China has of late started propagating deployment of its troops abroad for protection of Chinese overseas interests. The law has been recently amended to permit this type of deployment. The defence white paper of 2015 also brings out the same. This shift in Chinese stance has come with a concurrent shift in their doctrinal thought which is now increasingly expeditionary.
The OBOR was announced by China as a geo-economic concept with a view to enhance connectivity and improve infrastructure in the region and beyond. A separate OBOR fund was also earmarked for the same. Thus Chinese companies and their personnel are going to be increasingly located in many neighbouring countries. Because of the terrorist and other threats they will require protection when located in regions like the Af-Pak. But even in relatively peaceful areas a threat cannot be ruled out.
Thus we are likely to see an increased presence of Chinese troops on foreign soils. While some governments may be accommodative of this presence – some others may resist. For example presence of Chinese troops for CPEC may not be in India’s best interests. This deployment will also provide valuable experience to Chinese troops in counter terrorism and even otherwise provide them first-hand knowledge of aspects such as terrain and local conditions.
To an extent this initial presence has the potential to become a precursor to a more permanent deployment over a period of time. The host countries would therefore be well advised to weigh all options carefully before going into any such agreement.
Will a Maritime Silk Route initiative become the reason for more active deployment of naval forces in ports is yet to be seen. For example will Chinese investments in Gwadar force justify positioning of naval assets there to protect these investments.
The requirement of protecting national interests abroad is of course justified. However, China will have to take steps to assure host nations that the intentions are benign and not with any different motive. Legal aspects such as status of forces agreement may also have to be kept in mind. For example a law an order incident involving any Chinese troops overseas may create avoidable controversies and may weaken relationships.
The CT force to guard Chinese assets in OBOR is indicative of growing Chinese confidence as also its diverse economic stakes. If implemented correctly, this can well become an instrument to provide regional security. On the other hand it can also misrepresent intentions.