What to Expect When You’re Expecting the PLA: A Guide to Meeting With the Chinese Army


Congratulations, senior Defense Department official or general! After years of waiting, your staff has created a plan, OSD-Policy and Joint Staff have concurred, and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has finally agreed to your visit to China. Or, perhaps somewhat less felicitously, you will be hosting a Chinese visit to the United States. These visits are an important part of U.S.-China military diplomacy, both in terms of the specific service issues (for instance, ship visits and signal exercises for the Navy) as well as a broader demonstration of the stabilizing effect of a good military-to-military relationship and open communications.

What can you expect during this exciting time? How can you maximize the effectiveness of your visit? Will you change the entire dynamic of the U.S.-China relationship? Here are some principles for interacting with the PLA that your resident China specialist or action officer wishes they could tell you over drinks.

The PLA Is Not Like You and Me

After years in Afghanistan and Iraq — which are allies, or at least partners — it may be difficult for military or political leaders to shift gears to working with countries that are neither partners nor enemies. This is especially true for countries that have a sophisticated understanding of Western norms and rhetoric, and will use the language of cooperation and engagement in a misleading way to achieve their objectives.

Watch Out for the Cooperation Rhetoric

The PLA will often talk about “win-win cooperation” in a “new type of military-to-military relationship.” You will likely hear this at the start of every official meeting with the Chinese military. This type of rhetoric is part of a broader set of Xi Jinping-approved talking points designed for an international audience, and has seen some evolution over the years: from the once-popular catchphrase of “a new model of great power relations” to the more current “non-conflict, non-confrontation, and mutual respect.” However, the general thrust has remained the same. It is abundantly clear from Chinese writings that this “new model” of relations is only “new” in that its primary interest is to return to a 19th-century view of “spheres of influence” rather than a U.S.-led international order. Similarly, “non-conflict, non-confrontation, and mutual respect” assumes U.S. acceptance of Chinese dominance over the Western Pacific and the creation of a new Chinese economic-security architecture in East Asia.

For military-to-military discussions, the Chinese usually deploy these talking points in the context of requests to “deepen mutual trust” in the relationship, via operational exchanges or learning delegations to the United States. American leaders must consider seemingly benign Chinese requests in the context of U.S. military interests (to say nothing of China’s obvious attempts to ascertain U.S. tactics, techniques, and procedures). Agreeing to cooperation for the sake of cooperation or in the hopes of obtaining future leverage (“the Chinese will owe us one”), inevitably leads to disappointment when the next round of military-to-military discussions come up and the Chinese pocket previous U.S. concessions without comment. The standard U.S./Western model of military-to-military cooperation, which usually involves building a relationship and trust from the ground up, does not work with the PLA. Every aspect of PLA military diplomacy is vetted closely, if not outright dictated, by the Office for International Military Cooperation of the Central Military Commission (informally known as the “barbarian handlers”).

You Will Not Become Old Friends

Beyond the official talking points, one of the tactics the PLA likes to use is to call you “friend.” This naming is usually done at the official dinner, with the initial round of drinks serving as an icebreaker. The title of “friend” has several levels: After you have shared drinks with them once, you are a “new friend;” if you have visited China several times, a “good friend,” and if you have done all of that multiple times, you are promoted to an “old friend.”

If you or any of your staff are of Chinese ethnicity, you can expect a “private” conversation where you will be reminded that “blood is thicker than water,” to “not forget your roots”, and that you “intuitively understand us.” (On the other hand, if you happen to have Japanese ethnicity, decidedly less choice comments will be used.)

Of course, these professions of personal friendship are a show. In fact, even the term “old friend” echoes the old (mostly discontinued) Chinese Communist Party propaganda term, “old friend of the Chinese people,” a phrase used to publicly laud foreigners who were publicly sympathetic to the party’s cause

No, despite these proclamations, from these meetings or drinks, you will not become personal friends with the PLA, nor be pulled into the famed Chinese “friend network” known as “guanxi”. Beyond the centralized structure and insular nature of the PLA itself, Chinese culture as a whole is very high-context, reliant on nonverbal communication and understandings developed over a long period of time. Flattery, cajolery, and fulsome phrases are used with acquaintances, but genuine expressions of emotion are almost never used — even with loved ones and relatives. Ultimately, this use of “friend” is meant to draw you into a facsimile of social obligation, with the demands becoming greater depending on the level of your “friendship.”

Everyday You’re Negotiating, Negotiating

You have now survived the first day of introductory meetings, and more importantly, the first night’s lavish dinner with numerous toasts of maotai by everyone around the table, individually and in groups. (You did survive, right? Far better to accept the minor loss of face by covering your cup with your hand, or better yet, having a drinking proxy.)

With your status as “new friend,” you are ready to negotiate on the second day devoted to working meetings. Of course, this is by no means the first time your group has negotiated with the Chinese: this is a process that has been taking place on an almost-daily basis before, during, and immediately after your trip.

Be Ready to Take a Hike

For the Chinese, every aspect of your trip — logistics, protocol, language — is open for negotiation. Your staff, and the fine folks at the U.S. Embassy, have already been negotiating tirelessly on what may seem like minutiae: the leaders you will be meeting, the places you will be seeing, and where the VIPs are sitting at the dinner table.

It is standard with VIP trips that the itinerary will not be agreed upon until the last minute — almost literally so. Moreover, any “agreed-upon” itinerary is subject to change. People suddenly drop off due to unexplained emergency meetings; the units that you are scheduled to visit are suddenly “not convenient to visit at this time.” In other cases, the Chinese will use protocol reasons to justify unequal exchanges: the differences between the U.S. and Chinese rank/position systems provide openings for the Chinese to do this (for instance, trying to equate “Senior Colonel” with “Brigadier General,” or a Chinese Theater Commander with a U.S. Combatant Commander).

This type of reception requires both flexibility to adjust to minor (as judged by yourself and your advisors) changes in the itinerary — and firmness to openly tell your escorts that this treatment is not acceptable — and be willing to back it up by cutting the trip short if necessary. Remember that the precedents set on your trip may well set the baseline for further senior leader visits in the future. Saving face is not the sole provenance of the Chinese.

For the specific policy negotiations and discussions, the most useful thing to keep in mind is to remember, and not deviate from, your own bottom line. This sounds like Negotiation 101, but there is a real — and counterproductive — Western impulse to “meet them halfway” and shorten a lengthy process. Instead, the recommendation of MIT’s Sloan Business School for negotiating with Chinese investors is equally relevant here: “concede on low-priority issues and remain firm on high-priority issues.”

Know Your Frenemy

The overall success of your visit is pre-ordained — at least from the Chinese side. The more high-level the visit, the more the impetus for the Chinese to roll out a media campaign announcing its world-historic success, even before the trip is over.

Your assessment of success, on the other hand, will be hugely determined by how effectively you engage the Chinese. This requires cultural agility — an ability to communicate efficiently, even if you cannot speak Mandarin. Doing so is doubly difficult in this situation, as you will not only be dealing with Chinese culture, but with a Communist party army overlay.

Have Your Own Translator…

It is absolutely essential, if you are not fully fluent, to have your own translator. The PLA will provide their own, usually a uniformed professor from the PLA University of Foreign Languages, but relying on the Chinese for translations will put you at a severe disadvantage — particularly if any “understandings” are reached. Having your own translator will prevent any creative interpretations of what transpired, especially as there are numerous concepts that cannot be directly translated from English to China, and vice versa. This is particularly important if you or your counterpart are giving formal speeches during your visit.

…But Communicate Effectively

The issue of imprecise translation is probably one of the most difficult barriers to effective communication. On the other hand, demonstration of basic knowledge of the PLA and its structure will enable you to ask questions more effectively and get better responses. As an example of this, addressing your counterpart by their position rather than their rank (i.e., “Theater Commander Li” vs “General Li”) will show that you understand that position is more important than rank in the PLA.  (Unfortunately, this example may become obsolete in a few years with the continued major reforms in the army.)

You will want to reach out to your department’s Chinahand or knowledgeable action officer to ensure that you can “name-drop” the correct terms on your specific subject. Similarly, this means that your trip preparation should ideally be focused on unclassified data, talking points, and subjects. There is a wealth of open-source knowledge that your action officer can access, particularly from the “ABCs” of PLA-watchers (Mr. Ken Allen, PLAAF; Mr. Dennis Blasko, PLA; Mr. Bernard Cole, PLAN).

Be Polite, Be Professional, But…

Dealing with the PLA can be an exercise in contrasts. There will be times when the hosting will feel superlative; there will be other times when things feel utterly chaotic, as a result of either negotiation hardball or honest ball-dropping.

Given this contrast, expectation management is key — both for the trip itself and for your goals. The multi-tiered structure of the PLA, internal politics, and power accumulation at the top of the decision-making apparatus (the Central Military Commission, with Xi Jinping as chairman), means that expectations of major breakthroughs are not realistic. However, with a solid bottom line, cultural agility, and clear communication, success — defined by promoting U.S. policy objectives — is fully possible. Given the stakes involved, in this era of long-term, strategic competition, incremental success is no small thing. May the odds be ever in your favor!


Eric Chan is an international affairs specialist for the U.S. Air Force, with a focus on Chinese political and security issues. He has led the escort for numerous high-level U.S. visits to China, such as the Air Force Chief of Staff’s visit in 2013.

Image: DoD/Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley