The Belt, the Road and the PLA

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 20

General Zhu Chenghu has argued that the PLA already has all the necessary capabilities to go abroad and protect the OBOR, but that diplomatic constraints related to the creation of military bases abroad prevent the Chinese armed forces from going global. (Image Source: Chinese Internet)

During his speech addressing the United Nations General Assembly in late September, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China will take the lead in the creation of an 8,000-strong standby force for peacekeeping operations (FMPRC, September 29). Such a commitment will help cement Chinese military involvement in Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW).

These missions and other similar operations are what Sun Degang, Deputy Director of the Shanghai International Studies University’s Middle East Studies Institute, has called a “soft military presence” (柔性军事存在), meaning a limited deployment of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units abroad, and mainly for peacekeeping and antipiracy operations. [1] Strongly echoing the interpretation of MOOTW provided by Chinese military academic texts, the goal of Sun’s “soft military presence” is to both defend China’s overseas interests and provide public goods to the international community. [2] Such operations and, importantly, presence, may pave the way for the PLA’s involvement in one of the biggest economic and political policies of Xi Jinping’s administration: the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.

Four professors at China’s National Defense University (NDU) have laid out the case for Chinese military involvement in the OBOR. The first is the PLA Air Force Major General Qiao Liang (, May 7), already famous for his unconventional arguments in the book Unrestricted Warfare (超限战争). [3] The second is the PLA Major General Zhu Chenghu, who has also declared that China should be aware that the OBOR has raised concerns in both the United States and Russia (Takungpao, May 13; Takungbao, May 24). The third is PLA Major General Ji Minkui that in his declarations usually places great emphasis on the importance for China to be more self-confident and whose position can be considered as moderate (, October 4). The fourth is PLA Navy Colonel Liang Fang, generally considered a hardliner, who is known for pushing for China to become a stronger sea power (National Defense Reference, February 11; National Defense Reference, March 10). However, it should be acknowledged that there are limitations on what can be gained from such commentators, given that most of them are trained to speak in accordance with propaganda/policy imperatives (China Brief, July 25, 2013). This is particularly the case with General Qiao. Discussions of OBOR differ from those related more directly to challenges that China faces in Asia or territorial disputes, avoiding much of the inflammatory and heavily politicized rhetoric that characterizes commentary on these issues.

By contrast, when it comes to extra-Asian issues, such as the One Belt One Road initiative, the views expressed by Chinese military and non-military commentators are usually much more cautious and objective. Moreover, it is interesting to see that, despite starting from the same basic assumption—the PLA should have a role in guaranteeing the protection of the OBOR—these professors reach a large variety of conclusions by exploring different issues. They touch on issues such as the PLA’s image abroad and apparent inconsistency between the capabilities the PLA has and the threats it has to deal with. Such heterogeneity is further indicative that their declarations are not likely to be part of the propaganda machine work; rather, they offer insights into the debate within the Chinese military about the future development of the PLA.

Can the PLA Protect the OBOR?

Though these four scholars support the idea that the PLA should protect Chinese interests along the One Belt and One Road, they disagree about whether the PLA is capable of doing so. While Qiao argues that the PLA does not have the necessary capabilities, on both land and sea, to defend Chinese overseas interests, Ji and Fang generally stress the importance of strengthening the PLA’s fighting capabilities. Zhu, alone argues that the PLA already has all the necessary capabilities to go abroad and protect the OBOR, but that diplomatic constraints related to the creation of military bases abroad prevent the Chinese armed forces from going global. In a major departure from his colleagues, he mentions the use of private military companies as a potential solution. Nevertheless, he himself admits that Chinese laws do not allow private citizens to buy and carry guns and that in some countries foreigners are not allowed to do so as well. Zhu’s words are mirrored on the ground by the arrangement found by Chinese oil companies in Iraq which hire a mix of Western, local and Chinese guards and assign them different tasks according to their capabilities (Global Times, June 23, 2014).

Land Power or Sea Power?

Regarding the question of how the PLA should allocate resources, Fang and Qiao offer insight into the debate between sea and land power advocates. The fact that Fang is a Naval officer is likely to be a major determinant in Fang’s decision to focus on the development of the PLA Navy (China Brief, March 19. Indeed, she calls for a stronger Navy able to protect the sea lines of communication, national sovereignty and China’s maritime interests. According to Liang, the future PLA Navy should be actively involved in military diplomacy with other countries to increase China’s diplomatic clout and should boast one or more aircraft carriers supported by a network of bases overseas.

Qiao Liang argues that the Chinese Navy, whose ability to project power in the Pacific and beyond is limited by the dominance of the United States Navy. China must instead look to developing its land power. He levels harsh criticism against those, like Liang, who want the PLA sailing aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean and ignore the fact that the PLA Navy cannot realistically prevent the U.S. Navy from blockading China. Qiao argues that the Silk Road Economic Belt, rather than the Maritime Silk Road is where the PLA should be present, either to support a friendly governments to restore stability or to directly protect Chinese citizens and assets. With the seas dominated by the U.S. Navy, he argues, this is the moment to improve the PLA land forces’ airlift capabilities and step up interservice cooperation with the Air Force (CASS, April 11). Moreover, his comments suggest that the Chinese armed forces should become more agile and more mobile by following the example of Western militaries that no longer emphasize the use of heavy tanks.

Supplementing these arguments, Ji Minkui has argued that the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) should have a larger role in the implementation of the OBOR as a platform for security and economic cooperation (, December 16, 2014). In this sense, the numerous and various joint military exercises held by China, Russia and the other SCO members in recent years show a growing degree of coordination and interoperability especially between the Chinese and Russian armed forces (China Brief, February 20).

Does China Need Overseas Military Bases?

There is a general consensus that China has to develop a network of places where Chinese armed forces can rely on to extend their operational range. However, there is a certain degree of disagreement about how to build such a network in the face of different kinds of constraints and for different uses.

Liang and Zhu clearly state that overseas bases are essential to the future development of the PLA and protection of Chinese interests abroad. However, Zhu goes straight to the core of the problem by pointing out that two main elements still impede such a development. First, other countries do not see the PLA operating abroad positively. An example of the kind of alarmist kind of reaction that the association of the PLA with the OBOR might create can be found in the comment of an Indian scholar that, rather emphatically, stated that China is planning to cover its “iron fist” with a “silk glove” (Project Syndicate, March 4). Another PLA Officer, Liu Nanfei, however has argued that operations such as the evacuation of Chinese and foreign nationals from Yemen are extremely beneficial for the image of the PLA abroad (China National Defense News, April 14). Since it is expected that the number of Chinese citizens and companies abroad will grow along the implementation of the OBOR, the PLA will consequently have more opportunities to present itself as a force for the good. Second, Zhu argues that even if China succeeded in signing an agreement with a friendly foreign government, there is the risk that after new elections a new head of state might decide to break the contract. Both concerns are not new and Zhu’s words simply describe them through the lens of the PLA. Still, while the problem about the spread of the “China threat theory” has been debated for decades within Chinese foreign policy circles, the political risks associated to the investments that China has been making and is going to make are a newer issue more closely related to the OBOR itself. The doubts about the success of Chinese investments in Colombo’s logistic infrastructures—one of the places where it has been speculated for many years that China was going to establish an informal foothold for its Navy—are revealing in this regard.

Qiao’s argument implicitly suggests that some kind of logistic arrangement with other countries would be needed by the PLA in the case of operations abroad. However, transporting troops by air, as he suggests, would be much easier and cheaper in economic and diplomatic terms compared to the creation of outposts for the Navy. Indeed, during the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya in 2011 four PLAAF Ilyushin II-76 flew from Diwopu International Airport in Urumqi off to Libya stopping in Khartoum and Karachi (The China Post, March 1, 2011). [4]

What Kind of Threats Must the PLA Defend the OBOR from?

Ji Mengkui has stated that that the PLA should possess the capabilities to win wars under the conditions of informatization and to address non-traditional security threat. Qiao Liang does not specify what kind of enemy the PLA should deal with, but counterinsurgency and peacekeeping are clearly among the increasingly important tasks of the PLA. Indeed, his words about either supporting friendly government or direct intervention imply that instability is the main threat to Chinese citizens and assets abroad. Moreover, his criticism of the development of heavy battle tanks, by mentioning the Soviet loss of many tanks during the war in Afghanistan, reveals the fact that he does not see the PLA fighting against other conventional armed forces in the future. Rather, against non-conventional forces. Liang’s emphasis on sea lines of communication and the whole logic of her piece mirror Chinese anxiety about the possible intervention of the U.S. Navy and, secondarily, about the threats of piracy. The importance attached by the National Defense University scholars to addressing non-traditional security threats as the PLA goes global confirms the findings of recent studies done by some Western experts, such as Oriana S. Mastro, Jonas Parello-Plesner and Mathieu Duchâtel. [5] They argue the Chinese armed forces are expanding their projection capabilities at the global level mainly to protect Chinese citizens and assets from natural disasters and political instability, and provide a limited amount of public goods through peacekeeping and disaster relief operations.


Overall, it is evident that the PLA pays great attention to the One Belt One Road. This is particularly true with regards to the balance between sea and land power, between traditional and non-traditional security issues, and the conditions under which the PLA is allowed to operate abroad. More research is needed in each of these areas. Still, in light of the aforementioned debate among PLA affiliated scholars, it is possible to see that the relationship between the protection of Chinese overseas interests and the use of the PLA in time of peace is growing stronger. For example, Qiao clearly states that the PLA operations abroad will not be aggressive and, implicitly, will require the consent of the host country. However, there are several challenges that must be overcome first. The growth of overseas deployments has led to several improvements in the PLA, from better equipment for the soldiers, to a growing focus on airlift and stronger logistic backup for the PLA Navy (PRC Ministry of Defense, January 4; China Brief, October 2). Nevertheless, past negative assessments made by the PLA Daily concerning the PLA’s power projection capabilities still holds true (PLA Daily, April 13, 2006).

Additionally, Zhu’s concern about how to ensure that changes in the political landscape in a foreign country will not affect the stability of a potential PLA base overseas is just the tip of the iceberg. Other military scholars and commentators have indeed made clear that more work is necessary to establish a clear legal framework for the PLA operations abroad (PLA Daily, March 10). [6] Finally, the most interesting element that emerges from the virtual discussion presented here is the mix of simultaneous interservice cooperation and competition that is at the foundation of the future development of the Chinese armed forces. Colonel Liang, a Navy officer, naturally argues in favor of a stronger PLA Navy and her position reflects the fact that it seems that the Navy has gained the upper hand over the Air Force and the Army in terms of influence in the Chinese foreign policy-making process and budget allocation. However, the “struggle” is clearly not over and the implementation of the OBOR initiative will likely push for deeper reforms in all the PLA services.

Andrea Ghiselli is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs of Fudan University, and a non-resident Research Assistant for the Torino World Affairs Institute (T.wai), Italy. His research areas mainly include the PLA’s approach to Missions Other Than War (MOOTW) and China-Middle East relations.


1. Sun Degang, “论新时期中国在中东的柔性军事存在” (About the new era of Chinese soft military presence in the Middle East), World Economics and Politics, No.8 (2014), pp.4–29.

2. Zheng S. (ed.), 非战争军事行动教程 (Military Operations Other Than War Teaching Material), (Beijing: Academy of Military Science, 2013); Shou X. and Xu J. (eds.), 军队应对非传统安全威胁研究 (Study of Military Response to Non-Traditional Security Threats), (Beijing: Academy of Military Science, 2009).

3. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare, (Beijing: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, 1999).

4. Ma, Yang, Lu and Liao (eds), 国家行动:利比亚大撤离 (National action: The Great Evacuation from Libya), (Beijing: People’s Daily Press, 2011), pp.27–29.

5. Oriana S. Mastro, The National Interest, December 18, 2014; Parello-Plesner J. and Duchâtel M., China’s Strong Arm: Protecting Citizens and Assets Abroad, (New York: Routledge, 2015).

6. Liu Y., and Wang Y., “海外非战争军事行动中军地合作的研究进展” (The developments of the studies related to the civil-military cooperation in MOOTW abroad), Theory Research, No.15 (2014), pp.13–14.