From Non-Interference to Wolf Warrior: Chinese Foreign Internal Defense
“Whoever harms China will die no matter how far away they are (犯我中华者虽远必诛)” is the motto of Wolf Warrior II, one of China’s highest-grossing movies in recent years. Wolf Warrior applauds China’s expanding leadership role in international affairs and superbly captures the country’s growing nationalist sentiment. In the film, People’s Liberation Army Navy destroyers based off the coast of Africa launch land-attack cruise missiles to take out a local militia’s tanks in a direct military intervention. The film’s hero, the “Wolf Warrior,” kills “Big Daddy,” — the savage, American leader of a group of mercenaries — in hand-to-hand combat. The screen then fades to black, and the image of a Chinese passport appears with a message superimposed: “To citizens of the People’s Republic of China, when you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, do not give up hope. Please remember, behind your back, will be a strong and powerful motherland.”
While Wolf Warrior II’s scenario might be slightly exaggerated, China sees itself as facing real threats overseas. As Chinese strategic interests continue to expand, Beijing may likely devote greater resources towards protecting Chinese military personnel and assets in foreign countries. Furthermore, these security initiatives will be necessary to ensure the viability of China’s multi-year Belt and Road Initiative. For example, the PLA Navy’s escort task forces have carried out anti-piracy missions since approximately 2008, including in the volatile Gulf of Aden. The PLA also successfully carried out a personnel recovery mission, evacuating Chinese and foreign citizens via a hospital ship when the Yemeni Civil War broke out in 2015. Moreover, the People’s Armed Police, which — like the PLA — reports to the Central Military Commission, has deployed troops to Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Iraq to secure border regions and safeguard Chinese embassies.
If a major terrorist attack against China’s overseas interests overwhelms local security forces, Chinese leaders may have strong incentives to launch a military intervention. A “Wolf Warrior-style” incursion may help preserve the Communist Party’s legitimacy and placate an increasingly hawkish Chinese public. However, currently, the PLA and People’s Armed Police are woefully unprepared for a major overseas counter-terrorism or foreign internal defense operation. In the worst-case scenario, without changes to its current kinetic counter-terrorism approach, China could find itself drawn into a long-term quagmire similar to what the United States and Soviet Union faced in Afghanistan. If this scenario were to unfold, Beijing’s miscalculation may present unprecedented strategic opportunities for the United States and its allies.
Can a Major Overseas Terrorist Attack Trigger a Chinese Military Response?
China currently faces considerable risks from overseas insurgent and terrorist groups which are likely to significantly increase in the long term. The Ministry of Public Security has largely taken the lead on Chinese diplomatic efforts to improve state-owned enterprise security, with former Minister Meng Jianzhu as well as disgraced Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang meeting with high-level security officials in foreign countries to obtain “guarantees that [counterparts would] protect Chinese nationals.” In most instances, China has preferred to rely on local security forces and private contractors to protect its state-owned enterprises and development projects. As such, historically, the Ministry of Public Security has not usually stationed police officers to protect Chinese facilities abroad. However, as indicated above, China already perceives that solely relying on local forces may no longer be enough, as the Central Military Commission is increasingly deploying People’s Armed Police forces to protect Chinese embassies in high-threat countries. There are several plausible scenarios involving a major terrorist attack or violent protest that may lead to a more extensive shift in Chinese policy in the future, prompting the PLA or People’s Armed Police to intervene abroad.
China is currently expanding its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor infrastructure plan, a top Belt and Road project, into Afghanistan via Baluchistan — a hotbed of insurgency within Kashmir. Baloch separatists have already launched attacks against the Chinese consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, and conducted a suicide bombing against a bus which injured six Chinese engineers. In 2019, Baloch gunmen also attacked a luxury hotel frequented by Chinese workers and officials involved in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor development activities. Baluchistan Liberation Army representatives have claimed that “China and Pakistan are exploiting Baluchistan’s resources” and condemned China as a “colonizing power.” So far, these terrorist attacks against Chinese facilities have been largely isolated and have resulted in few Chinese casualties (suicide vests failed to detonate in some instances). However, the Baluchistan Liberation Army has been capable of carrying out more damaging attacks in the past, including a car bomb which killed 13 people and injured 30 others in Quetta, Pakistan, in Dec. 2011. Due to Baloch attacks against China becoming more frequent, it is not difficult to imagine a future attack that serves as a “turning point,” for example, a similar bombing of a Chinese embassy or consulate that inflicts so many Chinese casualties at such a large scale that it overwhelms local security capabilities and provokes a coordinated PLA or People’s Armed Police response.
Many citizens of African countries with Belt and Road Initiative projects share the Baloch militants’ criticism of China’s economic exploitation. Chinese state-owned enterprises mostly hire Chinese nationals to work on overseas projects at the expense of providing local employment opportunities. And even when local workers are hired, they often face racism and physical abuse from their Chinese supervisors alongside poor working conditions. These challenges have sparked protests against Chinese developmental projects in Kenya, Zambia, and other countries, which have sometimes included racial violence against Chinese businesses and individuals of Chinese heritage. In the next few years, Chinese economic development projects in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East will only further expand in scale and scope, becoming more deeply entrenched in local communities. Meanwhile, state-owned enterprises are showing almost no signs of changing their hiring practices or improving working conditions, especially since some businessmen are fairly certain that the Chinese government will “bail them out” if overseas security deteriorates. As such, tensions between Chinese workers and local communities are also likely to worsen. In a hypothetical future scenario where a local anti-China protest in Africa turns violent, resulting in the widespread looting or destruction of Chinese state owned enterprise facilities, local security forces may have difficulty taking action — especially since state-owned enterprise managers have struggled to properly integrate local contractors or security personnel into security operations. This, in turn, may galvanize the PLA or People’s Armed Police to prepare a swift overseas response to protect Chinese economic interests.
In the long term, Islamist terrorist groups may prioritize attacking China over the United States and its allies. The United States has reduced its global military commitments in Syria, negotiated with the Taliban to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and is even thinking about shrinking its presence in Kosovo. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with a significant U.S. economic downturn, China is “flattening its curve” faster than the United States, stepping in to fill the void of global leadership, provide humanitarian aid, and significantly expand its Belt and Road Initiative networks. In the long term, as Beijing expands its soft-power initiatives, potentially leading to a broader shift in the global interpretative community, Islamist extremist groups may gradually perceive the United States as less of a threat to their regional ambitions. This possibility may become more likely if the United States completely pulls out of Afghanistan and reduces its kinetic operations, including drone strikes. On the other hand, China may be compelled to dispatch additional PLA and People’s Armed Police personnel to Afghanistan to better protect its expanding economic interests and defend Chinese facilities, which may lead certain groups to perceive China as the new “imperialist” superpower aggressor. An expanded Chinese presence in Iraq and Afghanistan would likely further inflame tensions with Islamist terrorist groups, particularly since ISIL’s propaganda has already focused on the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
China is also one of Iran’s most reliable political allies, as Beijing has been a key “lifeline” for Tehran in the face of crippling U.S. sanctions. As Chinese economic interests in the Middle East continue to expand with the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese and Iranian priorities may become aligned like never before. Theoretically, China could provide increased covert financial support to the Quds Force and other Iranian proxies, including Hizballah, in exchange for security assurances for Belt and Road projects. In this hypothetical scenario, Sunni militant groups covertly backed by nations desiring to counter Iranian influence, like Saudi Arabia, may be more likely to launch proxy attacks against Chinese Belt and Road projects to indirectly degrade Iranian capabilities while maintaining plausible deniability for state sponsors. This scenario would also increase the likelihood of a terrorist attack that draws in the PLA.
What Would a Chinese Overseas Counter-terrorism Mission Look Like?
Faced with a large-scale terrorist attack on a Chinese facility abroad, the Communist Party would have two options. First, Chinese President Xi Jinping could continue relying on diplomatic approaches and other options short of a military intervention. As we have seen in the past after the kidnappings of Chinese state-owned enterprise personnel, Chinese leaders have voiced support for enhanced security measures, but only taken limited actions to actually improve state-owned enterprise security. A perceived lack of action in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack would risk alienating an increasingly nationalistic Chinese public, as well as Party elites, by not doing enough to protect Chinese citizens overseas, and may even threaten the Party’s legitimacy.
Second, it would be very possible for China to abandon its traditional “non-interference” policy, which it never completely abided by, in favor of a “Wolf Warrior” policy. This second option is more likely. Xi would have significant incentives to make this shift to placate the Chinese public, safeguard the legitimacy of the Communist Party, demonstrate the PLA’s competence by participating in a combat operation for the first time since 1979, and protect Chinese citizens abroad.
Article 71 of China’s Counter-terrorism Law, although never before formally invoked, authorizes the “PLA and the People’s Armed Police to leave the country on counter-terrorism missions” with proper approval. According to a special report by the National Bureau of Asian Research, “the closer [terrorist attacks] are conducted to places where China already has a military presence, the more likely China is to respond militarily,” especially if foreign countries cannot, or will not, respond to Chinese diplomatic pressure. Additionally, attacks “against a BRI infrastructure project on a large enough scale could provoke China to retaliate.”
But what would a Chinese overseas counter-terrorism operation or foreign internal defense mission look like? A formal “counter-terrorism doctrine” for the PLA, if it even exists, is unknown, at least in the open source. However, certain writings permit informed speculation.
The Science of Military Strategy is a document written by the Chinese Academy of Military Science and used by the Chinese armed forces, including the People’s Armed Police, for “education, training, and research.” 35 researchers at the Chinese Academy of Military Science, reporting to China’s Central Military Commission, wrote the 2013 edition, which reveals critical insights about the PLA’s approach to counter-terrorism. According to a section on “Principles of Military Operations other than War,” “we must resolutely and decisively punish incorrigibly obstinate (顽固不化) groups fighting with their back to the wall (负隅抵抗) […] and employ forcible measures (强制性措施) towards those obstinate zealots that have high levels of threat, cannot be reconciled, and are fighting desperately.” Moreover, the book stresses the use of “law-based weapons (法律武器)” which suggests that the People’s Armed Police and public security authorities may invoke laws that support the use of coercive, all-out force against terrorists.
Xi-era Chinese counter-terrorism efforts in Xinjiang closely conform to the book’s writings. For example, in 2013, according to an exiled Uyghur leader, Chinese security forces killed over 2,000 local citizens in a raid in Yarkand, Kashgar Prefecture, Xinjiang, and imposed a two-day curfew for the sole purpose of cleaning up dead bodies. Similarly, in 2015, Chinese authorities launched a 10,000-person manhunt, composed of citizens, “paramilitary forces (which likely included the People’s Armed Police),” and police officers against a small group of 28 Xinjiang rebels who allegedly attacked a coal mine. Just the next week, Chinese authorities employed disproportionate force, including tear gas, flash grenades, and even flamethrowers, to flush a separate group of rebels out of a cave, and subsequently “annihilated” them.
China has also implemented “legal weapons,” especially in Xinjiang, by expanding imprisonment and convictions based on basic evidence, including rumors and unfavorable social media posts. Local security forces, especially the People’s Armed Police, routinely carry out arbitrary detentions of Uyghurs suspected of participating in “suspicious” activities while offering almost no avenues of appeal to individuals in detention camps or to their families. Unsurprisingly, the government has devoted considerable resources to censoring any reporting that is critical of the central government’s security policies in Xinjiang.
Additionally, the PLA’s participation in international counter-terrorism exercises likely only reinforces its reliance on brute force and intimidation. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s combined counter-terrorism exercises almost exclusively emphasize kinetic strikes against rebel groups. For example, the 2014 SCO Peace Mission “simulated an ISIL-like organization with both armored and air forces taking over a city” in which Shanghai Cooperation Organization partners collaborated to kinetically eject the terrorists. Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states, including China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, share China’s beliefs in the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Russia’s brutal, repressive counter-terrorism practices in areas like Chechnya have probably spilled over to the PLA through Russian participation in combined Shanghai Cooperation Organization training exercises, further reinforcing the PLA’s focus on kinetic counter-terrorism approaches.
What does this all mean? Under Xi, the PLA and People’s Armed Police have probably lost track of how to carry out an effective Maoist “People’s War” counterinsurgency campaign that emphasizes political work over violence and focuses on rallying support from the masses. And, so far, there are no signs that the PLA and People’s Armed Police are even contemplating adjusting or refining their thinking on how to deal with overseas terrorist and insurgent groups. As Professor Susan Shirk indicates, “how [China] operate[s] domestically spills over into how they operate internationally.”
In any future overseas counter-terrorism or foreign internal defense missions, the PLA or People’s Armed Police may be likely to fall back on entrenched short-term, kinetic, and repressive counter-terrorism approaches, which may even include drone strikes. Boots-on-the-ground interventions to protect Chinese facilities are also likely, particularly if insurgents initially overwhelm local security forces. These approaches may preclude non-kinetic counter-terrorism options, including de-radicalization and rehabilitation, or long-term counter-insurgency strategies that may be more effective at degrading or destroying target groups.
Chinese leaders are starting to pay more attention to overseas counter-terrorism and foreign internal defense as a key priority for the PLA and People’s Armed Police, particularly given China’s increased willingness to take on global leadership roles pursuant to Xi’s “Striving for Achievement (奋发有为)” foreign policy. Indeed, China’s 2019 Defense White Paper indicates that “China’s armed forces will fulfill their international responsibilities and obligations” by “responding to global challenges such as terrorism.”
However, the PLA and People’s Armed Police will likely be more prepared for short-term, kinetic counter-terrorism missions than long-term counter-insurgency. Using kinetic counter-terrorism approaches to address a sustained insurgency is a miscalculation that may lead to mission-creep and further exacerbate local resentment, leading to further attacks. Indeed, in a quantitative study, researchers from the University of Maryland and Wesleyan University have found that purely violent repression may reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks in the short-term (one or two months), but may be ineffective or counterproductive in the long run.
A boots-on-the-ground intervention scenario would most likely result in Chinese forces being drawn into a quagmire. The PLA or People’s Armed Police could suffer continuous casualties from a sustained, overseas boots-on-the-ground counter-terrorism mission, yet be unable to pull back due to fears of damaging the Communist Party’s legitimacy or inflaming an increasingly hawkish Chinese public. Additionally, even a drone strike on an overseas terrorist group (like the strike on a Myanmar criminal organization proposed by Ministry of Public Security anti-narcotics bureau director Liu Yuejin), could further inflame tensions, leading to a second wave of attacks against Chinese facilities.
While China’s system of centralized control can be effective in responding to crises, authoritarian regimes face a critical challenge in having to continuously expend significant resources to maintain effective internal security and high-tech surveillance capabilities. China’s resources are finite. The worst-case scenario for China would be to commit to a major overseas military operation while instability flares domestically in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. This opening could also allow Taiwan to more boldly agitate for independence.
A speculative future scenario where the PLA gets bogged down in Africa, the Middle East, or even Southeast Asia due to sustained counterterrorism operations would present unprecedented strategic opportunities for the United States. In the far future, if another Charlie Wilson in the United States steps up to support overseas militants and promote a sustained proxy insurgency against China’s Wolf Warriors, what will be the outcome? U.S. intelligence analysts should treat a sustained Chinese overseas counterterrorism operation as a real possibility in the near future and prepare potential options for a U.S. response, which could include providing logistical, financial, and military training support for insurgents opposing China. In such a contingency, these novel strategies could gradually drain Chinese economic and military resources and help the United States continue to maintain a global competitive advantage.
Jimmy Zhang is a policy analyst at the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Counterterrorism Policy, where he explores programmatic solutions to more effectively counter foreign adversaries and hostile nation states. He graduated magna cum laude from the College of William and Mary, holds a M.A. in security studies from Georgetown University, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at an accredited Department of Defense institution. All statements of fact, analysis, or opinion are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, any of their components, or the U.S. government.