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China’s Naval Diplomacy Comeback

People wave flags of Cambodia (R) and China (L) as Chinese training ship Qijiguang prepares to dock with a banner reading "Bring peace and friendship to meet good friends" during a welcome ceremony at the Sihanoukville port in Preah Sihanouk province on May 19, 2024. AFP

​​By Lukas Fiala

Earlier this week, Vice Admiral Monde Lobese, Chief of the South African Navy, met with China’s Defense Minister, Admiral Dong Jun 董军 in Beijing. For PLA analysts, the visit may come as no surprise, given the PLA’s wide-ranging military diplomacy efforts and the close diplomatic relationship between South Africa and China. And yet, this vignette offers a glimpse into the flurry of diplomatic activities hosted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its service branches in the context of renewed engagement over the last year and a half.

First and foremost, the meeting saw China’s newly minted defense minister in action. Appointed to the post just last December after his predecessor’s disappearance from public view last summer, Admiral Dong is the first PLAN officer to lead China’s Ministry of National Defense. As Andrew S. Erickson and Christopher Sharman write, especially throughout the latter parts of his career, Dong has participated in extensive exchanges with foreign navies and militaries, including from Sweden, Djibouti, the UK, North Korea, Chile, Singapore, and across the Gulf of Guinea, Pakistan, and Russia.  Given the Defense Minister’s largely outward-facing diplomatic role in China – command over the PLA resides with the Central Military Commission (CMC) – the choice reflects the role of the PLA Navy in fostering key relationships with overseas militaries.

Indeed, during their meeting, Dong reportedly emphasized the new “golden age” of the “China-South Africa Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” which provides new opportunities to deepen bilateral military cooperation. After exercising together with Russia and South Africa in February last year, the meeting reflects a broader uptick in the PLA’s military diplomacy after COVID-19 challenged much in-person engagement and saw the PLA involved in the distribution of PPE and vaccines.

According to a recent report by PLA experts Jie Gao and Kenneth Allen, the PLAN “witnessed a resurgence in exercise participation” in comparison to the preceding year and “substantial progress” in port calls. With 10 exercises (up from four the year before) and 27 port calls (up from 2 the year before) in 2023, this demonstrates “a revitalized focus on maritime operations and security”. This is especially noteworthy given the PLAN “surpassed the Army in exercise involvement”, demonstrating “China’s commitment to building a blue water navy” (p. 9).

What the PLAN pursues with each engagement, of course, varies from region to region. The rather limited scope of exercises with African counterparts, such as South Africa last year, suggests they are primarily about diplomatic signaling. While interoperability gains may be limited and even of limited importance in such contexts, these engagements build mutual trust between the PLAN and foreign navies and help support China’s broader diplomatic outreach as part of bilateral strategic partnerships and alternative institutional arrangements and cooperation mechanisms such as BRICS or the Forum on China Africa Cooperation.

On the other hand, a key priority theatre for the PLAN continues to be Southeast Asia. From the recently re-confirmed submarine deal with Thailand to the ongoing Golden Dragon land and naval exercises with Cambodia, the region evidently features prominently in the PLAN’s preparations for contingencies across the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait—both related to China’s core national interests. With a new defense minister from the PLAN in charge, China’s naval diplomacy is thus making a steady comeback.

Lukas Fiala is the project head of China Foresight at LSEIDEAS.

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