WWhen Covid-19 swept through Iran last March, killing more than 1,000 people, including the senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, it was the Chinese military that Tehran turned to for help. On March 19, 2020, batch loads of test kits, PPE and face masks arrived in the Iranian capital.
In February of this year, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began donating Covid-19 vaccines to counterparts abroad. Cambodia’s armed forces have received two batches of 300,000 vaccines; Sierra Leone’s military received 40,000 doses; United Nations peacekeepers have secured 300,000.
The million-strong PLA pride announced his achievement, calling it the latest example of the military helping China become a “responsible stakeholder”. The Ministry of Defense website promoting the PLA’s activities in Sierra Leone displayed the flags of the two countries with the slogan: “Stormy seas or calm waters, we sail together.” In Zimbabwe it was: “In difficult times we look out for each other.” For Rwanda: “The fate of two fingers is to live together.”
Historically, the Chinese military has played a minor role in Beijing’s foreign policy. But since president Xi Jinping came to power nearly a decade ago, Beijing has moved away from the doctrine of “hiding and waiting” to “actively achieving something” on the global stage. In 2015, Xi urged his troops to play a more prominent role in supporting China’s foreign policy agenda.
That year, the Chinese military sent a 163-strong team of medical experts to Liberia to assist the plagued West African country in its efforts to contain Ebola. But since Covid-19, the PLA’s role has grown to serve both China’s strategic and operational goals, according to Meia Nouwens, a senior fellow for Chinese defense policy and military modernization at the London-based think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies ( IISS).
Shortly after the global pandemic was declared last year, Nouwens began to notice an increase in the PLA that helps their foreign counterparts fight antivirus. In the month after the pandemic was declared in March 2020, medical donations in China increased 400% from the same period the previous year.
According to China’s energy project at Washington-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the PLA has provided medical aid to more than 50 military counterparts since early 2020.
‘An opportunity to capitalize on China’s story’
China is not the only country using Covid as an opportunity to expand its diplomatic clout. But Beijing’s Covid diplomacy, conducted amid its confrontational, wolf-fighter style of diplomacy, has alarmed some Western commentators.
“If China is seen as the only country to provide aid, then this could be another opportunity for China to use its south-south narrative and point out that only Beijing has the interests and well-being of other countries at heart.” Nouwens said.
But this was also an opportunity for Western leaders to offer their own alternatives, Nouwens added. “At a time when the West is trying to push back China’s narrative and improve partnerships with countries to provide alternatives to the Ring and Road Initiative or digital infrastructure, the West should signal that it’s not just talking about partnerships, but that it matches words with deeds.”
Bonny Lin, the director of CSIS’s Chinese energy project, went one step further. “It will be especially important for Western countries to ramp up vaccine donations to countries in need — this would be in stark contrast to China’s decision to supply most of its vaccines through commercial sale,” she said.
The enhanced role of the PLA in Chinese diplomacy is enhanced by the modernization of the armed forces themselves. By the end of this year, Beijing will increase its defense spending by 6.8% to 1.35 trillion yuan ($208 billion). In recent years, Xi also articulated his “dream of a strong armed forces” in his “China dream” thesis. This means modernizing his military by 2035 and making it world-class by mid-century. In other words, being able to take on the mighty US military.
Some in Washington regard this trend as alarming. While China’s total military spending is still less than a third that of the US this year, it is nevertheless the largest in the world. Asia-Pacific region. They say China’s rising nationalism would eventually push leaders to tackle targets such as Taiwan – an island of 24 million people that Beijing considers its breakaway province.
In MarchWashington’s top military officer in the Asia-Pacific, Adm Philip Davidson, said, “I’m concerned that they… [China] accelerate their ambitions to replace the United States and our leadership in the rules-based international order… by 2050. Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions for that. And I think the threat is manifesting itself during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”
There is also backlash. Last week the US, UK and Australia unveiled a historic trilateral security partnership that observers say is intended to keep China in check. And Taiwan has practiced skills that would be necessary in the event of an attack by China during its annual exercises. The island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, praised her troops for their “wonderful combat skills and quick and real actions”.
Since his tenure, Xi has also required his troops to increase their “jointness” – the ability of the military, navy and air force to work together quickly and seamlessly in a real and complex battle. This is a tall order, as the PLA has had no combat experience since the 1979 war with Vietnam. His troops are therefore largely untested, and it’s unclear how well they would fight if a war breaks out, according to Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the US government policy think tank Rand Corporation.
Meanwhile, according to Heath, “Military discipline and regulatory compliance remains uneven at best, due to still rampant corruption and the weakness of regulatory enforcement. This means that military leadership cannot be confident that the entire armed forces can conduct operations in a consistent and predictable manner.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the PLA – as the armed forces have also publicly admitted – is that it continues to struggle to absorb the latest technology and recruit and prepare its personnel to fight effectively using hi-tech equipment.
“The PLA is better suited for military hardware today than it has been since the 1990s. However, the softer elements of warfare are still a work in progress,” says Nouwens. “What China ‘can’ do militarily does not transfer directly or immediately to what China ‘will’ do. Political decision-making about when China will and can risk a conflict is important to keep in mind.”
Beijing understands its weakness and is working hard to mitigate it. In recent years, Heath said, China had intensified its military training on an impressive array of topics — ranging from Taiwan threats to Chinese citizens and infrastructure investments in other countries. It had also conducted more exercises with its partners, such as Russia.
In May, the Armored Division of the 73rd Group Army of the PLA held a day of live fire drills and amphibious beach landings, demonstrating its determination and ability to unite Taiwan. In early August, about 10,000 Chinese and Russian troops conducted joint exercises to test some of the PLA’s latest weapons and signal the two countries’ unity.
In addition to these high-profile activities, the PLA is building partnerships and military capabilities in developing countries. This includes training in, for example, missile technology and drones, but also basic technical and other training.
“While partner countries recognize that the US and Western militaries provide the most advanced, advanced training,” Lin said, “countries still value Chinese military training and take advantage of the more basic training the PLA provides.”