December 15, 2020 | Defending Forward Monograph

Countering Beijing’s Fused Overseas Strategy

December 15, 2020 | Defending Forward Monograph

Countering Beijing’s Fused Overseas Strategy

A growing chorus of voices in the United States advocates for a reduction in overseas posture, just as the CCP is doing the opposite. Across the world, the CCP is aggressively expanding its posture and power. While it does so through some traditional military means, much of the CCP’s forward positioning assumes a civilian and commercial character. Such positioning can appear benign or unrelated to military power. However, appearances can be deceiving. The CCP has become adept at integrating its military and civilian resources, tools, and influence, surreptitiously shifting the military balance in its favor.

Such integration is a function of the CCP’s strategy of “military-civil fusion” (MCF). Derived from a strategic appreciation of information technology’s role in the future of warfare, this strategy seeks an unimpeded flow of resources and information between military and civilian. In fact, MCF redefines the purpose of those two spheres. It leverages both commercial and military tools in the service of comprehensive national power. According to a People’s Republic of China (PRC) expert on the topic, “the military is for civilian use, the civilian is military, and the military and civilian are fused.”1 This concept is more than rhetorical: Beijing has institutionalized technological, information, and financing cooperation among its economic and military actors.2

MCF serves as a bridge between, for example, Huawei’s global 5G infrastructure or Beidou’s satellite navigation system and the PLA’s overseas deployments. MCF also assigns security implications to China’s leverage over critical global supply chains – including, for example, in rare earth elements. This “State-led, Enterprise-driven” model guides the incentives and operations of countless other Chinese commercial players. Those players establish positions of power in the global architecture that integrate with Beijing’s military footholds to project PRC power globally, in both the security and the commercial domains.

A rocket carrying a satellite for the Beidou Navigation Satellite System blasts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, June 23, 2020. (Photo by Xue Chen/Xinhua via Getty Images)

China’s MCF strategy demands that Washington and its allies assess Beijing’s military and commercial postures together. Doing so challenges assumptions about the global competitive balance and enduring U.S. strengths. Beijing competes asymmetrically and indirectly to erode U.S. military superiority. China cannot yet rival the U.S. system of overseas basing. However, China already enjoys a dominant position in international information infrastructure that may increasingly determine battlefield outcomes.

Beijing invests in global physical and virtual infrastructures: ports, railways, satellite networks, 5G networks, social media platforms, and internet standards, to name a few.3 These PRC assets could enable Beijing to monitor, impede, evict, or attack the U.S. military. Port investments might enable surveillance. Down the road, such investments could mature into naval bases. Space infrastructure can be weaponized. 5G networks might be used as a tool of espionage, sabotage, or network confrontation.

This risk is evident in China’s Djibouti investments. Djibouti is home to the PLA’s first overseas military installation.4 In early 2016, China’s Central Military Commission established an Office of Overseas Operations.5 The following November, General Fan Changlong, then-vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, visited the Djibouti outpost and declared that “the construction of overseas support facilities should strengthen overall coordination … and provide strong support for military forces to carry out overseas missions.”6 Beijing intends to protect its global economic interests by expanding the PLA’s overseas posture. Ultimately, the CCP intends to compete directly with the United States in international military deployments.

Telecommunications will be another important flashpoint to monitor. At a Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing in February 2018, the leadership of six U.S. intelligence agencies warned against equipment and services provided by Huawei and state-owned ZTE. FBI Director Chris Wray warned that the Chinese companies could “maliciously modify or steal information.”7 In May 2018, the Department of Defense prohibited Huawei and ZTE equipment on bases.8 And the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 introduced a government-wide ban on contractors using significant telecommunications components made by Huawei or ZTE. The pushback against China’s telecommunications continues in the United States and in allied and partner countries.9 Concerns consistently point to direct espionage risks, with Chinese companies sending sensitive data back to Beijing.

Considered in isolation, however, these cases tell an incomplete story. The full threat becomes visible when the Djibouti and Huawei stories are told together, in the context of MCF. Djibouti and other overseas bases and support points follow and amplify China’s commercial positioning. Some of this positioning is physical: The PLA’s presence in Djibouti builds on an infrastructure backbone provided by projects such as the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway built by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, operated by the China Railway Group, and financed by the EXIM Bank of China. But much of the positioning is also virtual, to include telecommunications, satellite networks, smart cities, and surveillance systems.

The Chinese actors developing those commercial footholds are directed by Beijing. Beidou, China’s space champion, and China Railway are state-owned. Huawei is ostensibly private, but CCP funding and monitoring guide it (and similar Chinese companies) toward strategic assets that Beijing deems important. There are no exceptions. All Chinese enterprises face a legal obligation to share data with the CCP.

Already, a global Beijing-controlled information architecture increasingly grants China the potential both to collect critical information and to shape the information environment.10 The MCF apparatus will continue to convert commercial levers into military ones to grant the CCP global military as well as economic control.

In his 2017 book China’s Role in the Future World, retired PLA Colonel and Beijing University Professor Wang Xiangsui wrote that “internet technology links the world economy and political system together. Space technology is similar. It holds the majority of strategic information and communication channels.” Control over information networks thus becomes, per Wang, “a critical means of weakening the United States.” If the United States can no longer utilize or rely on these networks, “it will lead to the end of the U.S.-led system… Therefore, in today’s world, the United States will not want to fight.”11

China does not aim to replicate the U.S. model of power projection. It organizes its military and commercial champions to work together to collect and shape global data and to hold U.S. information at risk, including in areas and domains that have previously been considered uncontested. Understood in that framework, Huawei is not just an espionage risk, but rather a contender for a global, military-relevant information backbone. Djibouti is not simply an indicator of what Beijing might want or become. Djibouti is one node in an already-developed web of installations able to generate, albeit asymmetrically, global coercive force. China’s so-called “String of Pearls” is not theoretical or limited to the Indian Ocean. China’s global power projection is real and growing.

The United States must now work with allies and partners to build consensus and respond to Beijing’s MCF strategy and activities. That means systematically sharing information about Beijing’s asymmetric approach, to create a common threat perception and to collectively expunge bad actors such as Huawei. It also means the United States and its partners must together develop trusted networks, capabilities, and supply chains to compete more effectively and deprive Beijing of MCF exploitation opportunities.

For the Pentagon, it means greater vigilance concerning ostensibly commercial positioning by the PRC that could impact security calculations. Finally, Washington should think twice before forfeiting forward-positioned military bases alongside allies that help secure U.S. interests and counter Beijing’s MCF campaign.


  1. Ma Qing Feng, “中国国防经济与国民经济同共促研究 [Research on the Synergy Between Defense Economy and National Economy],” Henan University, 2013.
  2. Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic, “How to Beat China’s Military-Civil Fusion,” The American Interest, June 22, 2020. (
  3. Elaine K. Dezenski, “Below the Belt and Road: Corruption and Illicit Dealings in China’s Global Infrastructure,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, March 6, 2020. (
  4. Xi Zhigang, “中国首个海外后勤基地落子吉布提 [China’s first overseas logistics base settles in Djibouti],” International Brand Observation, 2016, pages 22–25. (
  5. People’s Republic of China Ministry of Defense, “中央军委联合参谋部作战局成立海外行动处 [The Operation Bureau of the Joint Staff Headquarters of the Central Military Commission Establishes the Overseas Operations Office],” March 31, 2016. (
  6. “军委视察首个海外后勤保障设施 传递何种信号 [What Kind of Signal Does the Military Commission’s Inspection of the First Overseas Logistics Support Facility Send?],” Global Times (China), November 28, 2016. (
  7. James Vincent, “Don’t use Huawei phones, say heads of FBI, CIA, and NSA,” The Verge, February 14, 2018. (
  8. Shannon Liao, “The Pentagon bans Huawei and ZTE phones from retail stores on military bases,” The Verge, May 2, 2018. (
  9. Hadas Gold, “UK Bans Huawei from its 5G Network in Rapid About-Face,” CNN, July 14, 2020. (
  10. Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic, “Game of Phones: 5G and the US-China Standards Fight,” The Octavian Report, summer 2019. (
  11. Wang Xiangsui, 未来世界的中国地位 [China’s Role in the Future World] (Beijing: Changjiang New Century Culture Media Company, 2017).


China Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy