Protecting China’s Interests Overseas, Securitization and Foreign Policy, by Andrea Ghiselli

In: European Journal of East Asian Studies
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  • 1 Institut Montaigne, France, Paris
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Andrea Ghiselli, Protecting China’s Interests Overseas, Securitization and Foreign Policy, Oxford University Press, 2021. 304 pp. ISBN: 9780198867395.

Andrea Ghiselli’s work is a welcome contribution to the literature on the protection of China’s overseas interests. He brings new findings in two areas of this issue.

First, the book brings a valuable theoretical perspective to the issue of protecting Chinese overseas interests by bringing in the concept of ‘securitisation’. The concept, coming from the Copenhagen school, is often invoked by empirical foreign policy analysts to underline the ambition of a state to expand its powers, by requesting extraordinary means outside the framework of democratic politics (when it is used for democracies) once a policy challenge is constructed as a security threat. This analytical framework is also relevant in capturing the action of authoritarian states, which also build extraordinary institutional architectures to address security issues.

Securitisation as a logic of institutionalisation and power expansion applies to the new Chinese approaches to protect Chinese nationals overseas, developed under Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, and accelerated by the great 2011 evacuation from Libya. The author convincingly demonstrates the relevance of the securitisation approach. But the analysis does not in any way suggest that the Chinese policy is motivated by aspirations of the party–state to increase its powers. Andrea Ghiselli sees the objective reality of rising threats against growing numbers of Chinese nationals and business operations overseas as a natural consequence of the uninterrupted rise of China.

The analysis flows naturally from the idea that securitisation is initially a ‘speech act’—the designation of the threat—that is followed by public action. The challenge in the case of China is to identify the ‘securitising actors’ and their interaction with one another, from the top party leadership and the Ministry of Commerce to state-owned enterprises, the People’s Liberation Army and the Foreign Ministry. The book contains refreshing descriptions of the coordination challenge for the execution of foreign policy decisions. Indeed, ‘no institution was left untouched’. The change of perspective within SOE s, on the front line of overseas risks, has been a catalyst for foreign policy change. The author is right to insist on the point that crises were the decisive catalysts of change in China, much more than central planning—this is in fact a major nuance to the pure concept of securitisation.

Second, the book brings important insights into the influence of ideas in the defence of what the author calls ‘interest frontiers’. That foreign policy generalists—and especially Wang Yizhou from Peking University—played a role in making the use of military power for evacuation operations and the idea of constructive foreign policy involvement more widely acceptable was known, but the book makes a convincing argument that their influence was greater than that of the area experts, and especially experts of the Middle East and Northern Africa, in bringing about policy change in China. The author also insists on the specificities of the diplomatic career in China. Chinese diplomats spend more time in a single region, and sometimes in a single country, before they rise to the top position of ambassador. This ‘accumulation of expertise within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ is a huge asset for China, albeit one that is partly wasted by the fact that China’s foreign policy resources are consumed by rivalry with the United States.

The insightful Chapter 4, on the role of the inner and the outer circle of Middle East and North Africa experts, shows convincingly that the development of international connections by Chinese experts was a factor in foreign policy change. It raises a painful question for Chinese foreign policy: now that the party–state has instituted strict restrictions on interactions with the outside world for security reasons, and not only because of the pandemic, isn’t China wasting its talent? This is not the only question raised by the book for future research projects on the topic. The point made in Chapter 3 regarding how states and party agencies have difficulties stopping projectst that carry security risks would deserve in-depth case studies, for example.

One of the most thought-provoking conclusions of the book is the idea that the securitisation of overseas interests has contributed to accelerating the transition between a phase of fragmentation of policymaking, under Hu Jintao, and the current period of extreme centralisation of decisions under the core leadership of Xi Jinping.

For the two leaders, the protection of Chinese nationals overseas has proven to be an invaluable source of legitimacy. The author is right to emphasise that so far the expansion of China’s global military footprint has proceeded with great caution, avoiding overreach. The Chinese leadership has been skilfully navigating objective threats and challenges, responding with pragmatic adjustments to its foreign policy posture.

Looking ahead, as new crises will drive new adjustments, for academics and experts three areas deserve watching: will China and Russia cooperate in non-combatant evacuation operations? How would China behave in a crisis such as a civil war in a third country with a large presence of Chinese nationals, where the US and China defend opposite groups? How would the PLA and the PAP perform in an evacuation operation under severe security conditions, that required the deployment of Special Forces units and the use of lethal force? These questions for the future show that the issue will deserve continuous attention as a subfield of Chinese security studies.

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