Foreign Military Education as PLA Soft Power

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Authors: John S. Van Oudenaren and Benjamin E. Fisher
Date: Winter 2016
From: Parameters(Vol. 46, Issue 4)
Publisher: U.S. Army War College
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,850 words

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Abstract: This article argues Chinese foreign military education programs, modeled on similar US efforts, promote a positive international image of China while simultaneously advancing military-to-military relations. To ensure American soft power remains strong, US policymakers should prioritize international military education as a method of supporting long-term partnerships even in constrained fiscal environments.

Ona midsummer evening at the People's Liberation Army National Defense University (PLA NDU) in Beijing, Chinese and foreign military officers in full dress uniform, accompanied by their spouses in traditional garb, assemble. Aided by crisply dressed PLA singers, everyone belts out a rendition of the Beijing 2008 Olympics anthem, "You and Me" ("[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]"), under a long red banner emblazoned with Chinese characters that translate as "Commemorating the 70th Anniversary of Victory in the Global Struggle against Fascism and College of Defense Studies 2015 Graduation." As the banner indicates, the event marks the graduation of 136 senior foreign military officers from 82 countries from the College of Defense Studies (CDS), while simultaneously commemorating the 70th anniversary of China and its allies' victory in the "War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression" in 1945. (1)

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War ii was enthusiastically celebrated globally and in China. Nevertheless, the significance of linking China's struggle against Japanese imperialism with a graduation ceremony for officers primarily from African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American countries was undoubtedly not lost on the event's organizers who understood many College of Defense Studies graduates are from countries with histories of Western colonialism. Similarly, the period from 1839 to 1949 is embedded in Chinese historical memory as a "century of humiliation" (["THE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII"]), when the European powers, Russia, and Japan imposed a series of unequal treaties, which coerced territorial, economic, and juridical concessions that reduced China to semicolonial status. (2) In domestic media, the ruling Communist Party portrays itself as executing a post-1949 revival of Chinese civilization from this nadir. Comparable historical grievances provide a basis for camaraderie between China and other countries with postcolonial legacies.

The function of the CDS memorial-cum-graduation ceremony testifies to the multiple purposes of the PLA's foreign military education programs. As in other war colleges, students examine and analyze key issues in the contemporary security environment while learning about the host nation's domestic and international politics, military, culture, and history, as well as general aspects of strategic studies. (3) The educational exchanges also strengthen military-to-military relations by building person-to-person relationships with foreign officers. Finally, the public diplomacy aspect seeks to improve international perceptions of China by winning the hearts and minds of foreign officers, a key segment of governing elites in many countries particularly in the developing world. (4)

Educating foreign military officers at PLA military academies such as the CDS constitute just one line of effort in the Chinese party-state and PLA's conduct of public diplomacy and military-to-military relations. Nonetheless, an examination of the College of Defense Studies, the PLA's flagship academy for educating foreign officers, elucidates several key...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Van Oudenaren, John S., and Benjamin E. Fisher. "Foreign Military Education as PLA Soft Power." Parameters, vol. 46, no. 4, winter 2016, pp. 105+. Accessed 2 Dec. 2023.

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