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Understanding China's Military Diplomacy

Military diplomacy in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is not new; in fact, it remains in the stage of active implementation right since the reforms drive began in 1978, as an integral part of the country’s overall foreign relations course which came to be based on a new ‘independent foreign policy of peace ‘concept. The PRC firmly made that course as subordinate to the identified domestic policy line, aimed at achieving modernization by middle of the 21st century. It has been logical that China’s diplomatic thrust turned out to be on supporting fulfillment of two pre-conditions for the success of modernization- ensuring a stable international situation and a guaranteeing peaceful periphery. This being so, the introduction of ‘core interests’ concept into China’s foreign policy course in middle 2009 led to Beijing’s adoption of an assertive external approach demanding a position of ‘ no compromise’ on all ‘sovereignty’ related issues; the result has been emergence of complicated diplomatic situation, especially affecting ties with neighboring Asian nations having land and sea territorial disputes with China.

Realising the negative impact, the PRC, as remedy, has in the current period, chosen to fine tune its diplomatic line , adding to its approach of external assertiveness a ‘charm offensive’ touch , in order to convince contesting powers about its ‘peaceful rise’ intentions. China’s ‘military diplomacy’, accordingly, in the main, now stands geared to assure the rest of the world, particularly countries in Asia, that its rise does not pose a ‘threat’ to them; specifically demonstrating the urgency felt by the Chinese leadership to theoretically define ‘military diplomacy’ concept, a document entitled “Research and Development History of Military Diplomacy in New China”, was prepared, to which formal approval was granted by the Central Military Commission (CMC) officials on 25 May 2012. Considering in a wider context however , a key question emerges – whether or not Beijing’s present ‘win-win’, but simultaneously assertive, diplomatic line has been successful in winning the international confidence about the claimed peaceful intentions of a rising China.

‘Reducing tensions’ in the PRC’s foreign relations, is being described in the Chinese State-controlled media as a thrust area for the country’s current military diplomacy; to this, the official press is at the same time attaching a rider- there should be ‘no compromise’ on sovereignty related issues . Two Comments are worth noting. China Daily (4 September 2012) has found in military diplomacy a mean to achieve ‘reduction in miscalculations amid territorial disputes and realize a consensus among neighbors on China’s military strategy’. China Radio International (5 September 2012) has been more emphatic by assessing that ‘under the current circumstances, apart from using diplomatic, economic and trade channels, there is a need for China to expand communication and coordination in the military and security realms’; with this mission in mind, the CMC and PLA officials visited 14 neighboring nations in 2011 including Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore and the Philippines (Xinhua, 17 January 2012). The recent visits of Deputy Chiefs of General Staff Lt.Gen Cai Yingting to the US, Lt Gen Ma Xiaotian to Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore and of China’s Defence Minister Liang Guanglie to Sri Lanka,India and Laos , fall under the same category. China’s military diplomacy is also manifesting through participation in multilateral mechanisms – Shangrila Dialogue, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus. The trend that China’s military diplomacy is specially targeting nations in the Asia-Pacific region, where tensions are rising over sea territory disputes, is noticeable.

Two case studies may be of help in assessing the performance of China’s military diplomacy in the present period- first relates to the Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie’s official visit to Sri Lanka (August 29 to September 2,2012) and second to the visit of same dignitary to India (September 3 to 7, 2012 ). Liang was the first Chinese Defence Minister to visit Sri Lanka and his stress (at a speech to officers of Defence Services Command and Staff College) that China’s national defence policy is peaceful and that South Asia, comprising five out of fourteen land bordering nations with China, is important in terms of China’s foreign policy, received wide attention. The message coming out clear from the Chinese leader was that South Asia is becoming crucial in Beijing’s formulation of foreign and security calculations. Not to be missed is also Liang’s confirmation of China’s balanced military policy towards South Asia. His observation while in Sri Lanka that the PLA’s exchanges with South Asian nations are intended to maintain regional security and stability and not targeted at any third party , is a case in point. Bilaterally, prominent has been the consensus reached between the two sides on cooperation in the field of non-traditional security. Holding of a five nation (China, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Maldives) joint services exercise in Vakarai in Eastern Sri Lanka from September 10 ( India participating only as an observer) may need to be seen in such context. China had been supplying only arms to Sri Lanka and a key question for neighbors like India will be whether the visit of Liang can pave the way for expansion of China-Sri Lanka military relationship to strategic spheres. Interesting has also been Sri Lanka’s continued support to China’s positions on ‘ core interest’ issues of Tibet and Taiwan, which received the acknowledgement of Chinese Defence Minister himself. Liang’s formula made known during the visit for the two nations working together in ‘crisis’ situations may have to be examined from a strategic angle. No doubt, regional nations like India would like to keep a close watch on how the two sides take this subject further.

The Chinese Defence Minister’s visit to India has been the first such one in last in 8 years. The Chinese official media described (Xinhua, 5 September 2012) its aim as an effort to build ‘military trust’ between the two sides. Liang’s declaration to the press that China has no plans for bases in the Indian Ocean and that there is not a single Chinese soldier in Pakistan ‘controlled’ Kashmir, appeared deliberate in order to create a favourable atmosphere prior to his India visit. An important outcome of Liang’s sojourn in India has been the India-China consensus on resuming joint military exercises, which remained suspended since 2010 following a bilateral row concerning Chinese ‘stapled visa’ to Indians. The Chinese official media focused on the consensus reached on high level military exchanges, training of armed forces personnel and maritime security cooperation. They at the same time listed the topics which came up for discussions – border dispute (of interest is the inclusion of officials from Lanzhou and Tibet military commands in Liang’s delegation), ‘sensitive’ issues of situation in South Asia and Asia-Pacific (notable is the presence of South China Sea fleet Navy official in Liang’s team), the US “Asia Pivot’ policy and Afghanistan. These references made only to ‘discussions’, not to ‘consensus’ , may indicate the Chinese thinking that there were gaps between the viewpoints of two sides on the topics.

It can be seen that China’s military diplomacy was in full play during the two visits mentioned above. The Chinese Defence Minister had the opportunity to explain to his two south Asian counterparts about ‘peaceful ‘Chinese defence policy. In Sri Lanka, noticeable has been progress in China’s promotion of maritime security cooperation. In India, the decision taken to resume joint military exercises, can pave the way for reducing the existing India-China military trust deficit. In an overall sense, much would depend on future directions of China’s India policy – most important is that China should start respecting India’s ‘core interests’. In this regard, India may be right in looking for the real meanings of the continuing bellicose statements from China. Liang Guanglie himself had taken a hard line on the role of China’s military, in contrast to his present soft diplomatic approach. He stated in an interview (December 2010) that “in the coming five years, China’s military will push forward preparations in every strategic direction”. Some other military strategists still in key positions in China (for e.g Maj.Gen Luo Yuan) are being allowed to articulate hawkish viewpoints on strategic ties with countries abroad including India.

Chinese ‘military diplomacy’ merits discussion in a wider context. Its accomplishments need recognition. To some extent, it has been able to address the needs of non-traditional and maritime security ( as evidenced by Beijing’s participation in India-China-Japan joint piracy patrols in Gulf of Aden , joint services exercise by five South Asia nations, China’s consensus with India on resumption of joint military excercises and the PRC’s use of Shanghai Cooperation Organization for counter-terrorism purposes). China’s ability to persuade Seychelles to provide ‘rest’ facilities for China’s naval vessels may perhaps also be counted as an achievement. This is being so, the failures of China’s ‘military diplomacy’ also need to be taken note of. It has been an ineffective part of the country’s core-interests based foreign policy in general, which has so far failed to allay the fears of countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan over, what they call, China’s military expansion. Japan’s Defence White Paper (July 2012) characterized China’s foreign policy role a ‘security risk’ and pointed to the ‘the sense of caution existing across East Asia about Beijing’s apparent military expansion in the region’. As another instance of failure, Beijing’s foreign policy so far remains inadequate in reducing New Delhi’s concern levels on lack of progress in border talks, Chinese military infrastructure building in Tibet across the border , continuing China-Pakistan nexus, Beijing’s fears of a growing Indo-US military ties ( reference Leon Panetta’s description of India as lynchpin of US ‘Asia-Pivot’ policy) and China’s feelings about India’s ‘double standards’ on the Dalai Lama issue.

There is a basic contradiction between the two determining factors of China’s current foreign policy – first, the need to seek a ‘win-win’ situation in international relations, and the second, necessitating adoption of external assertiveness , especially towards neighbours having territorial disputes with China , in order to serve the cause of protecting the country’s sovereignty. Beijing may deny such contradiction, but one cannot dispute the fact that coercive aspects have come to dominate China’s line of assertiveness, especially with regard to South and East China Seas, leaving the outside world in doubt about China’s real international intentions. It is to this condition, Beijing needs to pay close attention if it wants to improve ties with countries having border disputes with China; but that task may not be easy to achieve as coercive assertiveness on selected key sovereignty-related issues, like the South and East China Sea issues is China’s state policy now and Beijing has entrusted its implementation to the PLA, the primary agency in charge of national security. It is therefore natural that the PLA enjoys strong influence in the country’s foreign policy making, especially in areas related to national security. The bottom line is that in such a situation, the limitations of China’s military diplomacy come out clear.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, India. Email: This formed the basis of his talk on ‘the visits to Sri Lanka and India by Chinese Defence Minister’, at the ORF Chennai Chapter, on 15 September 2012).

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