China’s Foreign Military Relations: 2003-2004

China’s Foreign Military Relations: 2003-2004

In December 2004, China issued its fourth biennial defence white paper. The four reports show that the extensive and expanding programmes the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducts with foreign military establishments are an increasingly important component of China’s defence policy and global diplomacy.[i]


This article begins by briefly discussing the sources of information on the PLA’s foreign relations programmes. It then examines how the white papers describe the role of international security co-operation in China’s overall foreign relations and national defence strategy. The article concludes by looking at the various types of international security co-operation that took place during 2003 and 2004.


Obvious questions arising from the data provided in the white papers that require further study elsewhere include:

(1)   What are the goals China is using these activities to achieve?

(2)   Is China seeking to establish a sphere of influence in its own backyard to either reduce or expel US influence?

(3)   Is China positioning itself to be able to play a more global political role through greater strategic involvement?

(4)   Does China want to establish relationships that protect the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that are critical to its energy import programme?

(5)   Why were US observers not invited to certain exercises?

(6)   What is the importance of listing the countries in a certain protocol order?

(7)   How much of the exchange programmes is form versus substance?


Sources of Information

Since the mid-1980s, the PLA has gradually become more transparent about its foreign military relations programme, but much more is needed on a daily basis to meet the level of transparency other countries provide about their military. China has provided information about its foreign military relations programme on the Internet and has published various yearbooks that summarize the information, but no one source has all of the information. Therefore, for a thorough picture of the programme, one must examine all of the material available.


The two primary sources of information on the Internet are China’s Xinhua News Agency and the PLA Daily, where articles can be found in Chinese and English.[ii] Besides publishing articles about individual exchanges throughout the year, the two sites carry an annual review that summarizes the activity for the past twelve months. Most of the articles provide only the dates and delegation members without discussing the substantive part of the visit.


Besides individual press items, China publishes two yearbooks that provide information on the PLA’s military exchanges. The PLA has published the World Military Yearbook since 1985.[iii] Beginning in 1992, the yearbook included a separate chapter with a list of major military exchanges taken from Xinhua and the PLA Daily.[iv]


In addition, the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has published an annual review of China’s foreign relations since the late 1980s.[v] Each country discussed has a section covering any military relations that took place during the year.


The most valuable source for putting the PLA’s foreign exchange programme in the broader context of the PRC’s overall foreign relations and national defence strategy has been China’s National Defence, which China’s State Council Information Office has published every two years since 1998.[vi] Each of the four reports, more commonly referred to as defence white papers, has a section entitled ‘International Security Co-operation’. Various subcategories have included ‘Foreign Military Contacts’, ‘Promoting Confidence-Building Measures’, ‘Regional Security Co-operation’, ‘Participating in the UN Peacekeeping Operations’, ‘Anti-Terrorism Co-operation’, ‘Military Exchanges and Co-operation’, ‘Strategic Consultation and Dialogue’ and ‘Co-operation in Non-Traditional Security Fields’.


The Role of International Security Co-operation

The four white papers describe the role of international security co-operation, which includes not only the PLA but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as part of the PRC’s larger foreign affairs programme and national defence strategy and as a means to help the PLA’s reform and modernization programme. International security co-operation serves ‘the fundamental interests of the country’ because ‘China’s national defence policy is both subordinated to and in service of the country’s development and security strategies. China’s basic goals and tasks in maintaining national security are…to pursue an independent foreign policy of peace and adhere to the new security concept featuring mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination with a view to securing a long-term and favourable international and surrounding environment’.


According to the white papers, ‘China handles its military relations independently and conducts military exchanges and co-operation with other countries on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence’.[vii] As a member of the UN Security Council and on the basis of the UN Charter, the PRC is paying particular attention to the role of military co-operation through ‘multilateral and bilateral security dialogues’ to ‘develop friendly relations’, ‘enhance mutual trust,’ and seek ‘regional and world peace, stability and development’.


The 2004 white paper acknowledges the role international security co-operation fulfils in China’s military reform and modernization programmes. It states that ‘the PLA learns from and draws on the valuable experience of foreign armed forces, and introduces, on a selective basis, technologically advanced equipment and better management expertise from abroad to advance the modernization of the Chinese armed forces’.[viii] The white paper also emphasizes how China has incorporated what it has learned from foreign militaries into a ‘streamlined military with Chinese characteristics’.[ix]

International Security Co-operation During 2003 and 2004

The 2004 white paper discusses a fairly broad foreign relations programme for the PLA for the years 2003 and 2004, including new programmes as well as continuing some programmes established during previous years.

Strategic Consultation and Dialogue

In recent years, China has increased its bilateral and multilateral strategic consultation and dialogues with several countries at the vice foreign minister level as well as between the militaries.[x] In 1997, China and Russia established a military consultation mechanism, and in 2003 and 2004 the two General Staff headquarters held their seventh and eighth meetings. Also during 2003 and 2004, China and the United States held the third and fourth meetings of the military maritime and air safety working groups under the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement signed in 1998. In addition, China held strategic consultations and dialogues with several other countries, including France, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Italy, Poland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand, Japan, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. 

Regional Security Co-operation

Today, China is actively involved in various regional security organizations, such as the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).[xi] According to the 2000 white paper, ‘Representatives of the China’s ministries of foreign affairs and national defence have attended all the ARF foreign ministers’ and senior officials’ meetings. They have also attended official or unofficial meetings on confidence-building measures, peacekeeping, maritime search and rescue, emergency rescue and disaster relief, preventive diplomacy, non-proliferation, and guiding principles within the framework of the ARF. During 1999-2000, Beijing hosted the fourth ARF Meeting of Heads of Defence Colleges and the ARF Seminar on Defence Conversion Co-operation’.[xii] China’s stated goal for its involvement is that ‘ARF should continue to focus on confidence-building measures, explore new security concepts and methods, and discuss the question of preventive diplomacy.’[xiii]

Co-operation in Non-Traditional Security Fields

The PLA has recently taken an active part in non-traditional security fields such as joint counter-terrorism, maritime search and rescue, combating piracy, and cracking down on drug production and trafficking[xiv] The ministers of defence of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan signed a Memorandum of the Ministries of National Defence of the SCO Member Countries on holding the ‘Joint-2003’ Counter-terrorism Exercise. The armed forces of the five countries successfully conducted the first multilateral counter-terrorism exercise in August 2003. The armed forces of China and Pakistan conducted a joint counter-terrorism exercise on their border in August 2004. The Chinese Navy conducted separate joint maritime search-and-rescue exercises off the Chinese coast with naval vessels from Pakistan, India, France, Britain and Australia during 2003 and 2004.

Participating in UN Peacekeeping Operations

Since its first dispatch of military observers to the UN peacekeeping operations in 1990, China has sent 3,362 military personnel to thirteen UN peacekeeping operations as observers, engineers, transportation personnel, medical personnel and policemen.[xv]

Military Exchanges

China has conducted military exchanges with more than 150 countries in the world.[xvi] In 1986, China had military attachés in sixty countries and hosted attachés from forty countries. Today, China has more than 100 military attaché offices in its embassies abroad, and eighty-five countries have military attachés in China.[xvii] Of note, however, almost all of the PLA’s attachés are Army officers. Only a few Navy and Air Force officers are assigned abroad as attachés.

High-Level Exchanges

During 2003 and 2004, the PLA sent high-level military delegations to more than 60 countries and hosted over 130 delegations of military leaders from more than 70 countries.[xviii] China’s Minister of National Defence visited the United States in October 2003, the first such visit in seven years. The Director-General of the Japanese Defence Agency visited China in May 2003, after an interval of five years. The Indian and Chinese ministers of defence exchanged visits in April 2003 and March 2004, respectively, the first of its kind in many years. Meanwhile, military exchanges between China and European countries increased. China also strengthened military relations with its surrounding countries, extended military exchanges with other developing countries, and continued to provide militaries of some countries such assistance as personnel training, equipment, logistical materials and medical treatment.


Based on a chart in the 2004 report, the following senior PLA leaders (i.e., Commander and Political Commissar/PC) led delegations abroad during 2003 and 2004:[xix] (Note: each bullet represents a single visit.)


  • Vice Chairman, Central Military Commission

        Russia, Egypt, and South Africa (2004)

  • Minister of National Defence

        Russia (twice in 2003)

        United States (2003)

        Pakistan, India, and Thailand (2004)

        France, Belgium and Switzerland (2004)

  • Chief of the General Staff

        Tanzania, South Africa and Morocco (2003)

        Pakistan, Brunei and Malaysia (2003)

        France, Romania, Russia and the United Kingdom (2004)

        United States, Australia and New Zealand (2004)

·        General Political Department

        Director: North Korea (2003)

        Director: United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal (2003)

        Director: Mexico and Cuba (2004)

·        General Logistics Department

        PC: Zambia, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe (2003)

        PC: Cuba and Venezuela (2004)

·        General Equipment Department

        PC: Poland, Czech and Slovakia (2003)

        PC: Cuba (2004)

  • 7 Military Regions (MRs)

        Guangzhou MR

§         Commander: Jordan and Lebanon (2004)

        Jinan MR

§         Commander: Thailand and Philippines (2003)

§         Commander: Chile and Uruguay (2004)

§         PC: Egypt and Syria (2004)

        Lanzhou MR

§         Commander: Zambia and Angola (2004)

§         PC: Croatia and Romania (2003)

§         PC: Russia and Hungary (2004)

        Nanjing MR

§         Commander: United States and Canada (2003)

§         Commander: Finland and Sweden (2004)

§         PC: Romania and Croatia (2004)

        Shenyang MR

§         Commander: South Korea and Brunei (2004)

§         PC: Cuba (2003)

  • PLA Navy:

        PC: Algeria and Mexico (2003)

  • PLA Air Force

        Commander: Egypt and Sudan (2003)

        PC: Russia and Greece (2003)

        PC: Egypt and Tanzania (2004)

  • Academy of Military Science (AMS)

        President: Mexico (2003)

  • National Defence University (NDU)

_  President: United States (2003)

        President: Israel, Jordan and Ukraine (2004)

        PC: Hungary and Italy (2003)

        PC: Germany and Poland (2004)

  • Second Artillery (no visits noted)
Exercise Observers

In August 2003, the PLA began permitting foreign military officers to observe its exercises when officers from fifteen countries were invited to witness the Beijing Military Region’s joint exercise Northern Sword.[xx] In September 2004, the PLA Navy invited observers from foreign militaries to watch its Exercise Dragon-2004. In the same month, military leaders or observers from sixteen neighbouring countries – not including the United States – and their military attachés stationed in China were invited to observe Exercise Iron Fist-2004 organized by the Jinan Military Region. In June 2004, China invited foreign naval attachés from fifteen foreign embassies in China to observe a Sino-British joint maritime search-and-rescue exercise. In addition, the PLA sent delegations to observe military exercises in Russia and Japan, as well as joint military exercises by the United States, Thailand and Singapore.

Naval Ship Visits

From October to November 2003, Chinese naval ships made port visits to Brunei, Singapore and the US territory of Guam.[xxi] Meanwhile, naval ships from the United Kingdom, Russia, the United States, Pakistan, India, France, Indonesia and other countries visited China.

Academic Exchanges

The PLA pursued active military academic exchanges with foreign militaries.[xxii] The PLA Academy of Military Science and other Chinese research centres had extensive academic exchanges with overseas counterpart institutions. The PLA has increased both the number of military students it sends abroad and the foreign military students it receives in China. In recent years, the PLA has sent more than 1,000 military students to more than twenty countries. At the same time, nineteen PLA colleges and universities have established inter-collegiate exchange relations with their counterparts in twenty-five countries, including the United States and Russia. Over the past two years, 1,245 military personnel from ninety-one countries visited China to study in Chinese military colleges and universities, and officers from forty-four of these countries have participated in the fifth and sixth International Symposium Course hosted by the PLA National Defence University.

Functional Exchanges

Although high-level exchanges and naval ship visits receive routine media coverage, functional exchanges are equally important but rarely receive coverage. Occasionally, however, an article provides a glimpse at this type of activity. For example, from November to December 2004, the PLA sent four inspection teams consisting of more than 100 personnel from four division- and brigade-level units to conduct separate studies of the military in Argentina and Venezuela, Egypt and Turkey, Thailand and Malaysia, and Switzerland and Greece.[xxiii] These visits were the first time division- and brigade-level officers were included in a delegation.



China’s expanding foreign military programmes and support for UN peacekeeping operations (PKO) serve multiple purposes. Clearly, they are designed to improve military relations with foreign countries. Perhaps politically more important in Asia is the desire to minimize the sense of threat that has accompanied China’s steadily improving military capabilities. Similarly, Beijing’s PKO contributions serve to create and sustain China’s image as a responsible major power. Whereas these goals generally serve China’s foreign and security policy objectives, Beijing has not attempted to hide the role these programmes play in reforming and modernizing the PLA. Here the objective goes beyond learning about how other more advanced militaries develop doctrine, concepts of operations, logistical support and training. The PLA is also interested in gaining knowledge about military administration, military medicine and other non-combat areas. 


The number of trips abroad by the PLA’s senior leaders has not grown appreciably the past several years. The Minister of National Defence travelled only twice each year to a total of nine countries. The Chief of the General Staff also travelled abroad twice each year to a total of thirteen countries. Meanwhile, the PLA Navy Commander did not travel either year, and the PLA Air Force Commander travelled abroad only once. Both the Navy’s and Air Force’s Political Commissar travelled abroad, visiting a total of six countries between them. Whereas the first Political Commissars to travel abroad focused mostly on communist and socialist countries, that is not the case today.


The major shift in China’s foreign military relations in the past couple of years has been conducting military exercises with neighbouring countries. Not wishing to have these exercises construed as alliance building, China takes care to call them ‘regional co-operation’ and ‘co-operation in non-traditional security fields.’ Nonetheless, conducting military exercises with its neighbours and inviting foreign military observers to its own exercises strongly suggest that Beijing has every intention of being recognized as a major regional military power.

Kenneth Allen

The author is a senior analyst in Project Asia at the CNA Corporation, a non‑profit research and analysis organization. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author. The author thanks Dennis Blasko, Paul Godwin, and Alan Romberg for their input to the article.



[i] For background on the PLA’s foreign military relations programme through 1999, see Kenneth W. Allen and Eric A. McVadon, China’s Foreign Military Relations, The Henry L. Stimson Center, October 1999 ( See also Kenneth Allen, ‘The PLA Navy’s Foreign Relations Programme,’ in RUSI’s Chinese Military update, Vol 1, No 9, March 2004.

[ii] The PLA Daily website in English is and in Chinese website

[iii] World Military Yearbook (Shijie Junshi Nianjian), Beijing: PLA Press. This yearbook has been published in 1985, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993-94, 1995-96, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003.

[iv] Neither the World Military Yearbook nor Xinhua published an annual summary for the years 1995, 2000, and 2001. In October 2002, however, Xinhua published a review of activities for 2001 and 2002. Although the Chinese name has remained the same (Jiefangjun Bao), the PLA Daily was formerly known in English as the Liberation Army Daily.