In examining the origins, characteristics, and likely future course of a more “assertive” China, many analysts point to the supposedly growing role of the Chinese military (or People’s Liberation Army—PLA) in Beijing’s overall foreign and foreign-related policy process.  For such observers, the PLA—as a conservative, highly nationalistic, and increasingly capable and confident actor in the Chinese political system—is the main, if not sole, force behind a range of more assertive and/or confrontational actions undertaken by the Chinese government in recent years, from the deployment and sustainment of large numbers of ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan to widespread cyber attacks on the U.S. government to official PRC criticism of U.S. military exercises in the Western Pacific, more vigorous challenges to U.S. military surveillance activities along China’s maritime periphery, and the testing of new weapons during visits to China by U.S. officials.  In addition, some observers view the PLA as an interest group that pressures the civilian Chinese leadership to adopt a more assertive stance toward Washington overall, and in this way allegedly influences the leadership succession process.

As previous CLM articles in this series have indicated, at least some senior PLA officers have probably played an important role in instigating or intensifying several of these actions.  However, clear and conclusive evidence of the precise role of the PLA in China’s foreign policy formulation and implementation processes remains elusive.

Indeed, very little is known about China’s military-related policy decision-making structure and process in general, both in normal times and especially during political-military crises.  Most of the available information on civil-military relations and the policy process relates to the formal organizational structures involved, and less to those internal formal and informal processes and activities that produce decisions and actions throughout the process.  Also, more is known about interactions between major bureaucratic players at the ministerial level and below than about interactions among the most senior civilian and military leadership and their staffs.  

Moreover, it is extremely difficult to verify what little information is obtained about such policy processes.  Some sources (such as many Hong Kong and Taiwan media) are notoriously unreliable; others (such as interviewees) are highly subjective and possibly biased in their interpretation, and in many cases are relating information or rumors obtained from other unverifiable sources. 

In this article, we will attempt to summarize and assess what is reliably known, on an unclassified level, about the role of the PLA in China’s foreign policy and foreign policy-related policy processes.  We begin with a background overview of the changing relationship of the PLA to the overall PRC leadership system and political power structure in China. 

The Chinese military would presumably play a significant role in any major policy process if it wields significant power at the apex of China’s political system.  This is followed by a look at the organizational and procedural relationship of the PLA to the foreign policy process in particular.  This includes an examination of both senior-level interactions and those occurring at subordinate, operational levels.  The article concludes with a summary and some general observations.  The next CLM will examine what is known in unclassified circles about the role of the PLA in the decision-making process involving foreign political-military crises.