Early Warning Brief: The PLA’s Military Diplomacy Under COVID-19

Publication: China Brief Volume: 21 Issue: 13

Image: A screenshot from state media shows the supply ship Dongpinghu (Hull 960) from the PLAN’s 36th ETF to the Gulf of Aden conducting in-port replenishment at the Port of Djibouti in December 2020. Official reports emphasized that the supplies were purchased through domestic channels and transported under rigorous sterilization, inspection and quarantine measures due to the ongoing pandemic. (Source: China Military Online).

Introduction

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been responsible for conducting military diplomacy since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. In the 1950s, military cooperation was limited almost entirely to other communist nations and insurgent movements in Southeast Asia. In the late 1970s, the scope and tenor of China’s foreign military cooperation changed with the shift to commercial arms sales, attempts to gain some influence in Eastern Europe, and improvement in relations with the United States (U.S.) and Western Europe. By the 1980s, China had also developed close military ties with Egypt, Tanzania, Sudan, Somalia, Zaire, and Zambia in Africa. The change reflected China’s desire to counter Soviet influence, especially in Europe, as well as to develop relations with modern armed forces. Chinese military ties with Western European countries were strongest with Britain, France, and Italy. Chinese military relations with the U.S. developed rapidly in the 1980s and included exchanges of high-level military officials and working-level delegations in training, logistics, and education, as well as four foreign military sales (FMS) projects.[1]

At first, these ties were mostly driven by the Army; the PLA Navy (PLAN) did not make its first foreign port call until 1985, when it visited Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.[2] Its first port call visit to the U.S. (Hawaii) was in 1989. Since 2008, the PLAN has deployed 38 escort task forces (ETF) to the Gulf of Aden. Until COVID-19, each ETF averaged 4-6 months at sea from the time they departed until they returned and spent an average of three months conducting their Gulf of Aden escort duties (China Military Online (CMO), June 9; CGTN, January 17). They then conducted port calls on the way home. However, since COVID-19 began, none have conducted port calls. The PLA began conducting bilateral and multilateral “combined exercises” with other countries in 2002,[3] and it first became involved in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO) in 1990, when it sent five military observers to the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) (State Council Information Office (SCIO), April 16, 2013). By the end of 2020, China had become the largest provider of peacekeepers among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (China Brief, October 30, 2020).

Military Diplomacy Objectives and Activities

The PRC has the following four military diplomacy objectives:

  1. Supporting PRC diplomacy
  2. Shaping the security environment
  3. Collecting intelligence
  4. Learning new skills, tactics, and procedures.

The PRC conducts its military diplomacy through the following six categories:

  1. Senior-level visits
  2. Dialogues
  3. Naval port calls
  4. Military exercises
  5. Functional exchanges
  6. Non-traditional security operations.

Activities Under COVID-19

Following the World Health Organization (WHO)’s classification of COVID-19 as a global pandemic in March 2020 (WHO, March 11, 2020), the PLA has continued to engage in each category of military diplomacy, but the amount and types of engagements have decreased in some cases.

Senior-level Visits

The Chinese military views high-level visits as an important aspect of military diplomacy, and senior PLA leaders devote a significant amount of time to interacting with foreign counterparts.  However, senior-level meetings and visits are subject to the constraints and unique characteristics of the PLA. Generally, all senior PLA leaders aside from the Defense Minister and the Central Military Commission’s (CMC) Chief of the Joint Staff (former Chief of the General Staff) are limited to one trip abroad per year by regulation, although not every leader takes advantage of the opportunity and exceptions sometimes occur.[4] Senior PLA leaders rarely, if ever, visit the same country twice except to attend multilateral meetings, and rarely, if ever, host the same foreign military leader twice. The Defense Minister does not necessarily host or meet with all of his foreign counterparts, who are often hosted by one of the CMC Vice Chairmen. Since COVID-19 began, the Defense Minister has been the only senior leader to travel abroad, and no senior PLA leaders have hosted any counterparts.

From 2001-2018, travel by four successive Defense Ministers increased as they attended various Defense Ministers’ meetings, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) annual Defense Ministers’ Conferences; the China-ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting; and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting–Plus (ADMM+). Chinese Defense Ministers typically visit two or three other countries for bilateral talks before or after each multilateral meeting. Since March 2020, General Wei Fenghe (维凤和)—who became Defense Minister since 2018 and a Member of the CMC in 2017—has traveled abroad only three times for meetings with the presidents and military leaders of eight countries, as shown in the following bullet points. Each visit included discussions about PLA involvement in providing COVID-19 supplies. Although the Defense Minister usually hosts over 10 counterparts each year, no information was found concerning Wei hosting any counterparts since the start of the pandemic.

  • September 9-12, 2020: Indonesia (CMO, September 9, 2020) and the Philippines (CMO, September 13, 2020),
  • March 25-30, 2021: Hungary (CMO, March 25), Serbia (CMO, March 27), Greece (CMO, March 30), and North Macedonia (CMO, March 31),
  • April 23-27, 2021: Vietnam (CMO, April 26) and Bangladesh (CMO, April 27).

Wei has also had phone conversations with the following counterparts:

  • May 9, 2020: Russia and Cambodia (separate calls) (CMO, May 9, 2020),
  • May 13, 2020: Republic of Korea (CMO, May 13, 2020),
  • August 7, 2020: United States (Xinhua, August 7, 2020).

Dialogues

The following dialogues were held during 2020 and 2021:

  • In July 2020, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Senior Officials’ Meeting Plus and the ASEAN Regional Forum Security Policy Conference (ASPC) held video conferences, and Chinese military’s representatives participated in the video conferences in Beijing (CMO, July 30, 2020).
  • In December 2020, the Xiangshan Forum, which is linked to the PLA’s Academy of Military Science (AMS), held its 10th Forum in person and by video link.[5] The theme was “Trends of Major Power Relations” with a focus on predictions about China-U.S. relations (CMO, December 1, 2020, December 2, 2020, December 3, 2020).
  • In December 2020, the 11th China-European Union (EU) defense and security policy dialogue was held via video link. The dialogue was co-chaired by heads of the Office for International Military Cooperation of China’s Central Military Commission and the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy and Crisis Response at the European External Action Service (CMO, December 11, 2020).
  • In January 2021, China and India held the 9th round of China-India Corps Commander Level Meeting on the Chinese side of the Moldo-Chushul border meeting point, where the two sides agreed to push for an early disengagement of frontline troops (CMO, January 25).[6]
  • In February 2021, China and Japan held the 12th round of high-level consultations on maritime affairs via video link. They reached a consensus on maritime search cooperation between the China Maritime Search and Rescue Center and the Japan Coast Guard, combating maritime crimes and promoting exchanges between law enforcement officers (CMO, February 4).
  • In April 2021, the PLA and its Vietnam counterparts held the 6th China-Vietnam Border Defense Friendship Exchange and the 10th Defense and Defense and Security Consultation (CMO, April 25, April 23).

Naval Port Calls

Since the PLAN began sending ETFs to the Gulf of Aden in 2008, each task force had at least one port call on their way home.[7] However, no information was found about port calls by any of the three ETFs (34th to 36th) that have left the Gulf of Aden since early 2020.[8]

Military Exercises

The PLA has held multiple bilateral and multilateral exercises since the early 2000s, which are also used to build partner capacity. Bilateral exercises have included the Sino-Pakistani Shaheen (Xiongying/Eagle) Air Force exercise series and multilateral exercises have included the roughly biennial “Peace Mission” exercises held with SCO nations that are intended to build partner counter-terrorism capabilities. No information was found concerning any SCO exercises since March 2020. However, the PLA has been involved in the following exercises:

  • From August 23 to September 5, 2020, the PLA Army (PLAA) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) participated in the International Army Games (IAG) 2020 in Russia (CMO, July 30, 2020, August 5, 2020, August 11, 2020). The PLAA troops participated in five competitions, namely the “Tank Biathlon,” “Safe Environment,” “Masters of Armored Vehicles,” “Army Scout Masters,” and the “Open Water” competitions, while the PLAAF’s airborne troops took part in the “Airborne Platoon” competition. There were 31 competitions for IAG 2020, of which Tank Biathlon was considered the highlight. This was the seventh time since 2014 that the PLAA’s armored force participated in the competition. It has won second place three times. The 2020 contestants were assigned to a brigade under the PLA 78th Group Army in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province.
  • In December 2020, the PLAAF participated in the ninth Shaheen combined exercise in Pakistan (CMO, December 8, 2020). The first exercise took place in 2011 and since then has taken place every other year in China.[9] The eighth exercise in 2019 was hosted by China and involved 50 aircraft.
  • Although no information was found concerning actual port calls by any of the three ETFs that have left the Gulf of Aden since early 2020, the 36th ETF did participate in the multinational exercise AMAN-21, aka Peace-21, in the waters off Karachi, Pakistan, on its way home in mid-February 2021. The exercise, which also included Pakistan, Russia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom, involved vessels and aircraft that carried out various drills, including formation maneuver, maritime search and rescue, helicopter formation flying, underway replenishment, anti-piracy, and live-firing at sea. The exercise concluded with a fleet review at sea (CMO, February 18). The ETF then conducted an eight-hour naval drill with Singapore’s Navy off Singapore’s coast while en route home. This mainly involved such subjects as communications, formation movement, and joint search and rescue (CMO, February 26).

Of note, no PLA Rocket Force (formerly the Second Artillery Force) units have ever participated in any international exercises.

Functional Exchanges

Functional exchanges are professional exchanges between PLA and foreign military personnel, including academic and educational exchanges. No information was found for any exchanges in this category since March 2020; however, the PLA has rarely reported this type of activity.

Non-Traditional Security Operations

Non-traditional security operations include a wide variety of military activities that assist foreign partners or provide public goods to the international community. These include non-combatant evacuations; UN peacekeeping operations (UNPKO); humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts and anti-piracy operations. The PLA continues to be involved in each of these categories.

The PLA first became involved in UNPKO in 1990, when it sent five military observers to the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) (SCIO, April 16, 2013). In September 2020, the PRC published its first “White Paper on U.N. Peacekeeping Operations” (Xinhua, September 18, 2020). According to the white paper, China has been the largest provider of peacekeepers among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, having had 40,000 peacekeepers assigned to more than 30 missions since the beginning.[10] The China-U.N. Peace and Development Fund has provided $67.7 million for 80 projects related to peacekeeping operations since President Xi Jinping announced the fund in 2015. According to U.N. statistics, China had 2,408 troops assigned to UNPKO missions as of April 30 (UN Peacekeeping, accessed June 10). For comparison purposes, the U.S. had only 33 people assigned as of August 31, 2020 (UN Peacekeeping, August 31, 2020); however, the U.S. is the single largest financial contributor to UNPKO, providing 27.89 percent of the total budget. China, which is the second largest contributor, funded 15.22 percent of the UNPKO budget (Fas.org, February 26).

The PLA’s involvement in providing COVID-19 relief supplies to foreign countries has also been recognized. According to the China military analyst Meia Nouwens, “Publicly available data shows that COVID-19 military diplomacy began in March 2020, when the PLA sent protective equipment and clothing to Iran. In February 2021, the PLA began to donate COVID-19 vaccines to overseas militaries. The PLA’s initial vaccine assistance to 13 countries globally fit within a wider vaccine-centric diplomatic effort by the Chinese government. Between March 2020 and April 2021, the PLA provided military medical assistance or donations to 56 countries around the world, and a UNPKO mission. In all but two cases, the PLA’s medical diplomatic activities were directed at countries belonging to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Geographically, the PLA has mostly engaged with countries in the Asia–Pacific and Africa. The focus on the BRI and South–South diplomacy also reflects China’s wider diplomatic narrative and foreign policy objectives” (IISS, May 10).

The PRC Ministry of National Defense’s website has published more than 70 articles since March 2020 identifying each country that has received Chinese COVID-19 vaccines and supplies. A typical article states, in full, “For the implementation of President Xi Jinping’s important declaration on making China’s COVID-19 vaccine a global public good, with the approval of the CMC and at the request of the military of Country X, a batch of COVID-19 vaccines assisted by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was delivered to the military of Country X on Date Y” (CMO, May 17). Vaccine delivery appears to have varied between a mix of PRC civil aircraft, PLAAF transport aircraft, and foreign civil and military aircraft.[11] For example, in April 2020, a Bangladesh Air Force transport aircraft carried the medical aids from China in Dhaka, Bangladesh (CMO, April 20, 2020), and a Russian military aircraft carried medical supplies and experts to Russia (CMO, April 14, 2020). According to one article, “Approved by China’s CMC and at the request of armed forces of relevant countries, the PLA dispatched Air Force planes from June 2 to June 5, 2020, to deliver COVID-19 prevention and control supplies including protective clothing and surgical face masks to the armed forces of 20 counties, including Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tunisia, Angola, Egypt, Morocco, Tanzania, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Cameroon, Rwanda, Argentina, Laos, Cambodia, Saudi Arabia, and Bangladesh” (CMO, June 5, 2020).

Finally, in May 2021, two salvage vessels assigned to the PLAN’s Southern Theater Command Navy and one vessel assigned to the Chinese Academy of Sciences assisted in the recovery of a wrecked Indonesian submarine (CMO, May 19).

Conclusion

The PLA has continued to be actively engaged in military diplomacy since the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed in March 2020. Although the Defense Minister has traveled abroad three times, it does not appear that he has hosted any counterparts. He will most likely begin to host some counterparts as the COVID-19 challenge decreases. No other PLA leaders have traveled abroad or hosted counterparts since the pandemic began. The PLAN has continued to deploy its ETFs to the Gulf of Aden on the normal cycle, but no vessels have apparently conducted any port calls on the way home even though one ETF did conduct some drills with other countries on the way home. The PLAA, PLAN, and PLAAF have continued to be engaged in bilateral and multilateral exercises and may increase their participation as the COVID-19 challenge decreases. Finally, the PLA has become actively involved in providing COVID-19 relief supplies to multiple countries, especially those along the BRI. The PRC and PLA have and will continue to be involved in UNPKO.

Kenneth W. Allen is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, whose extensive service abroad includes a tour in China as the Assistant Air Attaché. He has written numerous articles on Chinese military affairs, the PLA’s organizational structure, and the PLA Air Force.

Notes

[1] For more on the PLA’s military diplomacy see: Kenneth W. Allen and Eric A. McVadon, China’s Foreign Military Relations, (Washington, D.C.: The Henry L. Stimson Center, October 1999).

[2] See: Kenneth W. Allen, Phillip C. Saunders, and John Chen, Chinese Military Diplomacy, 2003-2016, (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University, Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), China Strategic Perspectives 11, July 2017). Heidi Holz and Kenneth W. 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. (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, June 2010).

[3] Note that the international community uses the term “combined” for bilateral and multilateral exchanges, while the PLA uses the term “joint”.

[4] Although Chinese official media uses the terms Minister of National Defense and Defense Minister interchangeably, this article sticks to the title Defense Minister.

[5] The Xiangshan Forum is co-sponsored by the China Institute for International Studies (a Foreign Ministry think tank) and the China Association for Military Science (a nominally independent association headed by the President of the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences).

[6] This meeting is just one representative instance of high-level military talks between China and India, but the two sides have conducted occasional meetings during COVID-19, particularly after the outbreak of violence in Galwan valley in June 2020. The 21st meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs took place on March 12 (MEA.gov.in, March 12), and the 11th round of post-Galwan Senior Commander talks took place on the Indian side of the Moldo-Chushul meeting point on April 9 (South China Morning Post, April 12).

[7] See: Allen, Saunders and Chen, Chinese Military Diplomacy, 2003-2016, July 2017; and Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Antipiracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden, (U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Red Book Number 10, November 2013).

[8] The ETF changeovers took place as follows: 34th to 35th May 2020, 35th to 36th September 2020, and 36th to 37th February 2021. The 38th ETF departed home on 16 May 2021. See: Chen Lufan, ed., “38th Chinese naval escort taskforce sets sail from Zhoushan,” China Military Online, May 16, 2021, http://eng.mod.gov.cn/focus/2021-05/16/content_4885533.htm.

[9] See: Kenneth W. Allen and Cristina L. Garafola, 70 Years of the PLA Air Force, Chapters 4 and 6, (Montgomery, AL: China Aerospace Studies Institute, 4 May 2021).

[10] China became the largest provider among the Perm Five starting in 2005. Dennis Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, (London: Routledge, 2006), 178.

[11] For an example, one article shows Ethiopian civil aircraft unloading the supplies from China. https://www.rfi.fr/en/international/20200323-china-africa-coronavirus-alibaba-health-medical-equipment