BEIJING - China is close to approving a law that will create a legal framework for sending troops abroad on counter-terrorism missions, as Beijing seeks to address the vulnerability of the country's growing global commercial and diplomatic interests.
Experts said Article 76 of the draft anti-terrorism law would allay concerns among the military elite about the lack of a formal mechanism for carrying out such operations, as well as mark a shift in foreign policy thinking and military doctrine.
The article is a small part of a draft law chiefly aimed at combating terrorism at home that was made public in November. It has undergone a second review by a parliamentary committee, and is likely to be adopted in the coming weeks or months.
China has rarely been the target of terrorist acts overseas but it has vast energy interests, construction projects and mines in unstable parts of the world, including the Middle East and Africa.
The risk to those projects was highlighted in 2011 when the government evacuated thousands of Chinese workers from Libya during the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. Some Chinese operations have also generated local hostility over issues such as the use of imported Chinese labour and the exploitation of natural resources.
Article 76 would authorise the military, as well as state and public security personnel, to conduct counterterrorism operations abroad with the approval of the "relevant country".
While the draft gives few details, experts said the law could initially allow military or state security counter-terrorism experts to work abroad either as part of actual investigations or in a training capacity.
"It shows a legitimate evolution in Chinese thinking on counterterrorism efforts," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow who researches counterterrorism at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington.
"Whether the law allows for cross-border counterterrorism missions is sure to have an impact on military preparations and, ultimately, doctrine."
Security operations by China abroad are not unprecedented. China sent gunboats down the Mekong River in cooperation with Thailand, Myanmar and Laos in 2011 to combat drug running in the Golden Triangle while its navy has conducted numerous anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa.
Shen Dingli, a security expert at Shanghai's Fudan University, said the law was also intended to quell any concerns that China would take unilateral military action as its global security footprint expands.
"Having a law shows we want to address other's concerns. There is fear that if (cross-border security operations) become more frequent, other countries will worry," Shen said.