No Easy Task: The Right Way to Study China's Military

Here's how newcomers to the Chinese security field can really master their craft.

On February 2, 1977, the late Mike Oksenberg, a China expert then serving on the National Security Council staff, wrote a memo to his boss, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, expressing his dismay with the state of U.S. Government analysis on China. Although Oksenberg had “not been very impressed thus far by what [he had] seen,” he was admirably concerned about the future: “How do we cultivate talent so that 15–20 years from now, we will have a core group of 25–35 top-flight Chinese intelligence analysts in the then age bracket of 40–55. Everyone agrees with me that unless something is done, such a group will not exist.” Thirty-five years later, a senior U.S. academic on China would stand up at a Washington, DC conference and tell an audience of his peers in government and defense contractors that universities had failed to build expertise in the ivory tower and to produce sufficient numbers of properly trained analysts to support ongoing analysis of the Chinese military. And more recently, General Karl Eikenberry, a retired U.S. Army foreign area officer, called American expertise on China into question when he suggested expanded support for China and East Asian area studies to “to better understand and more effectively respond to China's attempts to expand its influence.”

With U.S.-China relations seemingly becoming more competitive and U.S. forces or those of treaty allies brushing up against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), having a strong cadre of specialists on the Chinese military as well as a broader set of well-informed generalists capable of original insight is more critical than ever. While the number probably is smaller than even China watchers think it is, the former arguably is present. The latter, however, is mostly absent, and it should be concern anyone with a stake in U.S.-China relations. Mirror-imaging Chinese doctrine and misunderstanding the PLA’s modernization process have consequences, and hyperbole (or the converse like banal comparisons of official U.S. and Chinese defense budgets) serves no one.

Too often, well-informed China analysts have adopted the unfortunate if understandable position that they need to police what gets written. Criticism can be fun to write and brings immediate satisfaction, but it can easily be mistaken for defending turf rather than trying to raise the level of analysis. With greater and greater demand for assessments of the Chinese military in both government and policy-oriented publications, holding the line is an impossible task that requires effort that would be better spent either in generating original analysis or training others to do the same.

Rather than raising the gates, the most serious analysts of the Chinese military should be trying to lower the barriers for entry. For those lucky enough to come in contact with them, people like former military attachés Dennis Blasko, author of The Chinese Army Today, and Kenneth Allen have devoted countless hours to reviewing other people’s work and explaining the PLA in its own terms to any who are willing to listen. Unfortunately, they cannot be cloned and they cannot magically appear every time someone wants to write on the PLA, its activities, and its future.

Yet, as the quotes at the top of the page suggest, the training of PLA watchers has largely been an on-the-job endeavor. This means it is guided largely by tasks assigned and contracts won; it is neither systematic, nor strategic. In case anyone thinks government is substantially different, most intelligence training programs relate to improving analytic skills generally rather than developing country-specific or functional expertise. With the hiring binge of the 2000s, more and more government analysts learn narrower and narrower accounts. The situation inside and outside of government results in niche experts rather than people can pull it all together.

Newcomers to the Chinese security field and PLA watching face a variety of challenges that are difficult to overcome from scratch—and guidance is in short supply. Below are a few challenges in trying to come to grips with Chinese military modernization:

Finding the Right Sources: