How is China Bolstering its Military Diplomatic Relations?

How is China Bolstering its Military Diplomatic Relations?
How is China Bolstering its Military Diplomatic Relations?
How is China Bolstering its Military Diplomatic Relations? Top

    Military diplomacy can be broadly defined as a set of non-combat activities carried out by a country’s armed forces to advance its national diplomatic interests. Military diplomatic activities often take the form of joint military exercises, high-level military dialogues, and naval port calls. In the case of China, its ongoing military modernization has enhanced the frequency and complexity of these activities. In general, military diplomatic activities provide China with opportunities to improve its global image and support its broader diplomatic agenda, while simultaneously enhancing its military operational capabilities.

    China’s Military Diplomatic Activities

    Forms of Military Diplomacy

    To assess China’s military diplomacy, we have divided related activities into five categories that are discussed below. These delineations are derived from a 2017 report by the National Defense University (NDU) Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs entitled “Chinese Military Diplomacy, 2003-2016: Trends and Implications.” Unless otherwise cited, data used throughout this webpage comes from this report and associated data from NDU.1

    Joint Military Exercises are one of the most visible forms of military diplomatic activity. They typically involve the militaries of participating countries performing traditional and non-traditional operations. For instance, China routinely engages with Pakistan on bilateral air force military exercises, and often with Russia on bilateral naval and multilateral counterterrorism exercises.

    Naval port calls provide opportunities for a country’s naval vessels to conduct a range of activities including functional maintenance, diplomatic exchanges, and humanitarian operations at foreign ports – each of which can help strengthen diplomatic ties between countries. China’s expanding global presence has increased the frequency of foreign port calls. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) establishment of a rotating Escort Task Force (ETF) fleet in 2008, which was designated to escort vessels and combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden, has created additional needs and opportunities for China to make port calls across the Indo-Pacific and as far away as Europe.

    Senior-level meetings and military dialogues with foreign security leaders provide a channel for cooperation between countries. These dialogues serve as an important avenue for crisis management and help reduce the risk of miscalculation during military operations. One such example occurred in August 2017, when China and the U.S. signed an agreement to enhance communication between their militaries. The agreement, which was intended to support crisis mitigation, may prove to be particularly useful as both sides work to resolve instability on the Korean peninsula.

    Non-Traditional Security Operations include a variety of military activities, such as non-combatant evacuations, U.N. Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO), and Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief operations (HA/DR). These activities are conducted with a foreign partner(s) and provide public goods to the international security environment. As of 2019, China contributes more personnel to UNPKOs than any other permanent member of the Security Council, which serves to help Beijing cultivate a positive image of China’s growing international presence.


    Driven in part by an effort to boost its soft power, China’s support for U.N. peacekeeping operations has grown in recent years. Learn more about China’s role in the U.N.

    Functional Exchanges are programs typically hosted by military academies or war colleges that enhance dialogues between foreign military personnel, academics, and functional personnel and their counterparts in the host nation. These programs create opportunities for building military skills, improving interoperability with security partners, and developing future military leaders. The month-long China-Pakistan Air Force Officer Development Program, for example, aims to develop the technical skills of Pakistani officers, enhance their understanding of China, and strengthen military ties between the two countries.

    The Growth of China’s Military Diplomacy

    In a January 2015 speech at the All-Military Diplomatic Work Conference, President Xi Jinping stressed that military diplomacy is a critical element of how China engages with other countries. Specifically, Xi highlighted the effectiveness of military diplomacy in “protecting [China’s] sovereignty, safety and developmental interests.” Under Xi, military diplomatic activities have surged. From 2003-2012, China averaged 151 activities per year. The average from 2013 to 2018 was 20 percent higher, at nearly 179 activities per year.

    This growth is even more pronounced when evaluating specific types of activities. China averaged roughly 44 military exercises per year from 2013 to 2018, a more than seven-fold increase over the annual average from 2003-2012. China took part in its first known bilateral military exercise in October 2002. The landmark event was a China-Kyrgyzstan counterterrorism exercise that took place in southern Kyrgyzstan. Only a small cohort of 100 soldiers – armed with light weapons, anti-tank weapons, helicopters, and armored personnel vehicles – from each side participated.

    China’s Top 5 Military Diplomatic Partners (2003-2018)
    Country Total Activities
    Russia 115
    Pakistan 103
    USA 102
    Thailand 76
    Australia 72
    Source: Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, Institute for Natonal Strategic Studies, National Defense University

    Between 2003 and 2018, China participated in a total of 310 military exercises with 63 countries.2 Most commonly, China has partnered with Russia, Pakistan, and the United States. The frequency, complexity, and intensity of these exercises vary considerably. For instance, China regularly conducts large military exercises with Russia. Of the 45 military exercises including both China and Russia that took place between 2005 to 2018, 17 focused on combat exercises, including the massive Peace Mission 2005, which featured some 8,000 Chinese personnel. Conversely, China has not conducted any combat exercises with the U.S. and often sends only a handful of personnel to participate in non-combat multilateral exercises. For instance, only 17 Chinese soldiers participated in the HA/DR drills associated with U.S.-led Cobra Gold 2014.

    The frequency of naval port calls has also increased. In 2003, China only made four port calls. That number peaked in 2017 at 45 before dropping to 31 a year later. Port calls conducted by Chinese vessels can be categorized as either Escort Task Forces (ETF) or non-ETF port calls. Between 2008 (when the first ETF fleet was established) and 2018, the vessels comprising these forces made 203 port calls. Through early 2020, ETF vessels have also gone on 34 escort missions in the Gulf of Aden.

    Non-ETF port calls only constituted 29.8 percent (86 in total) of all Chinese port calls over the same period, and were commonly associated with friendly visits or non-traditional security missions. The Peace Ark hospital ship is one of China’s highest profile non-ETF Chinese ships. According to China’s 2019 defense white paper, the Peace Ark has visited a total of 43 countries and treated over 230,000 patients. In 2018, Peace Ark traveled to 11 countries, including Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Venezuela and Ecuador, to provide free medical services, a move that demonstrates the goodwill China seeks to cultivate from engaging in these types of activities.

    Senior level meetings are generally the most common form of Chinese military diplomatic activity, averaging 122 meetings per year between 2003 and 2018. However, as Xi has emphasized the importance of a combat-ready military to complement his push to modernize China’s armed forces, senior level meetings have occupied a smaller share of total military diplomatic activities. Senior level meetings accounted for nearly 90 percent of all interactions between 2003 and 2012. From 2016 to 2018, they only constituted 56 percent.

    China’s military dialogues are closely tied to Party politics. Chinese military personnel engaged in these dialogues are expected to follow scripted talking points handed down by the Party leadership, which is likely to inhibit candid discussion and could hamstring efforts to establish effective diplomatic networks. Additionally, the frequency of military dialogues is in some capacity affected by personnel changes within the Party. During the 2012 transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, the number of military dialogues dipped to its lowest point in 10 years. The amount of dialogues rose in the two years following the transition, as new military leaders made introductory visits to other countries.

    How Other Countries Conduct Military Diplomacy

    United States

    As it boasts the world’s most advanced military, the United States serves as a useful basis for comparison when examining the growth in China’s military diplomacy. Unlike China, the U.S. maintains a considerable number of collective defense agreements and military alliances with countries around the world. Additionally, the established global presence of the U.S. military diverges significantly from China’s more regionally focused military posture.

    The U.S. 7th Fleet maintains a continuous forward presence in the Indo-Pacific to promote stability through regional security cooperation. Toward this end, 7th Fleet units typically take part in around one hundred bilateral and multilateral exercises and roughly two hundred port visits each year. The level of military diplomatic activity of the 7th fleet alone is far more than China’s 60 military exercises and 31 port calls in 2018.

    In recent years, the U.S. has invited China to participate in some of the exercises it spearheads. In 2014, China was first invited to participate in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the world’s largest biennial naval exercise, which was established in 1971. China also took part in Cobra Gold – the largest multilateral military exercise in Asia – for the first time in the same year.

    While these exercises provided an opportunity to enhance cooperation with China, the U.S. limited China’s involvement to observer or non-traditional security roles. China was invited back to RIMPAC 2016, this time with a slightly enhanced schedule that included seaborne supply exercises. However, the U.S. Department of Defense disinvited the PLAN from participating in the 2018 RIMPAC exercises, citing “China’s continued militarization of the South China Sea.”


    Under its “Look East” policy, India has long focused on building strategic and economic partnerships throughout the region. India currently participates in varying degrees of military-to-military exchanges with countries throughout East and Southeast Asia. In 2018, the Indian navy called at ports in six of the ten ASEAN countries. Indian forces also participated in a range of military exercises that included seven ASEAN countries.

    India’s level of military diplomacy has increased in recent years, but notable disparities exist between China and India’s military diplomatic profiles. Although both countries are working to modernize their militaries, the number of military exercises conducted by India (31 in 2018) lags behind that of China (60 in 2018).3 Much like China, however, India frequently partners with the U.S. and Russia to conduct military exercises.

    To strengthen its security posture, India has signed or renewed defense agreements with Brunei (2016), Singapore (2017), Malaysia (2015), and Vietnam (2016). The world’s largest democracy has also looked to strengthen its security ties with the U.S. and its allies. The United States, India, and Japan all participated in the Malabar 2015 naval exercise, which sent worrying signs to some in China of U.S.-led containment. Malabar 2017, which focused on anti-submarine warfare, drew a formal reaction from China. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that although China “has no objection to the development of normal relations and cooperation between [India, the U.S. and Japan] . . . [it] hopes such relations and cooperation are not targeted at a third party.”


    Russia’s military diplomatic activities have been expanding in recent years, which may reflect an effort to counter the blowback it suffered from the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Globally, Russia has signed 39 military cooperation agreements in the last few years. In Latin America, Russia has established strategic partnerships with Peru, Argentina, and Paraguay to expand their defense cooperation. In Southeast Asia, Russia has also inked military cooperation agreements with five out of the ten ASEAN countries and pushed for joint Russia-ASEAN naval drills. Russia has also boosted its presence in Central Asia through its participation in military exercises like Centre-2019, which included Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as China, India, and Pakistan.

    Russia and China have maintained reasonably close military ties throughout the years. In contrast to China’s military diplomatic ties with the U.S. and India, which often center on non-traditional security, roughly half of all military exercises between Russia and China focus on combat operations.

    These exchanges have enabled both sides to learn from each other, and also project power into politically contentious areas. Such examples include naval drills in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, in the South China Sea in 2016, near the Russia-North Korea border in 2017, and in the Gulf of Oman in 2019. In 2018, Russia also held its largest-ever military exercise, Vostok-2018, which included 300,000 Russian troops, as well as forces from China and Mongolia.

    However, given the sensitivity of these exercises, the two sides do not always agree. In preparing for Peace Mission 2005, an exercise focused on amphibious assault and neutralizing anti-aircraft defenses, the Russian government reportedly rejected a Chinese proposal to conduct exercises in Zhejiang, a province near Taiwan. ChinaPower