of security-related tools.

China has also developed innovative frameworks in its immediate neighborhood, principally with an eye on instability in Afghanistan and its possible spillover into Chinese territory. Dirk van der Kley focuses on how Beijing has beefed up its security activities in Tajikistan and at the border with Afghanistan through a three-pronged approach: building capacity, co-opting local forces to protect its own projects and interests, and conducting joint operations with Tajik and Afghan forces near the shared border. His essay provides a useful case study about options that could be implemented elsewhere along the Silk Roads.

New security demands along the Belt and Road routes could also give rise to an increased role for Chinese private security companies, which not long ago were mostly operating at the municipal level in China. Alessandro Arduino describes the arduous path for these thousands of young companies to become highly professionalized units in order to operate in precarious environments overseas. He underlines the opportunity to help shape their rules of engagement and regulatory procedures as the sector slowly matures.

Taken together, these contributions present a sweeping picture of the set of options that are under consideration to enhance the security of China’s interests along the Belt and Road routes. Common to all seven essays is the idea that the expansion of China’s overseas interests naturally creates the need for military protection. Along with normative adjustments and military overseas operations and basing, Beijing can also pursue indirect approaches, such as engaging in extended international cooperation on nontraditional security and subcontracting protection either to host nations or to private contractors. The U.S. government has begun to recognize that the implications of China’s expansion of its security frontier, along the lines described in this report, will be far-reaching.[19] This expansion could complicate, restrict, or even deny the United States’ ability to project power, protect the lines of communication through the global commons, exert influence, and shape future regional security developments, as well as the United States’ ability to defend its allies and interests.


[1] The claim was notably expressed in China’s first white paper on defense published in 1998. See State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), China’s National Defense in 1998 (Beijing, July 1998),

[2] James Mulvenon, “Chairman Hu and the PLA’s ‘New Historic Missions,’ ” Hoover Institution, China Leadership Monitor, no. 27, January 9, 2009,

[3] State Council Information Office (PRC), The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces (Beijing, April 2013),

[4] State Council Information Office (PRC), China’s Military Strategy (Beijing, May 2015),

[5] Zhang Wenmu, Lun Zhongguo haiquan [On China’s Sea Power] (Beijing: Haiyang, 2014); and Wang Huayong, “Haijun Donghai jiandui zhengwei Wang Huayong zhong jiang: Jianjue hanwei haiyang quanyi, weilai zhanzheng yongyu liangjian” [Lieutenant General Wang Huayong, Political Commissar of the East China Sea Fleet: Resolutely Defending Sea Rights, Bravely Facing the Future War], Zhongguo junwang, March 6, 2016,

[6] “Guofang bu: Zhongguo Yidai Yilu meiyou junshi yitu bu mouqiu shili fanwei” [Ministry of National Defense: China’s Belt and Road Has No Military Intentions and Does Not Seek Sphere of Influence], Sina, May 25, 2017,

[7] Yang Jian and Zheng Yingqin, “ ‘Renlei mingyun gongtongti’ sixiang yu xin jiang yu de guoji zhili” [The “Community of Common Destiny” Concept and the New Territories of International Governance], Guoji wenti yanjiu, no. 4 (2017).

[8] Li Ziguo, “ ‘Yidai Yilu’ mianlin de fengxian yu anquan jizhi ‘quehan’ ” [Risks Faced by the “Belt and Road” and the “Disappointment” of Security Mechanisms], China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), September 8, 2017,; and Hua Xiaohui “Fayang wo jun guangrong chuantong wei ‘Yidai Yilu’ baojia huhang—Jinian Zhongguo renmin jiefangjun jian jun 90 zhounian” [Carrying Forward the Glorious Tradition of Our Armed Forces for the “Belt and Road”—Commemorating the 90th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army], February 14, 2018,

[9] Ma Jianguang and Zhang Nan, “ ‘Yidai Yilu’ beijing xia ruhe baohu Zhongguo qiye de haiwai liyi” [How to Protect the Overseas Interests of Chinese Companies in the Background of the “Belt and Road”], Zhonguo jun wang, August 17, 2016,

[10] Statistics are from the China International Contractors Association (CHINCA). See Hao Zhou, “ ‘Haiwai Zhongguo’ de yinmi shiwei” [The Secret Guards of “Overseas China”], Caijing, July 24, 2017,

[11] Among other examples, 4 oil workers were kidnapped in Colombia in 2011, 29 were detained in South Sudan in 2012, and 11 engineers were attacked in Cameroon in 2014. See Ma and Zhang, “ ‘Yidai Yilu’ beijing xia ruhe baohu Zhongguo qiye de haiwai liyi.”

[12] In March 2011, over 35,000 PRC citizens were evacuated from Libya during the Chinese military’s largest noncombatant evacuation operation. See Gabe Collins and Andrew S. Erickson, “Implications of China’s Military Evacuation of Citizens from Libya,” Jamestown Foundation, China Brief, March 11, 2011, In March 2015, the PLA Navy was used for the first time to evacuate over 600 PRC citizens from Yemen. See Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “PLA Navy Used for First Time in Naval Evacuation from Yemen Conflict,” Jamestown Foundation, April 3, 2015,

[13] Deng Minghu, “ ‘Yidai Yilu’ zhanlüe xia de junshi liliang chong su yu jingwai yunyang” [The Restructuring and Overseas Use of Military Power Under the “Belt and Road” Strategy], Dushu hui, October 19, 2016,

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Xi Urges Major Risk Prevention to Ensure Healthy Economy, Social Stability,” Xinhua, January 22, 2019,

[16] The project also resulted in a roundtable published in the April 2019 issue of Asia Policy in which leading experts discussed BRI’s security implications in South Asia, with a specific focus on how China and other countries in the region are responding to BRI-related security challenges. See Nadège Rolland, Filippo Boni, Meia Nouwens, Nilanthi Samaranayake, Gurpreet S. Khurana, and Arzan Tarapore, “Where the Belt Meets the Road: Security in a Contested South Asia,” Asia Policy 14, no. 2 (2019),

[17] For the purpose of this report, the PRC strategic community includes active and retired senior officers from the People’s Liberation Army, People’s Armed Police, National Defense University, and Academy of Military Science, as well as members of security-related think tanks such as the China Institute for International Strategic Studies and the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

[18] Guo Xiaohang, “Haiwai liyi baohu nengli jianshe: Daguo jueqi de bixiu ke” [Building Capacity to Protect Overseas Interests: A Compulsory Course for Rising Great Powers], Zhongguo jun wang, March 7, 2016,

[19] U.S. Department of Defense, “Assessment on U.S. Defense Implications of China’s Expanding Global Access,” December 2018, See also the responses of the nominee for the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, to questions by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2018: “Advance Policy Questions for Admiral Philip Davidson, USN Expected Nominee for Commander, U.S. Pacific Command,” U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, April 17, 2018,

Nadège Rolland is Senior Fellow for Political and Security Affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. She is the author of China’s Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative (2017).