Will Beijing deploy private security firms to protect overseas Chinese nationals and BRI projects?


With Xi Jinping becoming a more powerful Chinese Communist Party leader
after founder Mao Zedong, the primary goal set by the 69-year-old General
Secretary during his third term will be securing the East Asian country’s status
as a global player.
A broad hint towards this was given by Xi Jinping during the just concluded
20th National Congress of the CCP. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been
a preferred vehicle for China to expand its influence across the globe for over
8-9 years.
Involving billions of US dollar worth of investments, BRI projects are however,
facing threats of sabotage from terrorist and disgruntled elements in several
countries. And this has led to generating concerns among the Chinese
leadership, who called for protection of the country’s interests in foreign lands.
“We will strengthen our capacity to ensure overseas security and protect the
lawful rights and interests of Chinese citizens and legal entities overseas,” the
Chinese President said during the 20th National Congress. The statement
clearly spells out China’s desire to strengthen security around BRI projects and
people involved with them in Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, South
Sudan, and Libya in view of increasing attacks on them by terrorists and
disgruntled, anti-government forces. According to China’s Foreign Ministry, so
far Beijing has signed BRI documents with 149 countries with an investment
volume of over 1 trillion Yuan ($147 billion)
Though no official statement has been issued on how security around BRI
projects spread in different corners of the world will be beefed up, a recent
South China Morning Post report maintains that private security firms will play
a much more significant role in “protecting assets related to China’s ambitious
BRI.”
Quoting Paul Nantulya, a research associate with Africa Centre for Strategic
Studies in Washington, South China Morning Post said, “There will be more
recruitment of security firms run by ex-People’s Liberation Army and exChinese police to provide security for Chinese state-owned enterprises
involved in implementing the Belt and Road Initiative’s multi-million-dollar
programme.”
In China, as many as 5000 security firms, employing more than 4 million
personnel are registered with the government, said the Norway-based Peace
Research Institute Oslo. Of them, as per the research institute, about 20
security firms are licensed to operate overseas. Since deployment of PLA
soldiers or serving police personnel in foreign countries are fraught with
diplomatic rows, private security firms are “well-positioned tools” for China to
project power abroad, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a
Washington-based think tank said in its study in January this year.
On February 14, as per Myanmar’s The Irrawaddy, a news outlet, a Chinese oil
and gas pipeline facility in central Myanmar was damaged in an attack by
People’s Defence Force (PDF), a civilian milia opposed to the military junta.
China’s Yunnan province sources oil and gas from the coast of Myanmar’s
Rakhine state through two Chinese-built pipelines. People in Myanmar have
been opposed to the 770-km long twin-pipeline since its construction as their
demand for fair compensation due to the loss of land and its negative impact
on their livelihood has never been met.
Moreover, the Chinese government’s support to military coup in Myanmar,
prioritizing its own strategic interests over the wellbeing of the people of the
southeast Asian country, has made Beijing highly unpopular among people. In
March 2021, 32 Chinese-run factories were set on fire in an industrial suburb
of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. Two Chinese workers were also injured in
that attack on Chinese factories. China’s People’s Daily quoted the Chinese
embassy in Myanmar as saying that the incident caused property losses of
about 240 million yuan.
Under the ambitious BRI, Beijing is establishing the China-Myanmar Economic
Corridor in the Southeast Asian country. But despite the military’s backing the
CMEC is mired in conflict with ethnic armed groups opposing Chinese
investments in the country. Myanmar military’s long-running feuds with ethnic
groups in the country have turned execution of many CMEC projects tough and
risky.
Similarly, the 62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan is
meeting with one after other hurdles in the smooth execution of projects due
to attacks from terrorists and insurgents. Since 2016, when Beijing officially
launched the CPEC, insurgent groups have carried out as many as 10 attacks on
Chinese interests in Pakistan till September 2022. Growing negative public
perception about Chinese investments is seen as the key reason behind attacks
on Chinese nationals and other interests in Pakistan.
This year alone, four Chinese nationals have been killed in two different
incidents in Karachi. Earlier in July 2021, 13 people, including 9 Chinese
engineers were killed in a blast in a bus when they were travelling in Pakistan’s
western province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Even as dust on this massive blast
could not settle, Pakistan was rocked by an attack on Chinese nationals and
interests. On August 20, 2021, at least two children were killed and a Chinese
national was injured in a suicide attack in Gwadar.
In November 2018, four people were killed when Baloch Liberation Army
carried out a strike on the Chinese consulate. In August 2018, a suicide attack
was carried out on a bus carrying Chinese engineers in Dalbandin, a city that
lies in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Three Chinese engineers had suffered
grievous injuries in this attack.
In Nigeria, Chinese nationals and their business interests are coming under
increasing attacks from terrorist outfit Boko Haram and other militant groups.
Many security personnel were killed and some workers, including four Chinese
nationals were abducted when armed militants attacked a mining site at
AjataAboki village in Nigeria’s Shiroro area in June this year. Earlier in April last
year, two Chinese nationals were kidnapped last year when they were working
at a gold mine in southwestern Nigeria. In kidnapping for ransom acts of
criminals and militant groups in Nigeria, several incidents of abductions of
Chinese citizens, working in different projects, were reported last year.
Alarmed by the rise in incidents of kidnappings of Chinese nationals,
authorities in Beijing issued a travel advisory warning their citizens and
companies against travel to high-risk areas in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
It is in such a background, protection of overseas Chinese nationals and
interests has become a priority for Beijing. But how will the East Asian country
manage it—by deploying private security firms or serving PLA members — has
to be seen in the coming days. However, as per media reports, China has
already deployed private security firms to manage its assets in Cambodia.

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