When East Meets West: A Comparison of Chinese and American Military Culture

Blog | June 14, 2016

Contrasting the military power of the U.S. and China, analyst Ben Lowsen argues that the two nations must blend flexibility with strength to hopefully prevent simple misunderstandings from escalating into thorny disagreements or worse.

Modern China’s emergence onto the global stage brings with it both concern and hope: concern for how the world will accommodate an emerging great power and hope that a great civilization will enrich every aspect of global exchange. The world is looking to the United States as the cornerstone of the existing international system for leadership as it negotiates its relationship with an independently minded China. Against this backdrop, it is now more important than ever that the United States and China better understand one another, particularly in the realm of security and military affairs around key regional issues. 

Unless the two countries appreciate the similarities and differences in their military cultures, traditions and norms, the ongoing dialogues between them will never fully realize their potential.  

Institutional Military Culture

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the American and Chinese militaries is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) use of conscripts versus U.S. use of volunteers. This can be misleading because there are in fact many more potential conscripts than entry-level positions within the PLA. Thus the “conscripts” are the most qualified among those who have volunteered. Effectively, the PLA offers desirable employment for young people coming from agrarian communities whose prospects might otherwise be quite limited.

A key difference between PLA volunteer conscripts and true U.S. volunteers is the terms and expectations of enlistment. In the PLA, conscripts serve for two years after which the best are asked to continue in service as noncommissioned officers (NCOs). In the U.S. military, two-year enlistments are the exception with most being at least three years. Also, there is nothing to prevent capable, educated, and motivated U.S. troops from attaining NCO rank during their initial enlistment. Moreover, other than during a drawdown, the U.S. military attempts to retain as many good enlisted members as it can for subsequent enlistments. Thus, there is less separating first-time enlistees from veterans in the U.S. military than in the PLA.

In some respects, Chinese and American military culture bear a striking resemblance, for example, professional military education and the military academic institutions that troops attend at specified junctures during their careers. This begins with the military academy, a major source of commissioned officers. For the United States this includes the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the U.S. Air Force Academy. Beyond these federally mandated institutions, there are a few senior military colleges and a great many Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) programs at regular civilian universities, all of which produce military officers.

In contrast, China has an abundance of national-level military academies, each organized around a military specialty such as armor or engineering (the Nanjing Army Command Academy, PLA University of Science and Technology (PLAUST), and National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) are among the best). This means that most officers will graduate without having worked extensively with their comrades in other arms, branches, or regions. This may necessitate an adjustment period as newly commissioned officers learn how to apply the formulas they studied at the academy to the needs of a multi-arm—and increasingly joint—force. The PLA is also building on the National Defense Student program, its answer to the ROTC.

Beyond the academies, both militaries have a system of specialized academic institutions for members at other points in their career that roughly mirror one another. This includes academies to train NCOs as well as more academic settings providing continuing education for mid-level officers, senior officers (the U.S. service war colleges and PLA “Tigers” course), and executive-level officers (the U.S. National Defense University and PLA “Dragons” course).

A final note specific to the U.S. Army: all soldiers regardless of specialty or unit of assignment are eligible for training in military parachuting, helicopter assault rappelling, and intensive patrolling (ranger) courses. Beyond the badges earned, this system provides a degree of cross-skills training and solidarity within a large organization. I suspect most forces, including the PLA, would see training personnel with skills they will not use directly as a wasted effort.

Interpersonal Military Culture

The most salient difference of interpersonal culture is subordinates’ willingness to speak their mind to superiors. Free expression within the PLA is limited by the expectation that, barring some catastrophic event, units will perform basically without error. Troops work very hard to ensure that this is the case. On the other hand, PLA leaders do at some level see the need for honest assessments. Thus, when it comes time to evaluate one’s own performance, there is a relatively narrow band of comments one makes to show needed improvements while maintaining the appearance of excellence.

Although there is a corresponding drive for perfection in the U.S. military, the ideal is that of fighting hard: making a solid but not excessive plan, expecting things to go wrong, and dealing with them effectively. There is no penalty for things going wrong as long as you deal with them well.  This tolerance of unexpected events allows for a more candid, thorough after action review.

On the social front, the PLA is notable for certain formalities in its entertaining, especially its emphasis on protocol. Of course, both militaries acknowledge rank in a formal setting, but the PLA deploys it in a broader range of social situations. U.S. military members interacting with Chinese counterparts should be aware of and express deference to their seniors, American and Chinese. This means allowing and encouraging them to walk in front and being aware of what they are doing. Failing to do so can create confusion and embarrassment—not insurmountable obstacles, but certainly an unnecessary distraction.

PLA officials should likewise be aware that the U.S. is generally less stringent about protocol and understand that any failing in that regard (for example involving visa processing, table seating, etc.) is not meant as an insult, only that the U.S. system has not yet found a way to accommodate that aspect of protocol.

As contact between China and the United States continues to grow in frequency and importance, each side must make an effort to understand and accommodate the customs of the other while maintaining their own traditions. Just as we can only realize our finest hopes through a realistic assessment of each other’s interests, U.S. and Chinese officers must blend flexibility with strength as they represent their own national and military culture while learning to appreciate their counterparts’ views. This creates the type of understanding and fellowship that can prevent simple misunderstandings from escalating into thorny disagreements or worse.

Ben Lowsen, writer for The Diplomat, is a former U.S. Army officer and military attaché in Beijing. A China specialist, he is a frequent writer on U.S. and Chinese military culture, including:  the way each military trains, basic unit leadership, fundamental PLA knowledge, and PLA history.


The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.