Coping with crisis builds ties between nations

Source:Global Times Published: 2015-6-15 22:38:07

Mathieu Duchâtel

Editor's Note:

An increase of China's evacuations of its citizens from dangerous regions, notably the massive evacuation from conflict-stricken Yemen in March and quake-hit Nepal in April, has caught public's attention. With China's overseas investment and travel boom, there will likely be more such evacuation cases that suggest China's widening global presence and deeper overseas engagement. How does it relate to China's non-interference principle? What consequences will this bring? Global Times (GT) reporter Sun Xiaobo and Liu Chang talked to Mathieu Duchâtel (Duchâtel), senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and SIPRI's representative in Beijing since 2011, about these issues on the sidelines of the 14th Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in late May. Duchâtel launched the book China's Strong Arm: Protecting Citizens and Assets Abroad that he co-authored with Jonas Parello-Plesner at the SLD.

GT: When describing China's protection of its citizens and assets abroad, you used a lot of passive tenses, such as China being "involved in" or "drawn into" other countries. Does it mean China is reactive in these moves?

Duchâtel: Yes, China has been very reactive. There was a turning point in 2004, a key year when three attacks in Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan happened almost simultaneously in a few months. China was taken by surprise and the issue became a foreign policy priority. Then was the major crisis in Libya and I think the Chinese government didn't even know how many citizens were based there. The murder of citizens in the Mekong River was also a major crisis for China. It had to act.

If you compare that to all the other areas of China's foreign policy, especially in the region, there is also a narrative that China is reactive in the East China Sea and South China Sea, though it's perceived as assertive by many in the US and Europe. But for me, they are two different issues and have to be separated.

China's regional and global policies are different, but they are getting increasingly interlinked. It's different because China's involvement overseas has been through investment and economic actors, and its moves to protect its nationals overseas are not against the interest of other states. But regionally in East Asia, there are lots of geopolitics and territorial disputes and it's more complicated.

GT: China has long adhered to the non-interference policy. As you said that China is getting more interventionist, what effects will this bring to the world?

Duchâtel: There is a difference between intervention and interference. China is getting more interventionist in regional affairs. The two best examples are Sudan in the past 10 years and Afghanistan now. Can you say China is interfering with Afghanistan's internal affairs because it hosts meetings in China with the Taliban? I think it's trying to make contributions. If China supported the Taliban against the Afghanistan government, that would be interference. Mediation is more about involvement.

GT: How should China's State-owned enterprises protect themselves overseas?

Duchâtel: Smart companies need a good image. It is a long-term interest, especially when you operate in a country where there is lots of poverty. There should be a combination of both. We've interviewed quite a few companies doing business in Africa. Those staying there for a long time really see the benefits of making local friends and having a good image. This is difficult but very important. If you lock yourself up, the chance of a bad image is 100 percent.

The image is political. It's about politics and international relations and also actions you have taken on the ground. It's important to share benefits and being inclusive.

GT: Some suspect that China may use small and slow steps to eventually make major strategic changes. What do you think of these worries?

Duchâtel: For me, everything relating to the protection of overseas citizens is neutral because in the end it's about the life of individuals. In China's overseas evacuations, the military has been involved to provide support in Libya and Yemen, but in this process power projection capabilities are needed, which is perceived by some in the US and India as a potential threat.

I think this is in fact an opportunity for military and security cooperation, especially between China and Europe. There is already a record of China-Europe cooperation during a non-combatant evacuation, as some European states supported China's evacuation from Libya in 2011.

China's priority is very much about the region. Some of its capabilities are deployed globally, but I don't think China has a plan to deploy its military very far away from Chinese shores.

GT: In which aspects can China and the EU strengthen security cooperation?

Duchâtel: There is no competition between the EU and China, but meanwhile almost no security cooperation as their ties are mostly about trade and economic exchanges. After the Libya evacuation, the protection of nationals overseas is perhaps the only case of security policy that China has raised with Europe. European ships brought some Chinese out of Libya, but some individuals didn't have passports or valid visas. They were then allowed entry into Europe as a kind of support to China. Some European states are exploring further the potential for greater cooperation with China in that area. In future evacuations, Europe and China may have to coordinate their operations.

The US has a more robust military-to-military relationship with China, but there is also strategic competition between the US and China, so the protection of nationals overseas is comparatively less important than in Europe-China relations. And now is a very critical point in US-China relations because of the South China Sea.

GT: What's your take on the South China Sea issue? Will there be escalation or even military conflicts in the region during the rest of this year?

Duchâtel: Regarding the South China Sea, the US now clearly has an agenda and a timeframe. No one paid attention to the area for a long period of time. Then in February, the US Congress raised concerns regarding Chinese land reclamation activities and it was raised by Secretary of State John Kerry in Beijing in May. Now it is the main focus of the SLD. The months before Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the US in September are perceived in the US as a key period to manage the problem and solve the issue. The visit is thus critical for the management of China-US relations in the South China Sea.

There is a dangerous cycle of US surveillance activities and Chinese counter-surveillance measures. The US has declared it will increase surveillance activities. Some argue that this may not serve the US objectives because China may respond with more and faster building of artificial islands.

The key now is crisis management as there is a lack of adequate mechanism to prevent collisions and incidents. It is time to stabilize the situation, yet I don't know who will make the first move.

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