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 National Defense University’s 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 its associated database.

    Joint Military Exercises are one 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.

    Port calls provide opportunities for a country’s vessel 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 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-Asia 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 is 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 operations are conducted with a foreign partner(s) and provide public goods to the international security environment. As of 2017, 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 Pakistan 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. Data provided by the National Defense University report shows that in 2016, China conducted a combined 277 military diplomatic activities in the form of military exercises, port calls, and high-level meetings; an over 110 percent increase from the 131 similar activities that occurred in 2003.

    This growth is even more pronounced when evaluating specific types of activities.  Between 2003 and 2014, China participated in a total of 130 military exercises, an amount nearly matched by the 124 exercises China joined in 2016 alone. 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 – 2016)
    Country Total
    United States 132
    Russia 120
    Pakistan 105
    Thailand 81
    Australia 81
    Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, National Defense University

    Between 2003 and 2016, China participated in a total of 349 military exercises with 56 countries.1 Most commonly, China has partnered with Russia, Pakistan, and the United States. The frequency, complexity, and intensity of these exercises varies considerably.  For instance, China regularly conducts large military exercises with Russia. Of the 38 such exercises that took place since 2005, 19 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.

    Over the last decade and a half, the frequency of port calls has also increased. In 2003, China only made four port calls – that number peaked in 2015 at 40 port calls before dropping to 22 a year later.  Port calls conducted by Chinese vessels can be categorized as either ETF or non-ETF port calls. Since the creation of the first ETF fleet in 2008, the vessels comprising these forces have gone on 26 escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and made 163 port calls. Non-ETF port calls only constituted 23.5 percent (50 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, having visited a total of 34 countries and treated over 120,000 patients. In August 2017, Peace Ark traveled to Djibouti to provide free medical services, a move that demonstrates the goodwill China seeks to cultivate from engaging in these types of activities.

    In contrast to the other elements of military diplomacy, the number of high-level dialogues involving Chinese officials has remained relatively high, averaging 167 meetings per year between 2003 and 2016. Senior level meetings are also the most common form of Chinese diplomatic activity, accounting for 79 percent of all interactions between 2003 and 2016. This trend, however, may be shifting as Xi has emphasized the importance of a combat ready military to complement his push to modernize China’s armed forces.

    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-Asia Pacific to promote stability through regional security cooperation. Toward this end, 7th Fleet units typically take part in 100 bilateral and multilateral exercises and 200 port visits each year. The level of military diplomatic activity of the 7th fleet alone is comparable to China’s 124 military exercises and 22 port calls in 2016.

    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 multi-lateral 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.


    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 2016, the Indian navy called at ports in six of the ten ASEAN countries; conducted joint military exercises with Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan; and engaged in high-level visits with Vietnam, Singapore, and China.

    India’s level of military diplomacy has increased in recent years, but notable disparities exist between China and India’s military diplomatic profile. Although both countries are working to modernize their militaries, the number of military exercises conducted by India (18 in 2016) lags behind that of China (124 in 2016). 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), 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.  In Latin America, Russia has established strategic partnerships with Peru, Argentina, and Paraguay to expand their defense cooperation. Russia has also inked military cooperation agreements with 5 out of the 10 ASEAN countries over the last 2 years. Russia’s third port call to the Philippines on October 20, 2017 is just one example of Russia’s push to develop closer ties across the region. Russia has also boosted its presence in Central Asia by conducting military exercises with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in 2017.

    Russia and China have maintained reasonably close military ties throughout the years, partially due to their shared Cold War heritage. 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, the South China Sea in 2016, and near the Russia-North Korea border in 2017. 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.

    1. An additional 8 military exercises were conducted with non-state actors.