The PLA Prepares for Future Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 4

The Y-20 in Flight

China’s Ministry of National Defense recently announced that the first test flight of its Y-20 large transport aircraft took place on January 26. The development and testing of the Y-20 reflects the PLA Air Force’s determination to enhance its strategic projection capabilities. As PLA National Defense University (NDU) professor Liang Fang put it, "along with the expansion of our national interest, the heavy air freighters will ensure that we are able to safeguard our interests overseas” (China Daily, January 28; Ministry of National Defense, January 28). The protection of China’s growing overseas interests is emerging as an increasingly high-profile problem for Beijing—one with important implications for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as reflect by the development of the Y-20. According to Gu Weijun, a researcher with the PLA’s Academy of Military Science (AMS), “economic ‘going global’ requires military ‘going global’ as escorts, and in the future, it will be inevitable for China to use its troops overseas” (Global Times, June 29, 2010). One important way in which China may need to address this problem is by being prepared to evacuate its citizens from foreign countries in times of turmoil. Recent events demonstrate the salience of this problem. According to Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Yue Yucheng, “The three overseas evacuations from Egypt, Libya and Japan evacuated a total of 48,000 Chinese citizens—five times the number of Chinese personnel evacuated from overseas over the last 30 years” (Foreign Affairs Review, November 2011).

Following these evacuations, the possibility that Beijing will need to organize similar missions to safely withdraw its citizens from precarious situations overseas in the future appears to be growing. Two trends are contributing to the increasing likelihood that China will need to execute such evacuation missions in the future. First, Chinese workers are going abroad in growing numbers, and many are concentrated in potentially dangerous and unstable areas of the globe. Second, the Chinese government faces rising domestic pressure to protect its citizens overseas, and it appears as though Beijing wants the Chinese public to see it as willing and able to meet these rising expectations (“Assessing China’s Response Options to Kidnappings Abroad,” China Brief, May 11, 2012). Consequently, not only does the frequency of evacuation operations appear likely to grow, their domestic political importance also seems set to increase. As one Chinese writer puts it, “Protecting the safety and security of the lives and property of Chinese overseas and other such interests has become a practical issue facing China’s government; if protection is effective, it will be conducive to strengthening the centripetal force, cohesiveness, and sense of identity of the state and the people, but if protection is ineffective, it may not only result in harm to the stability of the state and the unity of the people, it may also have an influence on China’s international status and international image” (Contemporary Military Affairs, June 5, 2011).

The PLA’s Role in Evacuation Operations

Although a broad range of Chinese institutions are involved in the protection of Chinese citizens overseas in general and evacuation operations in particular—the lead role in many respects belongs to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)—the prominence of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in such activities appears to be growing. For the PLA, non-combatant evacuation operations (NEOs) are among the “diversified military tasks” it is expected to be able to perform in support of the Communist Party leadership’s domestic and international objectives. China’s growing regional and global role has brought with it increasingly complex and far-reaching political, economic and security interests as well as new traditional and non-traditional security challenges for the PLA. This requires the PLA to acquire the requisite capabilities and develop contingency plans for a number of such challenges—one of the most prominent of which is non-combatant evacuation operations.

Such operations are likely to become an increasingly high-profile mission as suggested by the Chinese media’s extensive coverage of the Libya evacuation. The PLA’s unprecedented involvement in that mission, which included the deployment of a PLA Navy (PLAN) frigate and four PLAAF IL-76 transport aircraft to the region, may foreshadow an even larger role in future evacuations. As PLAN researcher Li Jie writes, as more and more Chinese go abroad, “providing maximum protective measures” for them when they are in danger, including by evacuating them when necessary, is becoming an increasingly critical mission for the PLA, one that it is duty-bound to perform (Modern Ships, April 1, 2011). Methods such as chartering civilian aircraft to evacuate Chinese citizens have been adequate in many cases, but some PLA scholars clearly expect the military to play a larger role in future operations. As AMS researcher Gu Weijun puts it, “during recent riots in southern Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese government dispatched chartered planes to withdraw our citizens who were living there. But the protection of overseas citizens and expatriates cannot do without military measures. China can refer to the methods of foreign nations and employ armed protection and evacuation measures when its overseas citizens and expatriates face large-scale attacks” (Global Times, June 29, 2010).

Chinese publications are replete with general discussions of the importance of protecting citizens overseas and conducting NEOs when necessary, and China’s accomplishments in evacuating its citizens have been impressive in some respects. Indeed, by most accounts, the PLA performed its limited role in the Libya evacuation quite effectively. The PLA also is developing and deploying a number of capabilities that could prove useful for future evacuation missions. At the same time, however, it is less clear that the PLA’s doctrine, training and ability to coordinate effectively with the MFA and other organizations are as well advanced. Interagency coordination is especially critical as reflected by the emphasis on cooperation between the military and the State Department in U.S. joint doctrine and training for NEO operations. Similarly, the PLA must be prepared to communicate and coordinate effectively with the MFA and other governmental and non-governmental organizations, including state-owned enterprises and private businesses. Well-informed observers have concluded Beijing is still working to address these coordination challenges [1]. Moreover, in future NEOs, the degree of difficulty may be higher, raising questions about how effectively the PLA could handle more stressing evacuation scenarios.

PLA Assessments of the Nature and Likelihood of Future Evacuation Contingencies

For Chinese analysts, the need to protect or evacuate Chinese living overseas is a function of growing threats to their security. According to Gu Weijun, “for reasons such as political struggles, terrorist attacks, labor disputes and natural disasters, Chinese citizens and expatriates living abroad have encountered more and more attacks in recent years” (Global Times, June 29, 2010). It is also consistent with demands for the PLA to handle non-traditional security threats. Indeed, Chinese military publications on “diversified military tasks” and “non-war military operations” highlight the importance of a number of types of such operations for the PLA, including non-combatant evacuation operations. Foreshadowing the PLA’s participation in the Libya evacuation, a 2009 volume indicated that such operations would involve dispatching military aircraft or ships to rescue Chinese citizens and overseas Chinese from countries where the security situation is deteriorating rapidly or major incidents of anti-Chinese violence or turmoil are taking place [2]. Chinese authors recognize, as more Chinese citizens and businesses go abroad and as they live in some of the world’s worst neighborhoods, this type of operation may become increasingly common. As PLA Navy (PLAN) researcher Li Jie puts it, “Along with the day by day growth of China’s national power, its overseas interests are constantly expanding, and the interests of Chinese and Chinese living abroad are obviously expanding.” Consequently, Li writes, “undoubtedly, evacuation and escort incidents like the one in Libya will continue to occur in the future, and will be an increasing trend…and the duty of the people’s army to provide emergency rescue and protection of the masses will clearly grow larger” (Modern Ships, April 1, 2011).

Relevant PLA Capabilities

Chinese military authors suggest the PLAN and PLAAF are likely to play particularly important roles in future evacuations [3]. As for specific platforms, Chinese writers highlight a number of naval and air capabilities—including large amphibious ships, aircraft carriers, and large transport aircraft—as important assets that will be required to execute future NEOs.

Large amphibious ships may be designed primarily for combat operations, but they also can be useful for missions such as NEOs. Indeed, notwithstanding the prominent role of the Xuzhou in the Libya evacuation, one of the naval capabilities that Chinese authors highlight as most directly relevant to future evacuation operations appears to be large amphibious ships. Chinese authors indicate evacuation operations are one of several potential “non-war military operations” that could be carried out by the PLAN’s large amphibious ships. According to one Chinese analyst, large amphibious ships are “an excellent choice” for operations such as international assistance, evacuation of citizens and escort missions [4]. Similarly, in an article highlighting the accelerated development of new dock landing ships, Li Jie suggests the PLAN’s Yuzhao-class amphibious transport docks (LPDs) are relevant to a number of potential scenarios, including protection of Chinese citizens overseas: “In future struggles to safeguard our nation’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the Near Seas, the security of our international strategic channels in the intermediate or Far Seas areas, and even in non-war military actions, which will gradually increase, including protection of the interests of overseas Chinese nationals and international humanitarian assistance, dock landing ships…will have an impressive performance” (Modern Ships, April 1, 2012). The PLAN’s new aircraft carrier also figures prominently in some Chinese discussions. In particular, Li Jie highlights the role the PLAN’s aircraft carrier could play not only in resolving territorial disputes and safeguarding China’s maritime rights and interests close to home, but also in future non-war military actions farther from China’s shores, including “fighting terrorists and pirates, maintaining the security of maritime transportation lines, and evacuating overseas citizens” (People’s Daily, September 24, 2012; Modern Ships, May 1, 2011).

Large transport aircraft can be a critical capability for NEOs instead of or in addition to chartered commercial flights. Accordingly, the PLAAF is also an important player with significant capabilities relevant to non-combatant evacuation operations. For example, a PLAAF assessment of Hu Jintao’s direction to build a “powerful people’s air force” lists evacuation of Chinese citizens from global hotspots as one of the tasks the PLAAF must be prepared to carry out as it becomes a more globally capable force [5]. Other Chinese authors also highlight the importance of transport aircraft for future evacuation missions. This is one of several missions for large transport aircraft, which are seen as crucial to enhancing the “strategic projection” capabilities China needs to protect its increasingly far-flung interests. According to one media report, for example, “the military transport aircraft is a sign of a country’s strategic projection capability” (People’s Daily, August 14, 2012). The PLAAF’s capabilities in this area are limited, but they appear to be improving. The PLAAF currently relies on imported IL-76 transport aircraft for its strategic airlift capabilities, but “in response to the new historic missions’ requirements to protect China’s global interests, the PLA Air Force is attempting to increase its long-range transportation and logistics capabilities, to achieve greater strategic projection” [6]. Specifically, Beijing is working to enhance the PLAAF’s strategic airlift capabilities with the recently tested Y-20 strategic transport (Ministry of National Defense, January 6).

Table 1. Select Capabilities Highlighted by Chinese Writers

Capability

Service

Number Available

Additional Information

Yuzhao-class (Type 071) amphibious transport docks (LPDs)

PLAN

3

The first Yuzhao-class LPD, Kunlunshan, was launched in 2006; the second and third were launched in 2011; Yuzhao-class LPDs can carry troops, amphibious vehicles, helicopters, and Yuyi-class air-cushioned landing craft.

Il-76 Large Transport

PLAAF

Chinese media reports the PLAAF possesses a “small number” of Il-76s (China Daily, January 28)

Imported from Russia; Beijing sent four Il-76s to Libya to assist in the evacuation of Chinese citizens in 2011.

Y-20 Large Transport

PLAAF

N/A (under development)

China’s first domestically developed large transport aircraft; first test flight conducted in January 2013.

Conclusion

Two years ago, the Libya evacuation signaled a growing requirement for Chinese government and military involvement in the protection of Chinese nationals abroad to include future evacuation operations (“Angola Operation Shows China Testing Overseas Security Role,” China Brief, September 7, 2012). Because of the growing number of Chinese working overseas in potentially dangerous areas and because of the need to appear responsive to domestic concerns about China’s ability to protect its citizens overseas, Beijing must ensure that it is capable of handling similar crises in the future. This mission is primarily the responsibility of the MFA, but it probably will involve an expanded PLA role as it develops more options for Beijing. It will thus require the PLA to work in cooperation with the MFA and other organizations to plan and carry out future evacuation operations.

From an institutional perspective, there are benefits to the PLA as a result of its growing role in protecting China’s overseas interests and external military operations other than war. For example, at least for the PLAAF and PLAN, the success of the Libya evacuation and the perceived need to be prepared to rescue Chinese nationals from other crisis-torn areas in the future highlights the military’s role in protecting Chinese citizens and evacuating them from overseas hotspots. This enables the PLA to display its growing capabilities to domestic and international audiences. At home, it allows the PLA to show its value by protecting Chinese citizens overseas. Abroad, it permits the PLA to portray its growing capabilities as ones that China can employ constructively and responsibly.

Yet there are challenges and risks for the PLA as well. The stakes could be high, especially given the domestic requirement of being seen as capable of protecting Chinese citizens overseas and the importance the party leadership appears to attach to China’s international image. Moreover, in future evacuation missions, the PLA may face more difficult situations than it has encountered thus far, increasing the risk that something could go wrong, and thus potentially falling short of expectations at home or undermining its desired image abroad. The PLA is clearly making progress, but ensuring it will be able to successfully execute evacuation operations under more difficult conditions if called upon to do so may require further improvements in its capabilities, doctrine, training and ability to coordinate with the MFA and other organizations.

Notes:

  1. According to Mathieu Duchâtel and Bate Gill, “coordination between government ministries, the armed forces, state-owned enterprises and private businesses—problematic under most circumstances—remains unclear when it comes to protecting citizens abroad.” See, Duchâtel and Gill, “Overseas citizen protection: a growing challenge for China,” SIPRI Newsletter, February 2012, available online <http://www.sipri.org/media/newsletter/essay/february12>.
  2. Gai Shijin and Zhang Peizhong, Duoyanghua Junshi Renwu Lun [On Multiple Military Missions], Beijing, China: Changzheng Chubanshe [Long March Press], 2009, p. 68.
  3. Ibid., pp. 157–158. According to the authors, in these types of operations, the air force and navy may need to work jointly to establish air safety corridors (kongzhong anquan zoulang) and set up safety zones (anquan qu), as part of the overall effort to withdraw Chinese citizens from the threatened areas.
  4. Ye Qi, “Qiantan Zhongguo daxing liangqi zuozhan jianting de weilai [A Brief Discussion of the Future of China’s Large Amphibious Warfare Ships],” Dangdai haijun [Modern Navy], No. 11, 2011, pp. 42–44.
  5. Shang Jinsuo, Li Zhen, Li Liguang and Ye Haiyuan, “Hu Jintao guanyu jianshe qiangda de renmin kongjun sixiang yanjiu [A Study of Hu Jintao’s Thinking on Building a Powerful People’s Air Force],” Zhongguo Junshi Kexue [China Military Science], 2011, No. 5, pp. 13–17.

Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2012, May 2012, p. 6.