The PLA’s Military Diplomacy in Advance of the 20th Party Congress (Part Two)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 18

Members of the PLA Navy wave farewell to their Russian counterparts during the closing ceremony of the International Army Games (IAG) 2022, Sea Cup contest near Qingdao in August (Source: CMO)

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a two-part series on PLA military diplomacy. The first article focused on leader-level engagement. This piece examines specific areas of activity in the PLA’s military diplomacy. For part one, click here

Despite some limitations, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) military diplomacy activities have continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (China Brief, July 21, 2021). In addition to senior-level engagement and strategic dialogue, PLA military diplomacy entails specific operational, training, educational or humanitarian engagements with foreign partners. These activities, which are the focus of this article, include carrying out non-traditional security operations; conducting bilateral and multilateral joint exercises; undertaking academic exchanges; and providing humanitarian and disaster relief, including medical aid. In carrying out military diplomacy, the PLA’s self-proclaimed objectives are to deepen ties with foreign militaries and defense establishments; safeguard China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, development and all-around interests; contribute to building a world-class military; and promote a positive international image of China as a contributor to global peace and security (PLA Daily, June 16).

Providing COVID-19 Relief Supplies Abroad

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the PLA has provided dozens of countries with COVID-19 relief supplies, including Chinese-produced vaccines (China Brief, June 21, 2021). A PLA spokesperson noted at the National People’s Congress in March that by providing medical assistance to other countries grappling with the pandemic, the PRC was acting as both a responsible international leader and reciprocating other nations’ assistance and well wishes during China’s time of need (China Military Online [CMO], March 10):

“When China was at the height of fighting the pandemic, the defense departments and militaries of many foreign countries lent a helping hand to China. The defense and military leaders of more than 20 countries, including Pakistan, Belarus and Cambodia, sent letters of support, and the defense and military authorities of countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Mongolia, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia donated anti-pandemic emergency supplies and funds. Besides, the military attachés of foreign embassies in Beijing as well as foreign students in China all expressed their support and best wishes through videos and letters. Furthermore, to implement Chinese President Xi Jinping’s important declaration on making China’s COVID-19 vaccines a global public good, the Chinese military has so far provided vaccine aid to the militaries of more than 30 countries, including Pakistan, Cambodia, Mongolia, Equatorial Guinea, Tunisia, Lebanon, Hungary, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Bolivia. [1] It has also carried out anti-pandemic cooperation with the militaries of over 50 countries, in the form of providing anti-pandemic supplies, sending military medical expert teams, and holding experience-sharing video meetings. By fulfilling its international obligations and providing public security products during the pandemic, the Chinese military’s pragmatic measures have been highly recognized and widely welcomed by the international community.”

Several countries, such as Pakistan received batches of supplies over a two-year period. Based on photos from multiple articles, it appears that PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) Y-20 transport aircraft flew most of the supplies to other countries (CMO, June 5). However, some aid was delivered by civilian aircraft and PLAAF Y-9 transports, while some countries, such as Pakistan, sent their own military aircraft to retrieve supplies in China (PRC Ministry of National Defense [MND], April 7, 2021; CMO, February 9, 2021; MND, April 26, 2020)

PLA Navy Gulf of Aden Escort Task Forces

Since 2008, the PLA Navy (PLAN) has deployed 41 rotating, three-ship, counter-piracy escort task force (ETF) formations to the Gulf of Aden. Each ETF is deployed for about six months, including serving for about three months in the Gulf of Aden and then conducting port calls and training events on the way home. For example, the 36th ETF, which consisted of a guided-missile destroyer, a missile frigate and a comprehensive supply ship, departed Qingdao on March 5, 2020, participated in the multinational naval exercise “Peace 21” off of Pakistan in February 2021 and then conducted a joint naval drill with Singapore while enroute home. After 184 days, it arrived home on March 8, 2021(CMO, March 8, 2021; Xinhuanet, February 11. 2021). On September 26, 2021, the 39th ETF, which consisted of the guided-missile destroyer Urumqi, the guided-missile frigate Yantai, and the comprehensive supply ship Taihu, departed the Northern Theater Command Navy’s port at Qingdao, Shandong Province (CMO, March 9).China, Russia, and Iran held their second joint maritime exercise in the Gulf of Oman from January 18 to 20, 2022 (MND, January 20). The PLAN vessels included the Urumqi and Taihu from the 39th ETF. The task force returned home in early March. During the 165 day mission, which covered about 90,000 nautical miles, the ETF escorted 28 batches of 48 Chinese and foreign ships. Once the 40th ETF arrived in late January, the 39th ETF participated in two separate joint training exercises, but it does not appear to have made any port calls on the way home. The first exercise from January18-20 involved the naval forces of China, Iran, and Russia, which undertook their second joint maritime exercise in the Gulf of Oman (MND, January 20). China dispatched a guided-missile destroyer, a supply ship, ship-borne helicopters and 40 marines to  the exercise. On January 24, the PLAN and Russian Navy held a joint maritime anti-piracy exercise in the northern Arabian Sea (MND, January 25). A total of five naval vessels, ship-borne helicopters and marines from the two sides participated in the exercise, which focused on joint anti-piracy operations. The participating ship formations conducted drills on joint maneuvering, rescuing hijacked ships, and airlift evacuation of the wounded.

On January 15, the 40th ETF comprising the guided-missile destroyer Hohhot, guided-missile frigate Yueyang and comprehensive supply ship Luomahu, departed the Southern Theater Command Navy’s port in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province, carrying two shipborne helicopters and more than 700 servicemembers including dozens of special operation troops (CMO, January 16).  During the mission, which lasted for 172 days and covered about 90,000 nautical miles, the ETF escorted 30 batches of Chinese and foreign ships and provided medical assistance to one ship (CMO, July 7). Unlike ETFs before COVID-19, there was no mention of the ETF conducting port calls on the way home.On May 18,  the 41st ETF, which consists of the guided-missile destroyer Suzhou, the guided-missile frigate Nantong, and the comprehensive supply ship Chaohu, as well as two ship-borne helicopters and several dozen special operations troops, departed from the Eastern Theater Command Navy’s port in Zhoushan City, Zhejiang Province, for its mission (CMO, May 19). This is the first time that either the Suzhou and or the Nantong have performed escort missions.

Bilateral and Multilateral Joint Military Exercises

Since mid-2021, the PLA has conducted several bilateral and multilateral joint exercises with foreign militaries. [2] Of note, the PLA Rocket Force (formerly the Second Artillery Force) has never conducted any joint training with a foreign country. The following subsections provide a rough overview of recent joint exercises by service. [3]

PLA Army

From September 11 to 25, 2021, 550 Army personnel and 130 vehicles and equipment from the Northern Theater Command participated in the “Peace Mission 2021” exercise at Russia’s Donguz training ground in Orenburg Oblast (CMO, August 27, 2021; September 10, 2021). The PLA Army also participates in various bilateral and multilateral exercises as discussed in the Joint Service Exercises with Foreign Militaries and International Army Games subsections below.

PLA Navy Exercises and Port Calls

In September 2021, five PLAN and Singapore Navy vessels, including guided-missile destroyers, guided-missile frigates, and a comprehensive supply ship, participated in a joint naval drill in waters near Singapore (CMO, September 24, 2021).

In November 2021, the PLAN and Vietnamese Navy conducted their 31st joint patrol in the Beibu Gulf (CMO, December 3, 2021). China and Vietnam each dispatched two naval vessels to this joint patrol, which lasted about 28 hours and entailed total travel of 250 nautical miles. During the patrol, the ships communicated on hydrological and meteorological conditions, sea and air conditions, and the heading and speed of the fleets. They also alternated command of the fleets, carried out light signal exercise, and launched a joint search and rescue drill.

From July 10-13, the PLAN and Pakistan Navy conducted the “Sea Guardians-2” joint maritime exercise in the waters off of Shanghai, which was arranged according to the annual military cooperation plan of the two navies (MND, July 10; CMO, July 13). The drills comprised two phases, including port planning and a maritime exercise. During the first phase, the two sides carried out onshore activities such as operation planning, professional expertise exchanges, cultural and sports competitions. The joint drills phase included attacking maritime targets, tactical maneuver, anti-submarine operation, replenishment at sea, reinforcing damaged ships, anti-aircraft and anti-missile operations, etc. The PLAN vessels involved are assigned to the Eastern Theater Command Navy, included guided-missile frigates Xiangtan and Shuozhou, the comprehensive supply ship Qiandaohu, as well as a submarine, an early warning aircraft, two fighter jets and a helicopter. The Pakistani Navy sent the Frigate Taimur to participate in the exercise. This was the second exercise in the China-Pakistan “Sea Guardians” series, the first occurred in January 2020 in the northern Arabian Sea.

From October 17-23, 2021, the Chinese and Russian navies organized a joint cruise in the Western Pacific Ocean for the first time (CMO, October 23, 2021). The combined ship formation conducted drills on joint navigation, joint maneuver and practical use of weapons, which involved ten vessels and six shipborne helicopters. They apparently conducted another mission off of Alaska in September (Navy Times, September 26).

The PLAN has also used port calls as a tool for military diplomacy. For example, PLAN vessels began visiting the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) in 1976 and have continued since the early 2000s, but these deployments have not been high in number, with approximately 17 separate PLAN port calls to various PICs from 2017–2020. [4]

In regards to the PLAN’s increasingly active military diplomacy in the PICs, three items are notable. First, medical diplomacy, which has involved the Peace Ark hospital ship, remains an important component of PLAN deployments. Second, PLAN training ships have regularly visited Fiji as part of the overall strengthening of relations between the PLA the Republic of Fiji Military Forces. Fiji has become a regular port call and resupply stop for PLAN and other PRC vessels operating in Oceania. During the Peace Ark’s “Harmonious Mission 2014,” Fiji was the second stop on a four-country voyage. The hospital ship visited Fiji again in 2019 while in transit between China and South America. Training ships of the PLA Navy have also made port calls to Fiji. In 2016, the Zheng He visited Fiji after a goodwill visit to Australia, and the Qi Jiguang visited in 2019. The PLAN provided a hydrographic research vessel to the Fijian Navy and is also providing training on operating the ship. China donated vehicles to the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, stating they could be used for disaster relief from typhoons and for COVID-19 response. Third, oceanographic research vessels have steadily become more active in the Pacific.

PLA Air Force Exercises

On November 19, 2021, the PLAAF and Russian Air Force conducted a joint aerial strategic patrol in the Asia-Pacific region (CMO, November 19, 2021). Two PLAAF H-6K bombers and two Russian Tu-95MC bombers conducted the joint patrol in airspace over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. During the flight, the aircraft observed international law and did not enter the airspace of other countries. This was the third China-Russia joint aerial strategic patrol. The stated aim of the exercise is to develop the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination in the new era, upgrade the strategic coordination and joint operational capabilities of the two sides, and jointly protect global strategic stability.

China and Thailand have held five Falcon Strike exercises (2015, 2017, 2018, and 2019), all at Thailand’s Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, with the objective of testing tactics, combat methods, and weaponry, and improving actual combat training (CMO, September 18, 2018). The fifth exercise concluded on August 22 (MND, August 30).

Joint Service Exercises with Foreign Militaries

Russia’s large-scale military exercises are scheduled in four major drills on a rotating basis: Vostok (East), Zapad (West), Tsentr (Center), and Kavkaz (South), which correlate to Russia’s military districts. As such, recent exercises were Zapad 2017, which included Belarus; Vostok 2018, which included Belarus, China, and Mongolia; Tsentr 2019, which included China, Pakistan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; and Kavkaz 2020, which included China, Armenia, Pakistan, and even the pseudo-state of Abkhazia. Only the 2018 and 2019 exercises included aircraft from participating air forces (Middle East Institute, November 4, 2020; TimesNow, August 25, 2020).

From August 9-13, 2021, the PLA Army and Air Force hosted Russia’s Army and Air Force (five Su-30SM fighters) for the joint “Zapad/Interaction-2021” exercise at the PLA’s Qingtongxia Joint Tactical Training Base in Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (CMO, August 19, 2021). This was the first time that the Russian military dispatched troops to China to join a strategic and operational exercise with drills on more than 20 subjects including joint firepower strikes, joint three-dimensional seizure of targets, joint parachuting assaults, and joint obstacle overcoming during the two phases of joint planning and live-fire operations. The exercise featured a counterterrorism and stability maintenance mission scenario, which required Chinese and Russian troops to jointly carry out strikes in mixed groups. Special operations forces on both sides practiced seizing the high ground and trench in accordance with the pre-plan, and then carried out the task of penetrating the enemy forces. The two sides established a joint command. The troops involved were mainly from the PLA Western Theater Command and Russia’s Eastern Military District, with a total of more than 10,000 military personnel and multiple types of aircraft, artillery and armored equipment involved.  Participants from both sides were mixed into teams to jointly plan and conduct training together, in a bid to verify and improve their respective capabilities of joint reconnaissance, search and early warning, electronic information attack, and joint attack and elimination.

The Vostok-2022 exercises, which began in late August, included ground forces from Russia, China, India, Belarus, Tajikistan, Mongolia, and other unidentified countries, as well as PLAAF and Russian aircraft. It also involved PLAN and Russian Navy vessels, which conducted at-sea drills (MND, August 30).

International Army Games 2021 and 2022

The International Army Games (IAG) is an annual international military sports event organized by the Russian Ministry of Defence  (Xinhua, August 28). The event, which was first staged in August 2015, involves nearly 30 countries taking part in dozens of competitions over two weeks. The PLA has participated each year.

The PLA Army, Navy, and Air Force participated in the International Army Games 2021 (IAG 2021), which took place from August 22 to September 4 and involved several countries (CMO, August 13; July 29). It is divided into several components and locations, including sites in Russia, China, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Iran and other countries, as detailed below:

  • The PLA hosted three International Army Games (IAG) 2021 events in Korla, Xinjiang Autonomous Region, from August 22 to September 4, including the “Suvorov Attack”, “Clear Sky” and “Safe Environment” events. Troops from Russia, Belarus, Egypt, Iran, Venezuela, and Vietnam participated.
  • The PLA also sent troops to participate in 17 events abroad, including twelve in Russia, three in Belarus, one in Uzbekistan, and one in Iran.
  • “Seaborne Assault”: in Vladivostok, Russia; involves a comprehensive test of the participants’ armored vehicle driving skills, weapon-using skills, and coordinated obstacle-overcoming ability, and tasks of relay, obstacle course and survival path; includes participants from Russia, China (50 PLAN Marines), Iran, and Venezuela.
  • “Sea Cup”: in Vladivostok; involves artillery firing against sea/air targets and floating mines, barrel anchoring, damage control and sea rescues; includes Russia, China (PLAN guided-missile frigate Guangyuan), Myanmar and Vietnam.
  • “Depth”: in Konarak, Iran; no information available.
  • “Clear Sky”: in Korla, Xinjiang; no information available.
  • “Tank Biathlon”: in Alabino, Russia; involves the individual race and rally race; four tank crews from the 75th Group Army combined arms brigade were selected after over four months of training.
  • “Polaris” Special Operations Teams: in Minsk, Russia; first time for PLA involvement; 29 competition events including secret infiltration, combat implementation, and transfer and evacuation, aiming to comprehensively test and improve the water, land, and air penetration capabilities of the participants. The Chinese participating team comprises reconnaissance and special operations troops selected from a special operations brigade of the PLA 74th Group Army.
  • “Masters of Armored Vehicles”: location in Russia unknown; event mainly includes the cycling race, vehicle repairing contest, captain contest, and relay race with 5 types of vehicles involved; the PLA Joint Logistic Support Force (JLSF) joined for the first time since its creation in 2016.
  • “Military Rally”: location in Russia unknown; event includes the cycling race, chasing race, fire race, team race and field cooking competition, in which the Chinese participants will compete with counterparts from seven countries including Russia; the PLA JLSF was involved, a first since its 2016 formation.
  • “Elbrus Ring”: held in Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe; includes a comprehensive field skills competition in high mountains with a total distance of about 116 kilometers from the elevation of 2,356 meters to 5,642 meters, making it feature the longest time span, the most subjects, the highest requirements on physical capability and the worst competition environment among all the events in IAG; the competition began on August 22 in Russia, and lasted 13 days; participants from various countries complete tasks in 15 areas including cliff climbing and group shooting. Nine countries including China and Russia participated; all 20 PLA participants, who trained for five months, came from the Tibet Military Command, which has participated in this even three previous times.
  • “Army of Culture”: in Moscow; is a competition involving professional performers, creative groups and representatives of military museums and cultural centers from participating IAG 2021countries. The competition aims to deepen ties between the people and the armed forces of the participating countries, popularize military songs, and provide participants with the opportunity to display their creative potential and become familiar with the cultural essence of other countries. A total of 16 countries including China, Russia and Kazakhstan participated in the competition.

The IAG 2022, which took place from August 13 to 27, included 36 competitions co-hosted by 12 countries, including China, Russia and Iran, attracting 275 military teams from 37 countries (regions) (CMO, August 16; August 13; July 26). The competitions hosted by China were held in two locations. The PLA Army (PLAA) hosed “Suvorov Onslaught”, a contest among infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) crews, and the “Safe Route”, a minesweeping contest among engineering troops, in Korla. The PLAN hosted “Sea Cup” contest among naval surface ships in Qingdao, which involved the guided-missile frigate Handan and the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet’s corvette Gromkiy. Teams from Russia, Belarus, Iran and Venezuela participated in these contests in China. As for the events held abroad, the PLA dispatched nine teams to Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Algeria and Uzbekistan to participate in nine contests hosted by the five countries respectively. At the invitation of the Venezuelan military, the PLA also sent a delegation to observe the Sniper Frontier competition there.

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 (HADR) efforts and anti-piracy operations. The PLA undertakes activities in each of these categories.

Although most peacekeeping focuses on Africa, the Peacekeeping Affairs Center under China’s MND hosted the first China-Latin America peacekeeping webinar in Beijing from July 28-29, 2021 (MND, August 2, 2021). The stated goal of this event was to implement the vision of building a community of shared future for mankind proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, promote the pragmatic cooperation between the Chinese and Latin American militaries, share peacekeeping experience and uphold multilateralism. UN Assistant Secretary-General Alexandre Zouev attended the opening ceremony online. More than 50 officials and experts from China and the main Latin-America troop- and police-contributing countries for UN peacekeeping operations, participated in the webinar.

Immediately following a volcano and tsunami in Tonga this January, the PLAAF sent two transport aircraft and the PLAN sent the Southern Theater Command Navy’s amphibious dock landing ship Wuzhishan to deliver relief supplies, including more than 550 tons of fresh water as well as food, water purifiers, tents, prefab houses, tractors, and radio communication equipment (China Brief, February 25; CMO, February 22).

Over ten days in late July, the PLA’s Logistic Support Department and Laos’ General Logistics Department held the annual bilateral “PeaceTrain-2022” joint humanitarian medical rescue exercise and medical service activities in Laos’ capital Vientiane and the adjacent town of Phonhong (CMO, July 29). The PLA “Peace Train” medical team, which traveled and operated from a train, has been working closely with the Lao People’s Army’s medical and logistics units, highlighting the “four joints” of joint command and control, joint treatment of the wounded, joint epidemic prevention and control, and joint evacuation of the wounded, during the medical rescue exercise. The PLA team also provided nucleic acid testing equipment and other epidemic prevention materials to the Lao People’s Army.

“Cobra Gold”, which is perhaps the most influential multinational joint military exercise in Southeast Asia, is held annually in Thailand (CMO, August 3, 2021). China started to join the “Cobra Gold” exercise as an observer in 2002 and assigned an actual military squad to participate for the first time in 2014. Due to COVID restrictions, the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief field training exercise (HADR FTX) component of Cobra Gold 2021 exercise was held in Kunming, Yunnan Province from July 30 to August 2 via video link. During the video forum, 13 experts from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre), and other professional institutions, conducted in-depth exchanges on “civil-military coordination in humanitarian relief operations” and “establishment of multinational coordination centers,” etc. in the context of coping with flood and earthquake relief. The Cobra Gold 2022 Table Top Exercise (TTX) was held in Thailand from February 18-22 (CMO, March 2). Due to the pandemic, the Chinese military has participated in the exercise via video conference since 2021.

Concerning medical-related exercises, one example involved the seven-day China-Vietnam “Peace Rescue 2021” joint medical exercise in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in December 2021, which was managed by the CMC’s Logistic Support Department and the Vietnam People’s Army (CMO, December 13, 2021). The exercise focused on humanitarian medical rescue issues and completed trainings on subjects including joint military health service command, joint on-site rescue, and treatment of wounded personnel in accordance with real combat standards.

Concerning peacekeeping, in September 2021, the PLA conducted a multinational peacekeeping live exercise (Shared Destiny-2021) in Henan Province that included 1,000 officers and soldiers from countries including China, Mongolia, Pakistan and Thailand (CMO, September 15, 2021). In addition, the MND’s Peacekeeping Affairs Center hosted the first “Shared Vision” International Peacekeeping Forum via video link in Beijing from August 24 to 25 (MND, August 30). With the theme of “Making the Vision of Peace Come True”, the forum include three seminars: “UN Peacekeeping Operations: Prospects and Challenges”, “Supporting UN Peacekeeping Operations: Capacity Building and Best Practices”, and “Promoting UN Peacekeeping Partnership: Global Collaboration and Cooperation.”

Finally, the Peace Ark hospital ship, which is subordinate to  the Eastern Theater Command Navy (ETCN), has visited 43 countries, providing medical service to 230,000 people around the world since its commissioning in December 2008 (CMO, April 4; April 23, 2019). It has carried out seven of the PLAN’s “Harmonious Missions” worldwide as well as participating in the 2014 U.S.-led RIMPAC exercise; however, it appears that its last mission was in 2019 when it visited South America and stopped in Fiji while in transit.

International Academic Exchanges and Cooperation

The PLA National Defense University (NDU) is actively engaged in international exchanges and cooperation. [5] According to an official source in 2018, since 1985, the NDU has received over 1,300 foreign delegations, over 120,000 foreign military personnel, government officials and other experts from over 90 countries. The PLA NDU also has sent 400 delegations to visit over 30 countries. Over 900 NDU research and teaching staff have studied, lectured, participated in academic conferences overseas. The PLA NDU has contacts with over 140 foreign militaries, maintains regular interactions and cooperation with prominent military academic institutions in over ten countries. The PLA NDU has also signed formal inter-university exchange and cooperation memos with foreign military academic institutions, including the National Defense University of the United States (U.S. NDU).

According to an August 2018 PLA Daily article, in recent years, the PLA NDU has trained over 500 foreign military cadets from over 100 countries (PLA Daily, August 2, 2018). Several dozen PLA NDU teaching and research officers have participated in international peacekeeping and served as military observers. Although the U.S. NDU had annual meetings with the PLA NDU in Washington, D.C. for several years, the last PLA delegations to visit were in April and May 2019 and the last U.S. NDU delegations to visit the PLA NDU were in July and November 2019. [6]

Since 2002, the NDU has held over 16 conferences on international security, which are aimed at strengthening academic exchange with the international military community. Unfortunately, no information was found concerning NDU engagements during 2021 or 2022; however, it most likely still has a robust program with multiple countries except the U.S.

In addition to the PLA NDU, the PLA Army Engineering University in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, has also hosted academic conferences. For example, in November 2021, the university hosted the three-day 8th International Army Cadets Week by video link, which included cadets from foreign military academies of 12 countries, namely Brazil, Cambodia, Egypt, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, Romania, Serbia, Singapore and Thailand, and more than ten Chinese military academies (CMO, November 12, 2021). In addition, last December, the university hosted the 2nd International Army Forum on Military Education (CMO, December 1, 2021). Representatives from ten foreign military academies and commanding organs of multiple countries including Brazil, Cambodia, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Serbia, Singapore and South Africa conducted two-day exchange activities via video link. Based on the theme of  “future development trend, challenges and countermeasures of the cultivation of Army primary officers,” the forum aimed to build an academic exchange platform for international Army academies, promote the international exchange and cooperation in military education, and accelerate academy reform and development.

Military Diplomacy with Africa and Latin America

The recent publication Enabling a More Externally Focused and Operational PLA provides an outstanding overview of the PLA’s military diplomacy around the world up to late 2020. [7] Some of the report’s key takeaways for Africa and Latin America are reviewed below.

In addition to peacekeeping operations, the PLA has engaged in several different aspects of military diplomacy in Africa. [8] According to Paul Nantulya, the PLA’s relationships with African countries began when it provided military skills and training in leadership and command to anticolonial and antiapartheid movements during African nations’ struggles for independence. Looking at the overall pattern of China’s military relations with Africa, he finds the vast majority of interactions have been senior officer and personnel exchanges, with only a small fraction consisting of exercises or port calls. In addition, significant numbers of African military personnel continue to be educated at China’s institutions for professional military education. Although Africans view the strategic training offered by the U.S. and other Western militaries as superior, at the junior and middle levels, the PLA training model is considered excellent and more relevant to African needs in technical areas, such as information technology and computers, logistics, and military medicine. His article provides good information about the relationship by country.

In the same volume, R. Evan Ellis examines China’s military and police engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean. [9] This engagement has expanded substantially over the past 25 years. Sales of military equipment, for instance, have moved from military clothing and nonlethal equipment to radar systems, fighter and transport aircraft, armored vehicles, and patrol ships with an increasingly broad set of partners. China’s military engagement has included an eight-year presence in the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, multiple visits to the region by the PLAN hospital ship Peace Ark, regular port calls, participation of PLA forces in the region’s elite military training schools, and the hosting of Latin American defense personnel in China for courses of increasing length and sophistication. He observes that China’s security relationships with Latin American and Caribbean countries can be grouped into four categories: those with anti-US communist and populist regimes, those with “diversity-of-partner” regimes, those with strongly U.S.-aligned regimes, and those with regimes that do not diplomatically recognize the PRC. Anti-U.S. communist and populist regimes such as Cuba, Venezuela, and, previously, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador are the leading purchasers of arms from Chinese companies. These countries maintain strong institutional relationships with the PLA. So far, however, China has not openly sought to establish permanent military facilities in these countries or to conduct anti-U.S. military exercises. Diversity-of-partner regimes, such as Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, and many Caribbean nations, seek to maintain good military relations with China and the U.S. and other countries. Diversity-of-partner countries often purchase or receive donations of Chinese-made military and police equipment and regularly send personnel to China for institutional visits and training and education. The countries in the region that do not diplomatically recognize the PRC do not conduct military exchanges with the PLA or acquire Chinese military equipment.

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 was the former research director of U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) from 2017 through 2019.

Editor’s Note: This piece exceeds the standard length for China Brief articles, but is being published due to reader interest.

Notes

[1] Other countries included 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. “Chinese PLA sends epidemic prevention supplies to militaries of 20 countries,” CMO, June 5, 2020, http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2020-06/05/content_9845235.htm.

[2] Of note, although the U.S. military uses the term “combined” for training with foreign militaries, the PLA uses  the term “joint”, which can also refer to two or more PLA services training together.

[3] For the history of the joint training, see Kenneth Allen, “The PLA’s Military Diplomacy Under COVID-19,” China Brief, June 21, 2021 ; Kenneth Allen, Phillip C. Saunders, and John Chen, Chinese Military Diplomacy, 2003–2016: Trends and Implications (NDU Press, July 2017),

[4] April Herlevi and Christopher Cairns, “China’s Activities in the Pacific Island Countries: Laying the Foundation for Future Access in Oceana,” in Roger Cliff and Roy D. Kamphausen, Editors, Enabling a More Externally Focused and Operational PLA, (Carlisle: PA, US Army War College Press, July 2022). 

[5] The PLA National Defense University conducts extensive international military exchanges and cooperation” [国防大学 广泛开展国际军事交流合作], People’s Liberation Army Daily, reprinted in Xinhua, 2 August, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/mil/2018-08/02/c_129924959.htm; “The second National Defense University International Defense Forum Held in Beijing” [第二届国防大学国际防务论坛在京开幕]. Xinhua, 20 June 2019, http://www.xinhuanet.com/mil/2019-06/20/c_1210165266.htm. For more detailed information, see Kenneth W. Allen and Mingzhi Chen, The People’s Liberation Army’s 37 Academic Institutions, Montgomery, AL: China Aerospace Studies Institute, 2020, at 2020-06-11 PLA Academic_Institutions.pdf (af.edu).

[6] Author’s correspondence with Dr. Joel Wuthnow, senior research fellow, Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, Institute for National Strategic Studies, U.S. NDU.

[7] Roger Cliff and Roy D. Kamphausen, Editors, Enabling a More Externally Focused and Operational PLA, (Carlisle: PA, US Army War College Press, July 2022).

[8] Paul Nantulya, “‘Only with Deep Roots Can a Tree Yield Rich Fruit:’ The People’s Liberation Army in Africa,” in Enabling a More Externally Focused and Operational PLA.

[9] R. Evan Ellis, “Chinese Military and Police Engagement in Latin America,” in Enabling a More Externally Focused and Operational PLA