What has China learned from Russia and Iran’s use of proxies?

What has China learned from Russia and Iran’s use of proxies?

Published in coordination with the 2024 Global Security Forum, of which Defense One is a media partner.

China has surely been watching as Russia and Iran have used non-state actors to pursue their strategic objectives in Ukraine, Gaza, and elsewhere. What lessons might Beijing have drawn, and how might we see them applied?

The Kremlin has cultivated a range of non-state actors to do its bidding. In Ukraine, Russia unleashed the Wagner Group, a private military company that was involved in some of the war’s bloodiest battles; the group, since rebranded as Africa Corps, has also been deployed to help “coup-proof” military juntas throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In the online world, the Kremlin has used troll farms such as the Internet Research Agency to sway elections and undermine foreign support for Kyiv.

Tehran, meanwhile, has used its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force to develop, support, and fund a broad network of militias and political factions across the Middle East—a so-called “Axis of Resistance” that includes Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi movement in Yemen, and various Shia militias in Iraq and Syria. Iran supplies these proxy outfits with sophisticated weaponry and provides hands-on training in how to employ drones, missiles, and other cutting-edge technologies. In return, Hezbollah’s rocket attacks have kept the Israel Defense Forces from being able to concentrate solely on fighting in Gaza, while the Houthis’ relentless attacks on commercial shipping have slowed regional economies and threaten to cause global effects.

Russia and Iran’s use of non-state actors has reduced international blowback as they pursue their geopolitical goals, but there are risks to the proxy model, too. Last June, an attempted mutiny by Wagner’s longtime leader Yevgeny Prigozhin saw mercenaries threaten the Kremlin directly. And in late January, an attack by the Shia militia group Kataib Hezbollah killed three U.S. troops in Jordan and injured dozens more—an attack that nearly precipitated a broader regional conflagration before Iran intervened to pressure its proxy groups to stand down.

One lesson that China has likely drawn is that it can be dangerous to allow private military contractors and proxies to grow too powerful or autonomous.

Since the 2010s, China has encouraged a growing industry of private military contractors, to protect burgeoning Chinese interests overseas, especially growing Belt and Road Initiative projects. Chinese PMCs differ from their Russian and Iranian counterparts: by law, they must have a majority government ownership, and most are unarmed. These contractors have been used for capacity building, security consulting, intelligence, and providing equipment to local security partners. They also protect and, in some cases, rescue Chinese nationals from conflict zones.

There is a recognized need for additional security to protect BRI infrastructure and personnel—a need that peacekeeping forces likely cannot fill. In March, seven Chinese nationals were killed in a terrorist attack in Pakistan. At the same time, Beijing is image-conscious and wants to avoid being labeled a “new colonial power,” thus making it unlikely that conventional Chinese military forces would be stationed in a foreign country to provide security. PMCs could play that role, but Chinese leader Xi Jinping and members of the CCP politburo are likely aware of the risks and benefits.

The fact that current PRC private military and security contractors must be principally state-owned illustrates Beijing’s fears of creating entities that could one day go rogue. At least in the near term, the CCP is unlikely to develop, support, and deploy an autonomous non-state actor like Wagner PMC. 

However, there are aspects of the Iranian model that could appear attractive to Beijing—namely, embedding military advisors with non-state actors in a manner similar to how the IRGC-QF operates and seeking political influence in the country of operations.

There is also the example of Russia’s “little green men” who helped Moscow take control of Crimea. The initial confusion over who these troops were meant that the U.S. and its NATO allies were delayed in formulating a response. By the time Washington, London, and Brussels figured out what was happening, it was too late. This type of fait accompli action could be something the Chinese consider in a potential scenario involving Taiwan.

The United States needs to gain a greater understanding of how China views proxies and PMCs and how Beijing may attempt to use them in the future, or it risks being unprepared. The U.S. was caught flat-footed before responding to the Wagner Group. When it comes to China, the stakes are even higher.

Mollie Saltskog is a research fellow at The Soufan Center.

Colin P. Clarke, Ph.D., is the director of research at The Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center. 

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