Chinese Military Diplomacy: The PLA’s Role in Beijing’s Global Outlook

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with a PLA soldier at Vostok 2018. Photo Credit: Kremlin.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeks to defend the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and enforce Beijing’s territorial claims and sovereignty to advance the country’s national interests. The PLA’s focus on these mandates primarily revolves around its warfighting activities, but China has also harnessed these capabilities to contribute to ongoing efforts of “military diplomacy.” This phenomenon sees a country’s armed forces engaged in relationship-building with other states by promoting national interests within the sphere of defense and security cooperation.[i] Military diplomacy is significant because it highlights the CCP leadership’s growing trust in the PLA as an instrument of statecraft that flexibly adapts to critical foreign policy roles beyond the scope of military force. Without military confrontation with the United States and other adversaries, China reduces these opponents’ influence through the PLA’s relationship-building with other states’ militaries, greatly strengthening Beijing’s standing among these countries of interest.

The PLA’s military diplomacy takes place through combined exercises with other states’ armed forces, port visits, arms sales, and dialogues between Chinese military officials and their counterparts in other countries. These activities are meant to strengthen Beijing’s security relationships with other states and develop new capabilities and capacities.[ii] Chinese military diplomacy seeks to enhance Beijing’s global influence by developing close security ties with other states.

China’s military diplomacy not only strengthens its ties with other states through defense cooperation but also acts as a form of signaling to opponents such as the United States. By openly participating in military exercises in conjunction with partners like Russia, China presents a united front against what it perceives to be US aggression and showcases the PLA’s military capabilities. Military diplomacy also enables China to present itself as a security actor whom other states can turn to for equipment, training, and support, giving Beijing strategic clout in its broader competition with Washington.

Chinese military diplomacy constituted a longtime fixture in the CCP’s foreign policy and largely took shape during an era when Beijing began to rethink the broader role and mission of the PLA. China first outlined a program for military diplomacy in the 1990s emphasizing strategic partnerships and dialogues with other countries to cover topics ranging from counterterrorism to bilateral security cooperation.[iii] In 2004, Chinese President Hu Jintao stated that the PLA had a mandate to support Beijing’s global interests, reflecting a shift from its traditional role in territorial defense to power projection. This announcement, in some ways, connected the PLA with the mission of diplomacy.[iv] President Xi Jinping reiterated this transformation in 2015 by declaring the start of a new phase of military diplomacy to advance national interests.[v]

Over the decades, these foundations served as a launchpad for China to increase global engagement with other states through military activities. According to data from a study on Chinese military diplomacy from 2003-2016, Chinese engagement in different levels of military diplomacy (high-level defense meetings, military exercises, and port calls) has generally remained active despite fluctuations in the numbers of these activities.[vi]

According to the same study, however, the vast expansion of the PLA’s role in relationship-building does not necessarily reflect a substantial increase in China’s influence on the global stage. Instead, these activities reflect the state of Beijing’s relations with a particular country.[vii] However, this conclusion is not to say that Beijing’s military diplomacy is useless for China in other aspects of statecraft. Chinese military diplomacy is a useful signaling instrument to outside observers of the growing strength of the PLA’s capabilities and the potential for China as an alternative provider of security. This phenomenon can be seen in recent activities of Chinese military diplomacy this year.

This month, China’s military diplomacy saw a flurry of activity spread across military exercises and arms sales to different partner states. First in early September, Chinese and Pakistani warplanes concluded a two-week joint training session titled “Shaheen VIII” where the two countries’ air forces practiced combat maneuvers.[viii] Second, Chinese military forces are also participating in the Tsentr military exercises near Orenburg, Russia, focusing on counterterrorism, air-defense, and combined arms operations. Tsentr 2019 involves the militaries of India, Pakistan, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.[ix] Third, on September 13, China and Thailand signed a shipbuilding agreement allowing the Royal Thai Navy to procure amphibious vessels from state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation.[x]

These three cases demonstrate the different benefits found within China’s military diplomacy for Beijing. On one level, PLA air exercises with Pakistan and Beijing’s agreement to sell amphibious vessels to Thailand reflect China’s ability to present itself as a security provider to these countries. For Pakistan, the recent Shaheen air exercise provided opportunities for its pilots to fly Chinese-designed aircraft and jointly operate with their counterparts, enabling Pakistan’s military to depend on the PLA for both equipment and training. Likewise, Thailand’s decision to purchase PLA vessels also gives opportunities for Bangkok to fall within Beijing’s sphere of influence when it comes to the acquisition of new military assets. These connections give Beijing a crucial foothold in these states’ military training and procurement decisions, especially when countries such as Pakistan and Thailand also purchase military equipment from the United States.

Tsentr 2019 in Russia is another example of the use of signaling in Chinese military diplomacy to convey a message of unity. China’s participation in Tsentr 2019 follows a trend of convergence between Moscow and Beijing, with both states participating in the Vostok 2018 exercises and continually pushing back against U.S. global influence.[xi] Tsentr 2019 will continue to project similar messages and overtones, with China and Russia relying on their strategic partnership to present themselves as an alternative center of power to the United States. In this case, China continues to build upon its strategic relationship with Russia through military exercises while also giving its military forces opportunities to flex their capabilities in the open.

Because China’s military diplomacy will continue to remain an essential element in Beijing’s foreign policy, the United States must continue monitoring it closely. China’s decision to sell equipment or technology to specific clients may provide insights into which regions or actors Beijing is trying to prioritize in its broader diplomacy. Similarly, the types of military exercises, in addition to the equipment and units involved, also reflect which capabilities the country is trying to expand or demonstrate. Policymakers and analysts’ continued observation of China’s military diplomacy helps further contextualize the PLA’s role in Chinese foreign policy and Beijing’s use of security instruments to incentivize other states to align with it.


[i] Erik Pajtinka, “Military Diplomacy and its Present Functions,” Security Dimensions 20 (December 2016): 184.

[ii] ChinaPower, “How is China Bolstering its Military Diplomatic Relations?” Center for Strategic and International Studies,

[iii] Kenneth Allen, “The Top Trends in China’s Military Diplomacy,” Jamestown Foundation, May 1, 2015,

[iv] Department of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019,” 2019: 15.

[v] Penghong Cai, “ASEAN’s Defense Diplomacy and China’s Military Diplomacy,” Asia Policy 22 (July 2016): 92.

[vi] Kenneth Allen, Phillip C. Saunders, and John Chen, “Chinese Military Diplomacy, 2003-2016: Trends and Implications,” China Strategic Perspectives 11 (July 2017): 18.

[vii] Ibid., 61.

[viii] Sutirtho Patranobis, “Pakistan Fighters in Biggest ‘Real-Combat Level’ Drill with China Months After post-Balakot Dogfight with India,” Hindustan Times, September 7, 2019,

[ix] Roger McDermott, “Russia’s Armed Forces Test UAV Capabilities in Tsentr 2019,” Jamestown Foundation, September 18, 2019,

[x] Mike Yeo, “Thailand to Acquire Amphibious Ship from China,” Defense News, September 13, 2019,

[xi] Kristin Huang, “China to Join Russia in War Games as Beijing’s Ties to Washington Unravel,” South China Morning Post, August 22, 2019,

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