Senior Fellow for Chinese Defence Policy and Military Modernisation

Meia Nouwens

The evolving nature of China’s military diplomacy: from visits to vaccines

In 2020 and 2021, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) supported China’s civilian COVID-19-related diplomatic activities. This seemingly falls in line with President Xi Jinping’s call in 2015 for the PLA to play a more prominent role in supporting China’s foreign policy. However, compared with China’s civilian ‘mask diplomacy’ efforts, the PLA’s COVID-19-related military diplomacy were more limited in a number of ways. What do these activities tell us about the Chinese military’s place in China’s COVID-19-related foreign policy?

Executive summary

The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) military-to-military cooperation in response to the global coronavirus pandemic signals a growing role for the military within China’s diplomatic activities.

Historically, the PLA played a minor role in Chinese foreign policy. However, in the wake of a more nationalist and assertive Chinese foreign policy, the PLA’s role in national diplomacy and security strategy has grown to serve both strategic and operational goals and has reached new heights in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

Military-to-military COVID-19-related engagement has taken place within a larger context of Beijing’s expanded diplomatic efforts to improve China’s global reputation following its initial delayed and mishandled response at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020.

Publicly available data shows that COVID-19 military diplomacy began in March 2020, when the PLA sent protective equipment and clothing to Iran. In February 2021, the PLA began to donate COVID-19 vaccines to overseas militaries. The PLA’s vaccine assistance to 13 countries globally fits within a wider vaccine-centric diplomatic effort by the Chinese government but so far has been far smaller in scale.

Between March 2020 and April 2021, the PLA has provided military medical assistance or donations to 56 countries around the world, and a United Nations peacekeeping mission. In all but two cases, the PLA’s medical diplomatic activities were directed at countries belonging to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Geographically, the PLA mostly engaged with countries in the Asia–Pacific and Africa. The focus on the BRI and South–South diplomacy also reflects China’s wider diplomatic narrative and foreign policy objectives.

The PLA’s activities were usually framed within the ‘responsible stakeholder’ narrative that China sought to promote through its civilian aid diplomacy. It is likely that the PLA sought to cooperate with militaries wherever it could and focussed on countries with which it already enjoyed established friendly relations, rather than using the PLA’s military diplomacy to establish new strategic relations.

The PLA’s military diplomatic activities relating to the coronavirus demonstrate that the PLA will increasingly play a greater role in China’s foreign diplomacy, in line with President Xi’s instructions.

The PLA’s participation in COVID-19-related military diplomacy should ultimately be seen as an extension of the PLA’s responsibilities in promoting China’s national security cooperation and diplomatic efforts, as per Xi’s instructions in 2015.