The Chinese Armed Forces and Non-Traditional Missions: A Growing Tool of Statecraft

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 4

Over the past decade, western militaries and governments have struggled with growing pressures to engage in and balance their responsibilities in “nation-building,” “peacekeeping operations” and other various non-combat tasks. At the same time, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been taking on an increasing number of such missions, described in the 2008 Defense White Paper as “Military Operations Other Than War” (MOOTWA).  For China, so-called ”nation-building” operations can include peacekeeping, anti-piracy efforts, environmental disasters and societal unrest, while the PLA missions can also include traditional warfighting under informatized conditions. The MOOTWA efforts serve as evidence of Beijing’s increasing use of its armed forces as an instrument of statecraft, to achieve fundamental national security objectives and to enhance a deeper Chinese presence around the world.  This enhanced role for its military helps the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership return China to a leading position in the international community.

As the People’s Republic of China (PRC) prepares for the sixtieth anniversary of its founding in October 2009, the armed forces are receiving increased guidance regarding their responsibilities and missions. The CCP has established two primary purposes for engaging in MOOTWA.  First, China’s civilian leadership is focused on governing the complex, challenging, and changing environment at home.  Second is a determination by the CCP to increase the PLA’s “meaningful”, active role in the world, and to increase international respect for the nation as a global leader commensurate with its historic role as the “Middle Kingdom.” Employing its military in non-traditional missions will demonstrate China’s increasing status as a global power, while also increasing the scope of the PLA’s portfolio of non-traditional military capabilities.  These accomplishments also serve to solidify the CCP’s political authority over the nation. This paper will explore several instances where the PLA has been assigned to non-traditional military missions, and the effects of those efforts on the CCP and on China.

Missions and Capabilities: Evolving China

The PLA’s priority mission remains the preservation of "national integrity," and it intends to do so both by preventing “splittist” efforts in Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet, and responding to threats to domestic stability. Yet The PLA continues to receive non-traditional tasks from its civilian command.  These operations have to-date been aimed at specific missions—such as protecting shipping in the North Arabian Sea—while raising the PLA’s (and by extension, the PRC’s) profile in the global community.

Twenty years ago, PLA’s limited capabilities would have made today’s deployments abroad difficult to accomplish.  In particular, the PLA Navy (PLAN) was a smaller, much less capable force, while the military’s ground component focused almost entirely on traditional continental threats [1]. Modernization of its forces was significantly enhanced by dramatically increased budget allocations to the military during this time period, especially since the civilian government directed the PLA to remove itself from the civilian commercial sector of the economy in 1998.

The PLA has since sought to redefine its role and increase its viability as an instrument of international statecraft, supported by central government revenues and resulting from a strategic paradigm designed by Beijing.  This apparent shift in national strategic priorities was reflected in annual double-digit increases in the PLA’s budget and in its dramatic modernization.  Hence, Beijing now has a viable military instrument for accomplishing the goals incumbent on a major world power.

Peacekeeping Deployments: Increasing Participation

The PRC has been reluctant to participate in peacekeeping actions since its founding; it preferred to maintain a position of extreme non-interference in other nations, a policy exemplified in the “Five Principles of Mutual Co-Existence” memorably stated by Premier Zhou Enlai at Bandung in 1955.  This position developed primarily in response to China’s experience during the so-called “Hundred Years of Humiliation,” a concept still active in Chinese security policy formulation, used to describe the period from approximately 1840 to 1949, when—in Mao Zedong’s term—China was ‘exploited’ and ‘attacked by imperialists.’

Exceptions to this general policy did occur in the last decade of the twentieth century, as China dispatched peacekeeping forces to Liberia (1993), the Sinai (1989), and Kampuchea (1991-92) under a United Nations (UN) aegis, but these deployments were few in number and limited in scope of effort, not exceeding five hundred men [2].  Many nations, including the United States, have long urged China to participate more actively in international peacekeeping missions when called for by the UN. China’s position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council has historically (and will continue to) lend strength to those requests, especially in the post-Cold War era with the increase in number of missions.  Beijing seems to have responded, if not directly to the international community, by relaxing rigid rules of non-interference.

During the past decade, China has taken [unprecedented] steps toward deploying military units to international observing, policing and engineering operations.  The PLA has been involved in peacekeeping operations around the world, with notable assignments to sub-Saharan Africa, where its presence in Sudan and Liberia reinforced its increase in investment and political involvement in the region.  Typically described as “soft power,” these engagements are more appropriately understood as a renewed appreciation in Beijing for the political uses of non-traditional military missions. An indication of China’s changing attitude was the establishment of a peacekeeping institute near Beijing in 2004.

Chinese peacekeepers have also been active in recent years (since 2004) in Haiti, where Ministry of Public Security forces were deployed to try to suppress domestic unrest and to aid the establishment of a stable civilian government. Chinese security forces—military and police units—were also assigned to Bosnia following the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, East Timor following its separation from Indonesia (2000), as well as Congo (2003) and Kosovo (2004) [3]. The absence of Chinese involvement in Iraq signaled Beijing’s disapproval of and apprehension about the U.S.-led military action in that country since 2003.

Anti-Piracy Efforts: A New Role Abroad

Piracy has been a longstanding problem in the South China Sea, particularly in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, and the Andaman Sea.  The threat posed by piracy flared from 2001 to 2003, and prompted littoral states like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia to collaborate on joint anti-piracy patrols and other extraordinary measures. Significant international support, particularly from the United States, Japan and Australia were evident in this campaign, but China’s absence from the efforts was noticeable.  The piracy problems in Southeast Asia have since been minimized as a result of these efforts (and in all likelihood, the improved economic conditions), but have become endemic in other areas including the Indian Ocean, the  coast of the Horn of Africa,  the Gulf of Aden, and in particular, the North Arabian Sea.

Strong evidence of Beijing’s apparent shift in the focus of armed forces’ missions can be found in the recent announcement that 2008 PLAN units were assigned to join the counter-piracy efforts undertaken by several nations in the troubled North Arabian Sea.  This MOOTW mission has not, however, superseded the PLAN’s more traditional emphasis on protecting the PRC sovereignty—especially with respect to preventing Taiwan’s de jure independence—but this high-profile mission is a testament that MOOTW has risen in importance in the PLAN’s operational portfolio.

The PLAN’s ability to participate in such a long-range mission—approximately 5,000 nautical miles (nm) from China—is evidence of the impressive modernization that its force has undergone over the past generation.  This is true in terms of the ships’ individual capabilities, the logistic support available, and the maturation of Chinese naval strategic thinking that has supported long-range deployment.  Three ships—two guided missile destroyers and a supporting oiler/logistics ship—began the counter-piracy mission in the North Arabian sea in January 2009 and by the end of that month had completed 15 self-described “missions” that include safely escorting merchant ships through the waters threatened by area pirates (Xinhua News Agency, January 20). These nascent efforts demonstrate the marked expansion of Chinese participation in international peacekeeping activities, which may be a sign of Beijing’s willingness to act as the “responsible stakeholder” urged on by U.S. policymakers.  Employing the PLAN in this MOOTW mission marks a new level of military and diplomatic sophistication in Chinese foreign policy.

The armed forces have also participated in addressing various natural disasters that have struck China in the past couple of years.  The military has been extensively engaged in assisting the civilian sector throughout the PRC’s history but its role has achieved new prominence with the expanded presence of technology projects throughout the nation.  The military was fully mobilized in 1998 to assist with ameliorating the effects of the drastic flooding that struck both the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers during that summer.

The CCP also employed PLA resources to combat the epidemic of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak that occurred in late 2002 and the first half of 2003.  Here again, the military’s infrastructure offered strong organizational support and the resources necessary to institute an effective quarantine of infected populations across the country that served an important role in preventing the further spread of the disease.  The PLA would certainly be called upon to serve a similar role in the event of an Avian Flu pandemic

Similar assistance was called for during the 2007 flooding along China’s southeastern coast, where the vast areas affected required the manpower and equipment available that only China’s large military can provide.  Additionally, the PLA was able to assist in controlling the public unrest and distress that accompanies such disasters.

The massive snowfall that paralyzed much of China in January through February of 2008 demanded that the PLA provide the forces—manpower and equipment—necessary to meet a non-traditional military mission in the civilian sector.  The unprecedented snowfall struck during the Lunar New Year holiday, and prevented millions of people from traveling on their only annual visit home; further, it occurred at a time when Beijing was beginning to invest heavily in improving the country’s markedly inadequate rail and road transportation networks, investments that still have not taken full effect.

Hence, the CCP grew increasingly concerned about the people’s mounting frustration and the potential chaos of having millions of stranded travelers see their opportunity for an annual visit home thwarted.  The PLA mobilized approximately 224,000 troops and more than one million militia personnel to deal with the effects of the inclement weather [4]. The military scored major accomplishments enhancing transportation opportunities, rescuing stranded travelers from train and bus stations, and perhaps most importantly, demonstrating to China’s citizens its willingness and ability to help avert further disaster and to prevent the societal chaos so feared by both the government and people of the nation.

An even more poignant demonstration of the evolving PLA role followed the disastrous earthquake that struck Sichuan Province in May 2008.  The physical damage that resulted was so severe that the PLA and its subsidiary militia and People’s Armed Police (PAP) forces faced major difficulties simply reaching the affected area, and then faced mammoth tasks shifting through the damaged buildings and succoring millions of affected civilians.  This initial rescue phase was extensive and complex, requiring a relatively disciplined military force.

Despite extensive offers from the international community, including the United States, Beijing rejected most foreign assistance, believing that the PLA was capable of dealing with the effects of the disaster.  These efforts took several weeks and included extensive PLA participation in clearing damaged property and reconstructing the affected areas.
This year, the PLA has already been called upon to assist in combating growing drought conditions in Jiangsu, Henan, and other north central provinces [5].  The military will be providing engineering expertise and labor forces as part of an effort to redirect water from the Yellow River into crucial agricultural areas starved of water.  The PLA offers the nation the engineering expertise needed for immediate action to ease a serious and deteriorating situation.

The Olympics as MOOTW

During the summer of 2008, the PLA played a massive role in the maintenance of the CCP’s choke-hold on China’s dissidents during the run-up to and conduct of the Olympics in Beijing.  This may be categorized as a non-traditional military mission in much of the world, but is a long assigned task of China’s military forces.  The PLA did, however, play an important role in ensuring a problem-free, secure international event.  The games did take place with the precision and outward peace that the CCP needed to provide proof that China had returned to its self-declared status as the world’s "Middle Kingdom."  

China’s 2008 Defense White Paper

Publication of this iteration of the biannual defense white paper provided Beijing with the opportunity to reemphasize the PLA’s role in non-traditional military activities, underlining the military’s dedication to “the People.”  The white paper makes direct reference to several MOOTW missions, including responses to natural disasters and emergency relief, as outlined in the 2005 Regulations on the Participation of the People’s Liberation Army in Emergency Rescue and Disaster Relief, noting that in 2007 and 2008 the PLA and the PAP had deployed more than 600,000 troops and similar numbers of vehicles, while more than a million militia and reserve personnel had been called to active duty to cope with 130 crises [6].

China’s 2008 Defense White Paper also refers to the importance of the PLA in “participating in and supporting national construction” to highlight the “building of a new countryside,” while also engaging in vital scientific, technical, cultural, health, and educational work.  These tasks include constructing schools and hospitals, as well as assisting civilian authorities in campaigns to reduce poverty and strengthen the sinews of civilian societal cohesion.


The PLA has demonstrably increased its capabilities to execute non-traditional military missions as a core element in the dramatic modernization it has undertaken during the past decade.  While this modernization still aims primarily at improving traditional military capabilities, the military’s ability to participate productively in MOOTW missions—and hence further to strengthen CCP rule in China—has undoubtedly increased, as well.

The civilian government, which seems more confident than in previous years of an eventual, peaceful resolution of Taiwan’s status, will certainly continue to employ the PLA in non-traditional military roles.  The CCP’s determination to remain in power while raising China’s position in the international community will include both traditional and non-traditional reliance on the PLA as the “party’s army.”

[The author thanks LTC (ret.) Dennis Blasko and Dr. Bud Cole for comments on prior drafts.  The views presented here are purely personal and do no represent those of any U.S. Government Agency.]


1. Conversation with Dr. B.D. Cole, author of pending second edition, The Great Wall at Sea (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010 publication).
2. Bates Gill and James Reilly, “Sovereignty, Intervention, and peacekeeping:the view from Beijing”, Survival, 42:3 (autumn 2000): 41-59,
3. Yin He, “The Peacekeeping Dragon is on safari”,, 8 February 2008, and Bates Gill and Chin-hao Huang, “China’s expanding peacekeeping role”, SIPRI Update, January 2009
4. Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, China’s National Defense in 2008 (Beijing, January 2009): 55
5. “China’s armed forces join battle against devastating drought”,, 9 February 2009
6. 2008 White Paper: 55.
7. Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, China’s National Defense in 2008 (Beijing, January 2009): 55.