PLA Freezes out Pentagon, Sustains Military-to-Military Relations with U.S. Allies

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 7

At the conclusion of French President Emmanuel Macron’s April 5-7 state visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the two sides released a joint statement laying out 51 priorities for “opening new prospects in bilateral relations” and “fostering momentum in China-EU relations” (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs [FMPRC], April 7). While much of the joint statement focuses on deepening economic ties, strengthening cultural exchanges and enhancing cooperation on transnational challenges such as climate change, the document also addresses global security issues and bilateral military-to-military relations. The section on “jointly promoting world security and stability” lists eight shared priorities, including, strengthening the UN Security Council, preventing nuclear conflict, supporting non-proliferation regimes, restoring peace in Ukraine and promoting a diplomatic resolution of the Iran nuclear issue. Although  the statement does not explicitly mention the PRC’s recently launched Global Security Initiative (GSI), the points made therein echo many of its key organizing principles and lend weight to General Secretary Xi Jinping’s efforts to position the PRC as a leader in international security affairs (China Brief, March 3). In addition to reaffirming both sides’ willingness to promote the “continuous development” of the China-France strategic partnership, the joint statement also notes that both sides have “agreed to deepen exchanges on strategic issues,” with a specific emphasis on enhancing dialogue between the “People’s Liberation Army [PLA] Southern Theater Command and the French Armed Forces in the Pacific, in order to strengthen mutual understanding on international and regional security issues” (FMPRC, April 7).

In his role as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Xi has emphasized the importance of military diplomacy as a key element of China’s overall foreign policy. According to recent congressional testimony by the director of the U.S. National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, Philip Saunders, high-level delegation visits, dialogues and other military-to-military exchanges advance both the operational and strategic aims of PLA diplomacy (, January 26) Strategically, high-level exchanges with foreign militaries support overall Chinese foreign policy and the PRC’s efforts to foster a favorable international security environment. Operationally, such interactions provide opportunities for intelligence gathering on both friendly and rival militaries. Indeed, throughout Xi’s tenure, many of the PLA’s senior-level visits, dialogues and international academic exchanges have occurred with the militaries of the U.S. and its NATO and Indo-Pacific allies. [1] However, as geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China have escalated, Beijing has responded to perceived U.S. provocations, in particular Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August and the spy balloon crisis in early February, by halting established military dialogue mechanisms and greatly curtailing US-China military communication.

While Beijing has sought to condition the resumption of military-to-military dialogue based on changes in U.S. behavior, Washington remains eager to reopen communication mechanisms without preconditions (NetEase, March 9). For example, following his November meeting with then Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin “emphasized the need to responsibly manage competition and maintain open lines of communication” and stressed the importance of “substantive dialogue” focused on “reducing strategic risk, improving crisis communications, and enhancing operational safety” (, November 22, 2022). Over the first quarter of 2023, however, U.S.-China military-to-military relations have been curtailed, even as the PLA continues or even deepens its engagement with the militaries of U.S. allies in Europe and Asia. Such a situation presents a dilemma for the U.S. On the one hand, allies and partners share and can reinforce U.S. concerns over China’s increasingly assertive behavior in Asia and beyond. On the other hand, if Beijing continues to freeze military diplomacy with the U.S., while sustaining or even expanding military-to-military engagement with other NATO countries and U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific region, this could widen the threat perception gap on China between Washington and some U.S. allies, particularly in Europe, that the PRC is not so much a military rival but an economic competitor-cum-security partner. If such perceptions become further engrained, this could weaken the unity and resolve of the U.S. and its allies to deal with China as a military challenge and strategic competitor.

U.S.-China Military-to-Military Relations on the Rocks

After U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last August, Beijing issued eight “countermeasures” (反制措施) against the U.S., which included canceling phone calls between military commanders as well as U.S.-China Defense Policy Coordination Talk and Military Maritime Consultative Agreement Mechanism meetings. Notably, the five non-military countermeasures taken were described as “suspending” (暂停) efforts to address transnational challenges, including counter-narcotics cooperation and climate change talks, which implies these discussions could resume at some point (FMPRC, August 5, 2022). By contrast, the PRC announced it was “canceling” (取消)the military dialogues. According to a PLA international relations researcher familiar with U.S.-China defense talks, the “cancellation” of military talks indicates there “is no possibility to get them resumed” (China Daily, August 7, 2022). Nevertheless, limited high-level U.S.-China military-to-military interaction still occurred following these cancellations. Last November, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with then PRC Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus in Cambodia (PRC Ministry of National Defense (MND), November 22, 2022).

Any momentum toward restoring high-level military-to-military communications dissipated earlier this year as a result of the scandal surrounding the PLA surveillance balloon that overflew North America before being downed off the coast of South Carolina by the U.S. Air Force on February 4 (China Brief, February 13). According to MND spokesperson Tan Kefei, the “U.S. side proposed a call between the defense chiefs of both countries” to discuss the spy balloon situation, but Beijing rejected the offer to talk and castigated the U.S. “use of force” against the airship, which “violates international law and sets a bad precedent” (MND, February 9). While diplomatic contact between Washington and Beijing has resumed in the two and a half months since the spy balloon incident, military-to-military channels of communication remain largely closed off. In a recent interview, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner acknowledged the deep freeze: “Some of our working-level dialogues that are meant to manage the [political-military] part of this, our [Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China] Michael Chase’s dialogues as well as some of the operational dialogues INDOPACOM holds with the [PLA], they have turned all of that off for now. And we think that’s destabilizing and dangerous, and we think we both ought to be doing a better job of managing” (Breaking Defense, March 2).

The recent curtailment in U.S.-China military-to-military engagement has not been paralleled by a reduction in the PLA’s interactions with the U.S.’s NATO or Asian allies. As one popular Chinese military blog notes, in February, the PLA sent a delegation to Brussels for consultations with the European Union and to visit NATO headquarters, which shows that PLA diplomacy is no longer focused on reflexively opposing NATO, but rather seeks to divide the U.S. from the other NATO countries (NetEase, March 9; Sohu, February 27).

Military-to-Military Engagement with U.S. Allies Continues

In February, China and Japan held their first security dialogue in four years. The meeting was hosted in Toyko with the Chinese side represented by Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong and Deputy Director of the Central Military Commission Office for International Military Cooperation (OIMC) Zhang Baoqun (Guancha, February 23). As Kenneth W. Allen and Chad Sbragia explain, the OIMC is the lead CMC organization responsible for foreign military exchange and cooperation and the overall management and coordination of the PLA’s foreign affairs (China Brief, November 18, 2022). A month after the China-Japan security dialogue, the two sides announced the completion of a direct telephone link as part of the air and maritime liaison mechanisms. The PRC MND stated that the establishment of a direct link will strengthen bilateral “defense communication channels, enhance the capabilities of both sides to manage and control maritime and air crises and help to maintain regional peace and stability” (CCTV, March 31).

In March, the PRC Ministry of National Defense and the Australian Department of Defense convened the eighth defense coordination dialogue, discussing mutual areas of concern and holding consultations on promoting practical exchanges and cooperation between the two militaries (China Military Online, March 22). In February, the European Union and China held their 13th annual consultations on security and defense, chaired by the European External Action Service’s Managing Director for Common Security and Defense Policy and the Deputy Director of the OIMC (European External Action Service, February 22). As noted, China and France have agreed, in their joint statement, to intensify strategic dialogue and military-to-military exchange. The China-France Defense Strategy Consultation, which is organized by the CMC’s Joint Staff Department on the Chinese side and last convened virtually for its 16th iteration in January 2022, will likely serve as a channel for continued high-level military-to-military engagement between Beijing and Paris  (MND, January 13, 2022).


In spite of an intensifying U.S.-China strategic rivalry, the U.S. and China sustained extensive military-to-military interaction up until very recently. Military-to-military exchange has greatly atrophied over the past year, with the Chinese side ignoring U.S. offers to resume dialogue and unilaterally closing off long-standing dialogue mechanisms. At the same time that the PLA has frozen out the U.S. military, it has sustained or sought to reinvigorate military-to-military exchanges with key U.S. allies such as France, Australia and Japan. As Washington seeks to resume its own regular military-to-military communications with Beijing, it must nevertheless also be aware of the PRC’s efforts to use military diplomacy as part of its broader efforts to sow division between the U.S. and its allies in Europe and Asia.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at:


[1] For a detailed breakdown of recent PLA senior-level military diplomacy, see Kenneth W. Allen, “The PLA’s Military Diplomacy in Advance of the 20th Party Congress (Part One),China Brief, September 9, 2022.