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Chinese Military Diplomacy, 2003–2016: Trends and Implications

By Kenneth Allen, Phillip C. Saunders, and John Chen China Strategic Perspectives 11

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July 17, 2017 — DOWNLOAD PDF

Excel file with data used in Chinese Military Diplomacy, 2003–2016.


China Perspectives 11Executive Summary

China is placing increasing emphasis on military diplomacy to advance its foreign policy objectives and shape its security environment. 

  • Military diplomacy is part of broader Chinese foreign policy efforts to create a favorable international image, develop soft power, and shape international discourse. Other objectives include shaping China’s security environment, collecting intelligence, and learning from advanced militaries. 
  • The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeks to forward strategic and operational goals through a variety of interactions with foreign military partners, including senior-level visits, security dialogues, nontraditional security cooperation, military exercises, functional exchanges, and port calls. 
  • Chinese security cooperation also includes arms sales (conducted by state-owned arms manufacturers), internal security assistance (provided by the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of Public Security), and advice on Internet censorship and control. 

Military diplomacy is subordinate to and intended to serve national foreign policy objectives, which determine the relative priority the PLA places on regions and individual countries. 

  • Military diplomacy is managed in a top-down manner, with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee dictating broad foreign policy goals and the Central Military Commission (CMC) determining specific activities for various parts of the PLA. 
  • The goal of building stronger bilateral relations with key partners means that the PLA must adapt its planned program of bilateral military activities to accommodate the preferences and constraints of its foreign partners. 
  • Efforts to shape the security environment can include concealing or downplaying specific military capabilities, highlighting the contributions a stronger PLA can make to regional and global security, and displaying capabilities to deter or intimidate potential adversaries. Since 2010, shaping efforts have placed greater emphasis on displaying capabilities rather than concealing them. 

Most PLA diplomatic activity consists of senior-level meetings carried out by the Defense Minister, the Chief of General Staff (now Chief of the Joint Staff), and the Deputy Chief of General Staff (now Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff) who handles foreign affairs and intelligence. 

  • Senior-level meetings accounted for 83 percent of Chinese military diplomatic activity from 2003 to 2016. China views these meetings as useful for building bilateral relations and providing high-level buy-in for a broader program of military-to-military activities. 
  • The number of meetings fluctuates in conjunction with the Chinese 5-year political cycle, with visits lowest in years when the CCP changes political and military leaders at a National Party Congress (2002, 2007, 2012). 
  • Since mid-2010, there has been a significant decline in overseas visits by top PLA leaders. This has been partially offset by the willingness of other countries to ignore protocol and visit China without reciprocal visits from their PLA counterparts. 
  • Most Chinese military diplomacy is bilateral, but the PLA now participates in a range of multilateral meetings, conferences, exercises, and competitions. 

The PLA engages in nontraditional security cooperation with a range of partners to demonstrate that a stronger PLA can play a positive regional security role. 

  • Most PLA bilateral and multilateral exercises, functional exchanges, and port calls are focused on humanitarian assistance/disaster relief and other nontraditional security activities. Some PLA assets, such as the Peace Ark hospital ship, are specifically devoted to these activities. 
  • Since late 2008, the PLA Navy (PLAN) has maintained a constant presence in the Gulf of Aden to conduct counterpiracy operations. The vessels have also conducted port calls, supported the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya and Yemen, and assisted in the disposal of Syrian chemical weapons. 
  • The PLA has participated in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations since 1990 and contributes more troops than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council. PLA participation has expanded from medical and engineering units to include an infantry battalion deployed to South Sudan in 2014. 
  • China has created a Peacekeeping Training Center near Beijing and has pledged to provide 8,000 troops to participate in a standing UN peacekeeping force. 

The PLA has begun to participate in more combat-related exercises and competitions with Russia and Central Asian countries. 

  • Since 2005, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Peace Mission exercises, nominally focused on counterterrorism, have included combat-related activities such as air defense, bombing, and aerial refueling. These are the only exercises where two or more PLA services conduct combined training with foreign partners. 
  • China’s bilateral exercises with Russia focus heavily on combat and combat-support activities. Since 2012, the two navies have conducted a series of exercises in the East China Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and South China Sea that signal their willingness to cooperate in strategically sensitive areas. 
  • The PLA Army and PLA Air Force have participated in multilateral military competitions hosted by Russia since 2014. This participation reflects growing confidence that the PLA can match international standards. 
  • The PLA has pushed to engage in “traditional” security cooperation with the U.S. military, but the United States has been reluctant to conduct exercises that might improve PLA combat capabilities. 

PLA military diplomacy is focused primarily on major powers such as Russia and the United States and on Asian countries on China’s periphery. 

  • China’s most frequent partners are Russia (4.8 percent of all interactions), the United States (4.4 percent), Pakistan (3.9 percent), Thailand (3 percent), and Australia (2.9 percent), all of whom participate in a full range of military diplomatic activities with the PLA. 
  • PLA military diplomacy places a strong emphasis on Asia, which accounts for 41 percent of all interactions. Southeast Asia (22 percent) and South Asia (9 percent) are higher priority subregions than Northeast Asia (4.8 percent) and Central Asia (5 percent). 
  • PLA interactions with U.S. treaty allies in Asia have increased since the 2011 U.S. rebalance to Asia and the ascent of Xi Jinping to power in 2012. The PLA has frequent military contacts and a strategic partnership with South Korea but rarely engages the Japanese military. 
  • The PLA conducts different activities with different partners, sending the most seniorlevel visits to Asia and Europe, conducting the most military exercises with Russia and SCO nations, and carrying out most of its port calls in the Middle East and Asia. 
  • The volume of Chinese military diplomatic activity with a particular country generally conforms to the hierarchical priority that the Chinese foreign policy apparatus has assigned to that country. 
  • China’s military interactions with countries under UN sanctions (such as North Korea and Iran before 2016) are limited and not highly publicized. 

Military diplomatic activity does not necessarily translate into influence, and many routine activities may not be significant. Activity may reflect the quality of bilateral relations rather than be a means of developing them. 

  • PLA military diplomacy typically emphasizes form over substance, top-down management, tight control of political messages, protection of information about PLA capabilities, and an aversion to binding security commitments. 
  • Much of China’s military diplomatic activity consists of formal exchanges of scripted talking points in meetings, occasional port calls, and simple scripted exercises focused on nontraditional security issues. 
  • Most PLA interlocutors are not empowered to negotiate or share their real views, which makes it difficult to build strong personal or institutional ties with foreign counterparts. 
  • Chinese military relations are also constrained by what activities their foreign counterparts are willing or able to conduct with the PLA. 

Military diplomacy can help establish communications and crisis management mechanisms with China and may also encourage Chinese adherence to international rules and norms. 

  • China’s participation in the Western Pacific Naval Symposium contributed to the PLAN’s eventual acceptance of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. 
  • China uses military diplomacy to build international support for its own preferred rules of behavior, including working with Russia to shape international rules for the space and cyber domains.

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