Chinese Private Military Companies Shaping Beijing’s Security Landscape

For over a decade, China has been using its own private military companies (PMCs) to guard its facilities abroad, preferring to use them rather than relying on protection from local firms or other countries. China has always done so without much fanfare, but officials typically deny that PMCs play a role beyond defending Chinese interests. This approach has led Western analysts to stress the limited and defensive nature of Chinese PMCs in contrast to the larger and more strategic actions of Russian and American PMCs.

A recent meeting in Beijing in December 2023 highlighted the broader role for Chinese PMCs in taking on a more assertive posture globally. Speakers declared that China has no choice but to deploy even more PMCs around the world, as there are currently over 47,000 Chinese companies employing 4.1 million people, including 1.6 million Chinese citizens, in 190 countries. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) published a programmatic discussion of Chinese PMCs, suggesting that Beijing plans to expand its use of PMCs to pursue broader political goals.

China’s public stance suggests it can now more openly use PMCs due to its growing global power and the declining influence of Russia and the US. This suggests that Chinese officials will deploy these entities more frequently and broadly than in the past, allowing Beijing to defend its infrastructure on foreign soil and put additional political pressure on other countries.

China’s use of PMCs has gained attention in Central Asian countries, which may become targets for Beijing’s broader use. Moscow is closely monitoring these entities, as it has seen them as allies and helpmates in the past. The Kremlin must now confront the possibility that these Chinese entities may become competitors or active opponents to Russian PMCs. China’s recent activities and reactions are the result of developments over the past five years, with mission creep focusing on protecting economic interests and increasing involvement in political issues.

This has raised concerns among outside powers about China’s increased willingness to flaunt its growing power. The US reaction has been limited so far, but it is expected to intensify in the coming weeks due to rising tensions between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, concerns that Chinese PMCs may threaten American partners, and growing interest in how Chinese assertiveness may undermine Beijing’s cooperation with Moscow.

The role of Chinese PMCs is likely to expand rapidly in Central Asia and Africa, where some governments are weak. Given the breadth of Chinese involvement globally, Beijing may use its PMCs in similar ways elsewhere, whenever it senses weakness on the part of host governments or their Western supporters.

Russian observers and Western specialists have previously believed that China would cautiously use PMCs for political goals, but they are now considering the possibility that such actions could benefit Moscow by causing chaos. This perspective contrasts with Russia, whose leaders have become embroiled in numerous troubles due to overreach in places like Afghanistan and Ukraine.

However, recent statements from China regarding PMCs and Beijing’s actions suggest that China has decided to change course and use PMCs in ways experts only a few years ago thought would happen in the distant future. If this is the case, Chinese PMCs with names few in the West may soon displace Russia’s Wagner Group as primary geopolitical concern. The public nature of Beijing’s actions suggests that this is highly likely, and these entities may prove even more dangerous than Russian PMCs, especially because the rise and expanded use of Chinese PMCs has often been downplayed until now.

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