China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is widely recognized as an economic power play that could challenge US influence geopolitically, particularly in vital and resource-rich regions around the world. Little attention, however, has been devoted to the importance of how China plans to secure and defend its economic interests along the BRI. China has increasingly employed private security contractors (PSCs) to safeguard its geo-economic interests in many regions of the world—in particular, politically unstable “gray zones,” such as central Africa.

However, unlike Russia’s private military companies (PMCs), which have achieved a notorious reputation in the West, Chinese PSCs are almost unknown and receive only occasional coverage in Western media. As China’s presence and influence grows along the various routes of the BRI so does the number of security-related challenges to its overseas mega-projects. Instability in parts of Eurasia, particularly in Central Asia, will likely increase due to the rise in radical Islam, emboldened by the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. Numerous challenges additionally persist for China in Africa, which may require Beijing to increase its military presence there.

However, officials in Beijing realize that the deployment of regular troops or the establishment of military bases—even under the pretext of protecting Chinese nationals and business interests—will result in pushback from both local authorities and the international community, as well as increase suspicions and Sinophobia. With this in mind, China is most likely to instead rely on flexible, multifunctional and efficient PSCs to ensure the physical security of Chinese nationals and businesses and permit Beijing to project hard power into these regions, including improving intelligence collection and further expanding its control over strategic natural resources and transportation routes.

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