India is not the only country coming to terms with the mounting challenge of protecting its citizens abroad. New Delhi has Beijing for company. The Indians and Chinese have, for centuries, migrated to distant corners of the world. The overseas Chinese population, estimated to be around 50 million, is nearly double that of India. If we include Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Sri Lankans, the size of the subcontinental diaspora is indeed comparable with China’s. As ancient and highly populated regions, China and the Indian subcontinent have for long shaped global migration patterns. Unlike Delhi, which has had to deal with diaspora issues ever since Independence, Beijing’s problems have just begun. After the formation of revolutionary China, Beijing had to deal with issues relating to large minority populations for a brief while, especially in neighbouring Asian countries.
Given its closed socialist economy, there was little new Chinese migration after the People’s Republic was proclaimed in 1949. At least until recently. After Deng Xiaoping opened up China at the end of 1970s, there has been a steady increase in its citizens travelling abroad for study, work, business and pleasure. Chinese passport holders living abroad are estimated to number around 6 million, nearly half that of India. As three and a half decades of rapid economic growth tightens China’s integration with the world, these numbers are bound to grow faster in coming decades.
For example, the number of citizens travelling beyond China’s shores is expected to cross 100 million this year. The number of Chinese youth from the PRC studying abroad has risen from virtually nothing in the late 1970s to about half a million now. After the Chinese leadership decided in 1999 to encourage its state-owned enterprises to invest abroad under the “Go Out” policy, there has been a rapid increase in the number of Chinese workers, skilled and unskilled, working on overseas projects across the world.
THE PLA’S ROLE
As in Delhi so in Beijing, the political leadership is under tremendous pressure from public opinion to respond vigorously to foreign crises involving nationals. If it is the electronic media that pushes Delhi, the large mass of Chinese netizens quickly build up the pressure on Beijing.
In the last few years, China has sought to strengthen its mechanisms for consular protection. It has increased the number of consular officers in Beijing and its field missions. China is making an extra effort to educate migrant labour, encourage employers to register workers being taken abroad and provide timely information on potential threats to their safety and security. Evacuation of citizens trapped in civil wars, disasters or other crisies has become a new focus for China in the last few years. According to a recent study by the Stockholm Institute of Peace Research, Beijing launched 13 operations to evacuate civilians from crises in different parts of the world during the years 2006-13.
Just two months ago, there was anti-Chinese rioting in Vietnam after Beijing moved an oil rig into Hanoi’s waters. Beijing acted decisively and with Hanoi’s support, evacuated nearly 3,500 Chinese workers from Vietnam. The biggest Chinese operation was in Libya in early 2011, when the Chinese armed forces evacuated more than 35,000 Chinese workers out of the civil war. Like Delhi, Beijing too is involved right now in getting out some of its workers caught in Iraq’s conflict zone.
Given the growing spread of Chinese capital and labour around the world, Beijing is acutely conscious that non-combatant evacuation operations will be an unavoidable part of its national life. Unsurprisingly, the People’s Liberation Army has begun to loom large in China’s calculus of securing its overseas citizens.
Muscular approaches to securing citizens abroad presents somewhat of a problem for the traditional Chinese rhetoric on non-intervention, heard most recently from President Xi Jinping at the Panchsheel celebrations in Beijing a few days ago. Although the political leadership continues to underline non-intervention as a high political principle, the Chinese armed forces have understood the logic of power projection. They have begun to attach new importance to the development of expeditionary capabilities that will allow the PLA to insert itself into distant theatres.
In the biennial white paper on defence issued last year, Beijing has identified the protection of its citizens and economic assets beyond borders as one of the PLA’s “new historic missions”.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’