The Great Red Fleet -- China's Port Call Diplomacy: Battlewagons as Bandwagons

Robinson, D. John, Foreign Affairs - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Potter, Philip, University of Virginia

What does Beijing hope to achieve through port call diplomacy? And, more importantly, is it succeeding? I argue that PLAN port visits support tangible Chinese policy goals in the host country and ultimately encourage economic and political alignment with Beijing. There are certainly overlapping motivations behind these visits, but the essential aim is to induce accommodation for Beijing’s policy preferences by revising upward a foreign leader’s perception of Chinese power and status, as well as the potential benefits that may accrue from closer ties with Beijing.

Leaders are central to this theory. National-level policymakers care about naval visits and the signals they convey. This is true for the leaders in Beijing who deploy and carefully choreograph their ship’s visits, as well as the foreign hosts who must factor the ship’s implications into their strategic cost-benefit analysis. A naval vessel is a potent, multidimensional symbol of economic and military power with the potential to convince foreign leaders of China’s elevated status and likely success. In keeping with Jervis, a ship’s persuasive power is due in part to the idiosyncratic nature of human decision-making and the specific cognitive limitations of the leaders involved.

China’s increased economic and military power—made highly visible by the sharp increase in PLAN ship visits after 2008—might be expected to produce a balancing response from host states. Or, some might predict that port calls would be more prevalent during times of increased tension or crises, as a way to intimidate the host country into compliance with Chinese demands. However, I find that Beijing is attempting to manage the unpredictability of leader perception through inducements rather than overt coercion. By properly sequencing ship visits with leadership engagements— and the potential economic incentives that they bring— Beijing has shrewdly revealed its growing military capability. And by doing so, it has received the tangible benefits that come from demonstrations of military power, while managing and mitigating the potential costs.

To evaluate port call diplomacy’s success, I provide a series of case studies to determine whether port calls helped achieve positive outcomes for Beijing or elicited a negative reaction. The cases are grouped by the essential Chinese Communist Party goal that they support— economic expansion, sovereignty issues, and national unification. In addition to the diplomatic activity surrounding each port visit, I pay close attention to three markers of positive alignment with Beijing: (1) military-to-military cooperation in the form of multilateral and bilateral exercises; (2) Chinese port deals now under the Belt and Road Initiative; (3) and bilateral partnership agreements. I find there is indeed a positive association between calls, military exercises, port deals, and partnership agreements. To generalize these findings, I provide statistical analysis of port calls and my three measures of alignment with Beijing.

While Beijing enjoyed a positive response early on, PLAN port call diplomacy is an iterative game. Beijing has managed to thread a strategic needle in the time period covered; however, this does not mean that continued success is assured. Linkages between port visits and larger externalities cut both ways. If economic incentives do not materialize or mature as expected, foreign leaders may perceive China in a less optimistic light. Finally, PLAN port visits have already attracted the attention of other great powers. As distinctively visible status signals, they are a proxy for the contentious, multi-dimensional competition that is playing out between China and the United States globally. Rather than achieving victory without fighting for Beijing, port call diplomacy will likely fuel increased naval competition in the Indo-Pacific region.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Chinese Naval Diplomacy
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