Assessing the Growing PLA Air Force Foreign Relations Program

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 9

PLAAF Commander Xu Qiliang with Foreign Military Students in China

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) foreign relations program is an increasingly important component of the PLA’s overall foreign relations program. As part of China’s overall program, it gradually has expanded from merely exchanging delegations to conducting combined exercises with individual countries and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In 2001, the PLAAF CommandCollege created a program for foreign officers that, since 2009, includes PLAAF officers. In addition, the PLAAF has begun to perform military operations other than war (MOOTW) abroad to support national goals. This article addresses how the PLA interacts with the international community and then discusses the ways in which the PLAAF implements its foreign relations program with a focus at the end on PLAAF relations with the U.S. Air Force (USAF).

How the PLA Interacts with the International Community

The PLA interacts with the international community and foreign militaries through a number of channels. Actual PLA military diplomacy includes, but is not limited to, the following activities:

·        Strategic security dialogues;

·        The exchange of military attaché offices and the establishment of embassy/consulate websites;

·        The establishment of a Ministry of National Defense Information Office and spokesman system;

·        High-level military exchanges;

·        Functional and educational military exchanges;

·        PLA Navy port calls;

·        Combined exercises with foreign militaries;

·        The opening of military exercises and operational units to foreign observers;

·        Peace-keeping, anti-piracy and MOOTW;

·        Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) [1].

Air Force Attachés

According to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force 2010, China has established military ties with more than 150 countries since the early 1980s. This expanding program reflects a corresponding increase in PLA military attachés assigned abroad and foreign military attachés assigned to Beijing. Currently, China has 109 military attaché offices in its embassies abroad, and 98 foreign countries have military attachés in China. Note, however, almost all of the PLA’s attachés are Army officers. As of early 2009, only nine countries had permanent Air Force attaché billets in Beijing, and China had PLAAF attaché billets in only the United States and United Kingdom. Therefore, the PLAAF has little interaction on a daily basis with most foreign air forces, but it is expanding its education program for foreign military officers as discussed below.

High-Level Exchanges

Overall, the number of high-level exchanges has not increased over the past decade. Historically, the PLAAF commander has traveled abroad only once per year to one to three countries. His delegation usually consists of about 5-10 people, including personnel from PLAAF Headquarters and Military Region Air Force (MRAF) headquarters. According to PLAAF 2010, from 1979-2009, commanders visited 34 different countries, including several countries more than once (Pakistan 8 times and Turkey 6 times). In July 2010, General Xu Qiliang visited Germany and Britain and, in May 2011, he visited France (Chinese Embassy in France, May 27, 2011; Xinhua, July 9, 2010). In comparison, the USAF Chief of Staff (CSAF), General Norman Schwartz, traveled abroad during nine months of 2011 to multiple countries [2].  Currently, the PLAAF commander hosts about five counterparts each year. In November 2009, Xu met with several Air Force delegations that attended the 60th Anniversary of the PLAAF (PLA Daily, November 6, 2009). In November 2010, Xu visited the Zhuhai Airshow, where he met with Air Force leaders from seven countries (PLA Daily, November 17, 2010).

Meanwhile, the political commissar (PC) has averaged one trip every two years since 1996 and had visited 16 different countries through 2009, including Russia three times, Cuba twice, and finally Switzerland this March (Chinese Embassy in Switzerland, March 8). He has  yet to visit any other Asian countries (PLAAF 2010).

Several senior PLAAF officers have also had the opportunity to participate in high-level delegation visits abroad led by other senior PLA officers. For example, in July 2006, one of the PLAAF’s deputy commanders, Lieutenant General Liu Chengjun, accompanied Central Military Commission (CMC) Vice Chairman General Guo Boxiong to the United States (China Daily, July 17, 2006). In October 2009, PLAAF General Ma Xiaotian, who had been one of the Deputy Chiefs of the General Staff (DCGSs) since 2007, accompanied CMC Vice Chairman General Xu Caihou to the United States (PLA Daily, October 26, 2009).

Their participation often presages promotion. According to PLAAF 2010, as a PLAAF deputy commander, Lieutenant General Liu Shunyao accompanied Defense Minister General Chi Haotian to the United States in November 1996 and was appointed the PLAAF commander the following month. In September 1998, Deputy PC, Lieutenant General Qiao Qingchen, accompanied Vice Chairman of the CMC General Zhang Wannian to the United States. In December, he became the PLAAF PC and later the commander. When the current PLAAF commander, General Xu Qiliang, was a DCGS from 2004 to 2007, he led delegations to Romania, France, Finland, Australia and Tajikistan.

Functional Exchanges

The PLAAF has been sending delegations abroad led by senior colonels or major generals since the late 1980s that include discussions on personnel, training, logistics and maintenance issues.

Since the media generally covers only high-level PLAAF visits, little information is available about the types and total number of functional exchanges. A few articles, however, provide a glimpse at the program. In January 2007, PLA Daily reported “In recent years, the PLAAF organized a total of 13 groups of senior- and mid-level officers to visit other countries. It also received air force delegations from 43 foreign countries” (January 8, 2007). Unfortunately, no figures are available for the exchanges since that time.

These visits offer most PLAAF officers their only chance to travel abroad. PLAAF functional delegations visit the host country’s air force headquarters, academic institutions and operational units, where they receive briefings, ask questions, view equipment and sometimes see live demonstrations. In July 2003, Senior Colonel Guo Chengliang, who was the Director of the PLAAF’s Military Affairs Department, led a delegation to France to discuss pilot recruitment and noncommissioned officer (NCO) selection. His delegation visited eight organizations, including the Air Force Schools Command, 721st Base, 217th Base and personnel center (PLAAF 2010).

From 2002 through 2010, the PLAAF’s monthly journal, China Air Force, published about 20 articles written by PLAAF delegation members who visited foreign countries or by officers who studied abroad including France, Italy, Pakistan, Britain, Australia and Russia. The delegations visited flight schools and operational units, where they focused on pilot recruitment, education and training, including simulators. The articles noted that pilots visited France in 2004 and 2011 and flew in the back seat of a Mirage-2000 (China Air Force, 2011-5, pp. 42–43; 2004-5, pp. 16–17; 2006-1, p. 70; 2005-2, p 27). In June 2011, another pilot visited Norway, Finland and Sweden, where he flew in a Swedish L-39 trainer (China Air Force, 2012-1, pp. 71–73).

Educational Exchanges

The PLAAF CommandCollege forms the foundation for educational exchanges, including sending students and faculty abroad and hosting foreign officers. These exchanges are rapidly expanding to allow PLAAF officers, including pilots, to interact on a wider range of issues with foreign air forces.

Each year, a PLAAF deputy chief of staff leads students from the college’s Campaign Command Course abroad for two weeks to allow them to gain first-hand knowledge of foreign air forces. For example, about 30 students visited the United States in July 1998; 41 students visited Australia and New Zealand in June 1999; and 58 students, including 8 major generals, visited India in November 2003 (PLA Daily, November 4, 2003) [3]. The college also has sent faculty members abroad to several countries, including Russia and Italy, to study for one to three years. Other PLAAF officers have studied in military colleges in Britain, Russia, Pakistan, Italy and France (China Air Force, 2007-4, p. 17; 2004-5 pp. 16–17; 2003-5, pp. 19–20).

In 2001, the college began providing training for foreign field-grade officers. To date, more than 600 Air Force officers from 75 countries have attended (China Air Force, 2010-3, pp. 30–33; China News Service, September 25, 2011; China Air Force, 2010-3, pp. 30–33). The courses began with students from only one country, one language or one specialty at a time, but that model was replaced in 2009, whereby students from multiple countries, languages and specialties attend together. The new model also included PLAAF students, including pilots, for the first time (Global Times, January 16, 2010). It was reported that 21 foreign students including 11 pilots came from 12 countries—such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, Uganda, Nigeria, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Singapore and Tanzania—attended one course. Each PLAAF officer was paired with a foreign counterpart during the course, and they all spoke English.

From September 2011 to January 2012, the college held a course that included foreign and PLAAF pilots with a focus on tactics, combat methods and simulated training. Besides six PLAAF pilots, a total of 69 officers, including several pilots, from 41 countries participated. The countries included Venezuela, the Philippines, Pakistan, Chile, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. During the training, the pilots simulated various tactics and techniques, including close-in engagements as well as reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance (China News Service, September 25, 2011).

Finally, the college also offers longer courses for foreign students. On July 15, 2005, 88 students from 25 countries graduated from a one-year course with an unidentified curriculum (Air Force News, July 19, 2005).

Combined Exercises

Since the mid-2000s, the PLAAF increasingly has become involved in combined exercises with foreign air forces. These exercises have allowed the PLAAF to do the following: demonstrate its improving capabilities to the international community, observe and learn from foreign militaries in an operational environment and serve as a vehicle for building trust and solidifying security cooperation with select countries.

The combined exercises can be divided into two categories: those with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and those with individual, non-SCO countries. The following bullets provide a brief overview of the key exercises to date (China Air Force, 2010-11, p. 11-26; Xinhua, March 6, 2011; China Radio International, July 19, 2011; Xinhua, October 16, 2010; Hurriyet Daily News, October 11, 2010). All of the deployments have been supported by IL-76 transports, and some of them have involved aerial and/or ground refueling en route.

       Peace Mission 2007: JH-7s and Airborne forces to Russia;

       Peace Mission 2010: H-6s, escorted by J-10s, flew into and out of Kazakhstan, where they dropped bombs;

       Turkey (Anatolian Eagle 2010):  Su-27s;

       Pakistan (Shaheen 2011): J-11s;

       Belorussia (2011): Airborne forces.

Shaheen 2011 was conducted in six steps, including “intelligence and information exchange, long range maneuver, establishment of a joint command structure, adaptability training, comprehensive training and theoretical discussions” (PLA Daily, November 15, 2011). It should be noted, however, that all of these exercises are highly scripted and the PLAAF trains on the individual components of each exercise for months in advance.


Although the PLAAF always has conducted domestic disaster relief operations, such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, it did not begin conducting large-scale international HA/DR efforts until 2011 in response to CMC Chairman Hu Jintao’s four Historic Missions initiated in 2004. In February to March 2011, the PLAAF sent IL-76s to evacuate Chinese civilians from Libya. Altogether, the aircraft flew 1,655 Chinese from Libya to Khartoum, Sudan, and then brought 287 back to China. In September 2011, four IL-76s took supplies to Pakistan following severe flooding and, in October 2011, three IL-76s took supplies to Thailand following flooding there (Xinhua, March 5, 2011; China Daily, March 5, 2011; March 2, 2011).

Sino-U.S. Military Relations

Since the United States and China initiated military exchanges in the 1980s, the relationship has had its highs and lows. Each side has certain core issues that have affected a more robust relationship. The U.S. side consistently cites a lack of reciprocity (places visited and issues discussed) and transparency (personnel, order of battle and doctrine) [4]. Since 2000, the PLA has focused on “building trust” and the “three obstacles”: Arms sales to Taiwan, reconnaissance missions near China’s border and Congressional restrictions imposed in 2000 (Xinhua, May 12, 2011).

PLAAF-USAF Relations

The PLAAF and USAF have only a limited military relationship. Concerning the three types of exchanges, although Xu Qiliang planned to visit the United States in 2008, the trip was cancelled because of the Sichuan earthquake. As a result, the last PLAAF commander and CSAF visits were 1995 and 1998, respectively [5]. The last high-level exchanges occurred in 2007 and 2008 when the U.S. Pacific Air Force commander General Paul Hester and Nanjing MRAF commander Major General Jiang Jianzeng, respectively, exchanged visits (Air Force Times, December 11, 2008) [6]. While there have not been any functional exchanges for several years, the 13th Air Force commander Lieutenant General Hawk Carlisle did attend the PLAAF’s 60th Anniversary in 2009 (, November 12, 2009).

Meanwhile, other U.S. military leaders, such as Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs General Peter Pace and Admiral Michael Mullen, visited PLAAF units in 2007 and 2001, respectively. In addition, Chief Master Sergeant James Roy, who was serving as the Senior Enlisted Leader at U.S. Pacific Command, led the first and only enlisted force delegation to China in 2008 [7].

The only active component today involves educational exchanges. Whereas the last visit to the United States by PLAAF Command College students was in 2007, the USAF War College has sent students to China every year since 2005 except for 2009 and 2010 because of the Taiwan arms sales issue [8]. The delegations have visited PLAAF Headquarters, colleges and operational units [9]. Of note, although USAF officers have attended the PLA National Defense University’s foreign officer program, none have participated in the PLAAF CommandCollege’s foreign student program. Additionally, the U.S. Air Force Academy sends students to China for various programs on an annual basis and has hosted PLAAF cadets (PLAAF 2010).


Over the past decade, the PLAAF has expanded its relationship with current and future air force leaders and pilots, including high-level visits, functional exchanges, combined exercises and educational programs. These exchanges allow the PLAAF to evaluate itself and to identify how foreign air forces, including the USAF’s friends and allies, operate. Meanwhile, the relationship with the USAF has stagnated. In order for the PLAAF-USAF relationship to move forward and prosper, it must include a wide variety of exchanges at all levels, which allow for a true reciprocal relationship to be formed and sustained.


  1. Heidi Holz and Kenneth Allen, “Military Exchanges with Chinese Characteristics: The People’s Liberation Army Experience with Military Relations,” in Roy Kamphausen, David Lai and Andrew Scobell, eds., The PLA at Home and Abroad: Assessing the Operational Capabilities of China’s Military, Strategic Studies Institute, Army War College Press, June 2010.
  2. Correspondence with CSAF Office of Staff Integration in March 2012.
  3. World Military Yearbook, Beijing, PLA Press, November 2000, p. 706
  4. Shirley A. Kan, U.S.-China Military Contacts: Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service, February 10, 2012.
  5. Interviews with USAF and PLAAF officials.
  6. Kan, U.S.-China Military Contacts.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Correspondence with Professor Zhang Xiaoming at the USAF Air WarCollege.