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China’s Lagging Military Diplomacy

On Sept. 13, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) concluded its fifth annual joint training exercise with Singapore’s armed forces. In March, the PLA conducted joint training with Cambodia’s army. In February, BRICS members China, Russia and South Africa conducted joint naval drills. These exercises were all part of Beijing’s military diplomacy campaign.

Military diplomacy deploys armed forces for foreign policy goals. Interaction between a nation’s military and foreign entities can achieve diplomatic goals and bolster security. China is increasingly leveraging its military for engagement and diplomatic advantages.

China’s exercises facilitate overseas training for its troops and provide practice in deploying and resupplying at distance. Military exchanges also foster alliances and enhance the PLA’s collaboration with foreign forces, boosting China’s global military presence.

China ranks third in firepower after the US and Russia, but aims to surpass the US as the dominant global military power by 2050. Apart from troop and weapon numbers, strengths of the US include its alliances and its ability to wage war from bases overseas. The US has 750 military bases across 80 countries. It is a leading member of the world’s largest military alliance, NATO, as well as AUKUS with Australia and the UK and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, India and Japan.

Furthermore, the US has bilateral defense agreements with the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and others, while also providing security for nations such as Saudi Arabia.

Through military diplomacy, China hopes to emulate and overcome the US’ advantages.

In addition to joint exercises, China’s military diplomacy incorporates defense cooperation, overseas bases, private security companies, providing weapons and technology, counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and regional security forums. Progress in these areas has varied, with some successes and some non-starters.

Defense cooperation is an area where China has been unable to make headway. Its only official defense agreement is with North Korea. The establishment of overseas bases has been slow: China has a base in Djibouti, air and naval facilities in Cambodia, as well as surveillance bases in Argentina, Cuba and on one of Myanmar’s islands in the Bay of Bengal. China has also obtained the right to deploy security forces to protect Chinese investments in more than 40 countries.

Chinese police, the PLA and private security companies have been sent to several countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Through a combination of military diplomacy and investment and trade agreements, China might yet be able to secure more overseas bases.

Beijing has had mixed success selling weapons and technology. It is one of the world’s top five arms exporters, but its weaponry lags behind Russian and US alternatives. Russia, despite needing weapons for its war in Ukraine, has overtaken China as the largest supplier of weapons in Africa. US-aligned nations such as EU states, the Philippines, Japan and Vietnam rarely buy Chinese arms, highlighting the link between diplomacy and arms sales.

Joint counterterrorism exercises, like the ones conducted with Singapore, are sometimes used as a less-threatening means of engaging with the security forces of another nation, which might be wary of hosting a Chinese base or participating in joint training. China has conducted similar exercises or training for local forces in Africa. In March, China led the China-Pakistan-Iran Trilateral Consultation on Counterterrorism and Security.

Humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping operations are a means of giving PLA troops operational experience in other countries, while enhancing China’s global standing. The PLA has participated in UN Blue Helmet peacekeeping and counterpiracy operations in Africa, as well as police operations in Haiti.

Regional security forums have had extremely mixed results for China. On the one hand, it has convinced other countries to participate in such events. On the other, no defense agreements have been signed and countries rarely agree to host Chinese bases. China participates in a number of regional security forums and organizations, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Beijing Xiangshan Forum. These platforms give it an opportunity to engage with neighboring countries and discuss regional security threats.

The irony is that China is the largest regional security threat.

Taiwan is threatened by a Chinese invasion and is often blocked from attending Chinese-led forums. Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have disputes with China in the South China Sea. The Permanent Court of Arbitration has found Chinese claims to be without merit.

India has fought two border conflicts with China in the past two years. Beijing’s most recent official map includes territory that belongs to Taiwan, India, Malaysia, the Philippines and Russia, evoking official condemnations from its neighbors.

Manila has had numerous run-ins with Chinese maritime units. In April, it augmented its defense ties with Washington, specifically as a countermeasure to China. Most recently, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr ordered a barrier to be cut that China installed when laying claim to a Philippine fishing area.

In addition to the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 and an oil rig incident in 2014, Vietnam has ongoing disputes with China regarding the South China Sea and Mekong River water resources. These conflicts have pushed Vietnam deeper into the US’ sphere of influence. Hanoi and Washington this month upgraded their relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” In 2016, the US lifted its arms embargo on Vietnam and is now one of its major arms suppliers. Following a recent attack on a Vietnamese fishing vessel by the Chinese Coast Guard, the US transferred two of its coast guard vessels to Vietnam and plans to send more.

Vietnam’s government has also expressed interest in obtaining F-16 jets and unarmed drones.

While China has made some headway in military diplomacy, and some countries are willing to accept weapons and training from it, few trust Beijing enough to sign bilateral defense agreements or host Chinese bases. Its aggression, particularly in the South China Sea, is undermining its military diplomacy and preventing it from building meaningful alliances.

Source : Taipei Times