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People's Liberation Navy -Foreign Policy

The Chinese navy kept troops close to land from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s under the strategy of inshore defense. Since the 1980s, the Navy had realized a strategic transformation to offshore defensive operations. China issued its first white paper on military strategy on 26 May 2015, stressing "active defense" and pledging closer international security cooperation. The white paper, "China's Military Strategy", issued by the State Council Information Office, outlined a strategy unifying strategic defense and operational and tactical offense.

The shift in the PLA Navy's focus to a combination of "offshore waters defense and open seas protection" is essential as China is facing rising challenges from the sea and the country is more reliant on maritime resources and energy, said Yu Miao, a researcher with the Academy of Military Science (AMS) of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA).

The traditional mentality that control of the land was more important than control of the sea must be abandoned, and great importance had to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests, said the paper. The PLA Navy will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defense and comprehensive support.

Since the mid-1990's, most Asian nations had taken advantage of naval diplomacy to further their foreign policy goals, and the region's naval activities have increasingly expanded from bilateral to multilateral in focus. The 17-member Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) has held 10 biennial meetings and multiple preparatory workshops since it was established in 1988. WPNS has 21 member countries, including China, plus four observer countries.

Beijing has taken full advantage of this trend in naval diplomacy by using the PLAN as a valuable, but small component of its robust worldwide, multilevel foreign relations program. Since Deng Xiaoping initiated a broad program of foreign military exchanges in the late 1970s, PLAN commanders have traveled abroad about 21 times to 34 different countries, and have hosted more than 70 counterparts from about 30 countries. The PLAN's political commissars have traveled abroad only a few times. In addition, the PLAN has conducted 25 ship visits abroad to 60 countries and territories. The PLAN conducted its first around-the-world voyage in 2002.

Within the context of its overall naval foreign relations program, the PLAN has taken a high-profile, dual-purpose posture in the South China Sea. On one hand, the PLAN has increased its physical presence in the South China Sea and East China Sea, while on the other hand it has increased the number of port calls as a form of confidence-building measures.

China's Military Diplomacy

Since China began to open to the outside world in the early 1980s, the PLA's foreign relations have evolved as a means to advance China's national defense policy in several ways. According to the PRC's 2004 defense white paper,

Adhering to the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, China persists in developing friendly relations and strengthening cooperation with other countries on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence, and devotes itself to promoting international security dialogues and cooperation of all forms.

Based on information from the PRC's five defense white papers and other PLA writings, the five general goals of the PLA's foreign exchange program are listed below. For all practical purposes, the PLA has been fairly successful in meeting each of these goals.

  • Shape the international security environment to support key national security objectives
  • Improve political and military relations with foreign countries
  • Provide military assistance to developing countries
  • Enhance China's military and defense industry modernization by acquiring technology and advancing key research and development programs through foreign assistance
  • Help China's military leaders, younger officers, and civilian cadre acquire modern military knowledge, especially from the developed world, in doctrine, operations, training, military medicine, administration, and a host of non-combat-related areas.
On 13 November 2009, at a well-attended private sector-organized International Piracy Conference, senior Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy officers stated China was committed to deploying its fleet to the Horn of Africa (HOA) until the region was stable and secure. They urged greater international cooperation in combating maritime piracy, in line with Beijing's official request in early November to co-lead multinational anti-piracy coordination efforts in Bahrain, known as SHADE (Shared Awareness and Deconfliction). European officials speaking at the conference announced China would soon be alternating SHADE leadership with the EU, NATO, and Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), described changing pirate tactics, and warned the Somali piracy problem was quickly evolving into an Indian Ocean problem, threatening vital Europe-Asia sea lanes. Conference attendees strongly opposed the arming of merchant ships and called for a stronger international naval force presence.

The conference, co-hosted by Hong Kong's branch of the Nautical Institute (NI) and the Hong Kong Ship Owners Association (HKSOA), was attended by over 140 members of Hong Kong's maritime industry, including ship owners, managers, financiers, lawyers, insurers, and suppliers, as well as a large press corps. Since December 2008, China had deployed four warship contingents of three-vessels each to Somali waters. As of 11 November 2009, China had assisted 1,110 merchant ships along the Gulf of Aden (GOA) and the Somali Basin (SB) through convoy escorts, security patrols, and the onboard deployment of special tactical units on some Chinese-flagged vessels.

Attendees were unified in their strong opposition to arming merchant ships to combat piracy. Captain Li Chi-wai, Hong Kong Seamen's Union Chairman, stated seafarers were not soldiers and lacked weapons training. Instead, Li hoped international navies would form a United Nations force to establish safe trade corridors while simultaneously pursuing and disabling pirate "mother" ships active in the region. Hong Kong's Marine Department Director Roger Tupper opposed the use of armed private security guards on ships but welcomed military escorts with clear training on rules of engagement. However, their employment should only be temporary while the international community dealt with the current limitations of reduced naval patrolling assets, ineffective regional law enforcement and judicial courts, and Somalia's internal conflict. Father Stephen Miller, Managing Director for Anglican Church-rooted Mission to Seafarers at the Dubai International Seafarers Centre, argued arming merchant crews would not provide a solution to the piracy problem nor would it make crews any safer. Rather, such measures would lead to a more violent escalation of the problem. Father Miller encouraged ship owners and managers to invest in BMP and train crews at evasive techniques.

PLAN Foreign Relations

As part of the PLA's overall foreign affairs program, the PLAN's interaction with foreign countries has four major components, including high-level exchanges, ship visits, functional exchanges, and arms sales and purchases.

High-Level Naval Exchanges

High-level naval exchanges by the PLAN and foreign naval officers can be divided into the following categories, some of which may overlap:

  • International politics
  • Arms purchases and technology transfer
  • "Show the flag" and promote goodwill
  • Regional security discussions

As the figures below show, travel by the PLAN commander has been somewhat uneven. From 1991-2002, the PLAN commander averaged one trip abroad per year, involving one to four countries. Since early 2002, the three PLAN commanders have continued to host several foreign naval counterparts each year, but no PLAN commander has traveled abroad. The last PLAN political commissar visit abroad was in early 2003, when Vice Admiral Yang Huaiqing visited Algeria and Mexico before he and Shi Yunsheng were replaced as a result of the Ming submarine accident.

These visits are not concentrated in any one geographical region, but are split almost evenly between Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, followed by South America and North America. A PLAN commander has only made one visit to Africa and zero visits to the Middle East. The commander has visited only one Southeast Asian country.

PLA Navy Commander Visits Abroad: 1982-2006 PLA Navy Commander Visits Abroad by Region and Country: 1982-2006 PLA Navy Commander Visits
Abroad by Region: 1982-2006

Blending Diplomacy with Seamanship

As shown in the next set of figures, (below) China sent only 2 task groups abroad to 4 countries and hosted 23 port calls from 14 countries during the 1980s. During the 1990s, the PLAN dispatched 10 task groups for port calls to 20 countries and hosted 30 port calls from 17 countries. Since January 2000, the PLAN has sent 13 task forces on 37 country visits and hosted about 25 foreign naval ship visits. The PLAN has conducted all of its ship visits using 7 different destroyers, 7 frigates, 2 training ships, and 6 replenishment ships. As the program has progressed, the PLAN has used its port calls as an opportunity to show off its newest ships as well as to train its crews in open-ocean operations.

PLA Navy Ship Visits Abroad: 1985-2006 PLA Navy Ship Visits by Region and Country: 1985-2006 PLA Navy Ship Visits Abroad: 1985-2006

A typical PLAN port call abroad lasts 2-4 days in each country. The task force commander is usually one of the three fleet commanders. The shortest voyage was to North Korea and the longest voyage covered more than 30,000 nautical miles and four months to circumnavigate the globe in 2002. Some of the visits have been arranged so that the PLAN could participate in various anniversaries, such as Indonesia's 50th anniversary, the 35th anniversary of the Sino-DPRK friendship treaty, the 30th anniversary of Sino-Canadian diplomatic relations, the 50th anniversary of Sino-Pakistan relations, the 100th anniversary of the Philippine Navy, and Russia's 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and 300th anniversary of the Russian Navy.

Foreign ships have visited Shanghai, Qingdao, Zhanjiang, and Guangzhou. Of these, Shanghai had received the most visitors. For example, as of August 2006, Shanghai had hosted more than 60,000 people in 912 delegations and 87 port calls by foreign vessels from 120 countries. In 2003, the PLAN conducted its first joint maritime search-and-rescue exercises during separate visits by vessels from Pakistan and India. Since then, it had conducted similar exercises with French, British, and Australian vessels. The PLAN also conducted search-andrescue exercises during its ship visits to the United States, Canada, and the Philippines in late 2006.

For comparison purposes, the US Navy Seventh Fleet's official website states, "Seventh Fleet units conduct more than 100 exercises per year with nations throughout Asia. These exercises are an essential part of our overall engagement program, and are imperative to building friendships and maintaining interoperability." The PLAN identifies the following three broad objectives for its ship visits:

  • Improving political and military relations between China and the PLAN host country at the state-to-state level
  • Learning lessons from foreign militaries that may prove useful in the PLAN's modernization efforts
  • Improving relations between China and the PLAN host country at the person-toperson level

State-to-State Diplomacy

The primary objective of PLAN ship visits is to improve political and military relations between China and the PLAN host nation. While the total number of dispatched task forces and country visits is still relatively low, there had been a significant increase in the quantity of PLAN ship visits abroad since 1997. The first year China dispatched two task forces in a single year was 1997. It was also the first time a PLAN vessel visited South America. Indeed, this was the first time a PLAN vessel visited anywhere outside the Asia-Pacific region. The growing quantity and scope of PLAN voyages beginning in 1997 illustrates the increased foreign- policy role China assigns to its naval fleet.

During those 1997 voyages, the PLAN assigned precedence to showing the Chinese flag abroad at the expense of Chinese military readiness. The overriding goal was to illustrate to the people of those countries, including overseas Chinese who visited the ships in huge numbers during port calls, that China and the PLAN were both open to the outside world and no longer just a backward coastal navy. Significantly, China simultaneously deployed its only two relatively capable, reasonably modern warships, the two new Luhu-class guided-missile destroyers, away from Chinese waters. The readiness of these ships to participate in some potential crisis, such as in the Taiwan Strait, was effectively subordinated to the value of sending these ships to North and South America and to three ASEAN countries.

Second, the government and the PLAN expended the effort and resources to plan and conduct these extensive cruises, accepting the risk that its untested ships might break down or that other embarrassing circumstances might be encountered.

Finally, of the 60 country visits made by PLAN ships since 1985, 77% of those visits have taken place since 1997. Prior to 1997, PLAN vessels had conducted 14 country visits in the Asia-Pacific region, including the United States (Hawaii). Since January 1997, PLAN vessels have conducted 46 country and territory visits, including 24 in the Asia-Pacific region, 6 in North America, 5 in South America, 8 in Europe and 3 in Africa.

Modernization Lessons

The next objective of PLAN ship visits is to provide the PLAN with an opportunity for observing foreign navies and gathering examples that may prove useful in its own modernization efforts. During such visits, they attempt to understand the profound differences between the PLAN's posture, doctrine, and attitudes as contrasted with other navies, especially the USN, which it sees as a world standard. The PLAN takes every advantage to learn as much as possible from foreign ship visits to China.

In an unprecedented move, Beijing accepted an invitation from Washington to send PLAN officers to observe RimPac 98, the major multinational Pacific Ocean naval exercise. Similar previous invitations had been rejected, due to China's general aversion to activities that might contribute towards the appearance or reality of an Asia-Pacific regional security architecture.

Two Chinese representatives, the commanding officer of a PLAN destroyer and an associate professor at the Naval Command Academy, were sent to observe.

Person-to-Person Diplomacy

The final goal of PLAN ship visits is to improve relations between China and the private citizens of PLAN host nations. During the port calls abroad, the PLAN had engaged in several activities. Like the other PLA and PLAAF officers who have traveled abroad, the task force leaders have met with senior government and military officials of the host country and paid visits to naval schools and facilities. The PLAN delegation also opens their ships for visits by naval officials and the public. During the 1997 visit to the United States, Mexico, Peru, and Chile, more than 64,000 people visited the ships.

The Navy had also drawn the attention of local Chinese, such as during their visit to Seattle in 2000 where hundreds of overseas Chinese adults and students, as well as 100 children from a local Chinese-language school, participated in the open house. PLAN sailors have engaged in soccer and basketball competition with the host country's sailors. Meanwhile, the host country usually provides some type of honor ceremony and provides local entertainment for the crew, such as when Malaysian native tribes performed traditional singing and dance. During the training ship Zhenghe's visit to Hawaii in 1989, the local Chinese-American community in Honolulu held several special events for and in honor of the crew.

Functional and Educational Exchanges

Functional and educational exchanges are conducted primarily to benefit naval modernization efforts, but they also meet some criteria for supporting China's foreign policy. The PLAN's relations with other navies provide ideas for the badly needed PLAN reforms in areas such as personnel management, training, logistics, and equipment maintenance. The PLAN had also adopted other concepts from foreign navies. Specifically, the PLAN is emulating programs for training students attending civilian universities to become Navy officers. China will increasingly look to its version of a Naval Reserve Officer Training program to supplement its naval academies in supplying officers, especially officers with technical degrees who can function better in a navy adopting advanced technologies. The PLAN had used various educational exchanges to support the broader goals of the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA. This is reflected in its small-scale undertakings involving other countries with which the Chinese government had pursued closer ties. The PLAN provided training for students from Cambodia and several African countries in PLAN facilities in Qingdao and Shanghai, but this apparently ended in the early 1980s.

The PLAN provided training for the Thai Navy in the early 1990s in connection with Thailand's purchase from China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) of four Jianghu frigates- two of which visited Shanghai in September 2002. Similar training had been provided to the Egyptian Navy. The training for Thailand and Egypt was conducted by the PLAN but funded by CSSC. Between 1985 and 1993, the PLAN had only about 100 naval personnel take part in academic exchanges and/or study abroad. By the late-1990s, the PLAN had stopped, at least temporarily, sending officers abroad for training in military schools. This is in contrast to the other services that stepped up their student activities abroad. One possible reason is that former PLAN Commander Zhang Lianzhong's negative attitude toward foreign travel affected this aspect of the PLAN's foreign relations, but it may also be that the PLAN spends the majority of its foreign relations budget on ship visits.

Looking to the Future

The PLAN had become fairly predictable in its foreign relations cycle since the mid-1990s and will most likely continue at the same pace for the rest of this decade. Although China's commander and ship visits abroad have received attention over the past few years, they are remarkable primarily because they have occurred within the context of Chinese naval modernization. While both total numbers of commander and ship visits are small, they are noteworthy given the fact that the PLAN is an organization in flux; it is currently seeking a new doctrine and the capabilities to implement this as-yet undefined doctrine.

On the other hand, these exchanges were also noteworthy given the fact that they have increased at such a small pace and scale relative to high-level Chinese military visits from the PLA ground forces and Air Force. Between now and 2010, the PLAN can be expected to average one annual voyage consisting of two to three port calls abroad and to host five to ten foreign ships per year. There are no discernible PLAN preferences for which months to conduct port calls, but none have taken place during January or February. Foreign ship port calls will take place equally throughout the year and will be an even mix between Shanghai and Qingdao, with an occasional visit to Guangzhou.

The PLAN commander had not traveled abroad since 2002. Initially, the reason was due to the fallout from the Ming submarine accident in early 2003 and commander Shi Yunsheng's subsequent replacement that summer. It is not clear why Zhang Dingfa did not travel during 2004 and 2005, but may have to do with health reasons that led to his removal from office in August 2006.

Now that Wu Shengli had become the commander, he and his successor will most likely continue to take one trip overseas to one to four countries and to host an average of three to six counterparts per year. PLAN political commissars have led only four delegations abroad since 1990, so they are not expected to travel much over the next decade. Overall, the total number of PLAN flag officers who travel abroad is comparatively less than the Army or Air Force. This most likely reflects the Army's dominance of the program and that the PLAN spends most of its foreign relations budget hosting foreign ships and conducting its own ship visits abroad.

There are certain predictors for PLAN commander and ship visits abroad. One predictor for ship visits abroad is upcoming anniversaries, including five-year increments of diplomatic ties with the PRC or major host-country naval anniversaries. In addition, the PLAN dispatched its two Luhu destroyers (Harbin and Qingdao), its first Luhai destroyer (Shenzhen), and all of its Jiangwei frigates on port calls 18-48 months after they were commissioned. The question is whether the PLAN will follow the same pattern and use its new Sovremenny destroyers for port visits at some point in the near future.

Concerning visits by the PLAN commander, at least one trip to Pakistan and Thailand will most likely occur. Regionally, an equal number of trips to Asia and Europe will take place, with at least one to two visits including countries in South America. About one-half of the commander's visits will be reciprocal exchanges either the year before or the year after hosting his counterpart. He will most likely travel during April, July, or November, and will probably not travel between December and March.

Most of the PLAN's senior officer and ship visits with particular countries have taken place along with increased exchanges among senior political and military officials. These of- ficials include the president, premier, foreign minister, Central Military Commission vicechairmen, defense minister, and chief of the general staff. There is no discernible pattern as to whether the PLAN visits take place before or after any other official. This trend will most likely continue throughout the decade.

There are political and economic limitations, however, to the number of exchanges China and the region can handle in the future. Most countries in Asia, including China, limit themselves to the total number of military exchanges they can hold annually, and specific limits are placed on the number and types of relations they hold with individual countries. Besides political issues, there are limited funds for these exchanges. It is expensive, and getting more expensive every year, to send delegations abroad and to host foreign delegations in-country. In addition, the rising cost of fuel will limit what some navies can accomplish in the future.

Finally, the PLAN had military attachs assigned in only a couple of countries, including the United States and Britain.

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Page last modified: 28-07-2015 03:17:35 ZULU