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

June 29, 2015 Topic: Security Tags: ChinaEducationMilitary

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:

Few of those engaged professionally with analyzing the PLA would disagree with the statement that most serious analysis, even unclassified, is restricted from public consumption. Consequently, many of the best analysts do not necessarily have a public footprint that would allow casual readers, students, or generalists to gauge their expertise easily amid the cacophony of voices writing on Chinese military issues. Nor do many of these analysts have a platform of their own from which to publish, so finding their work requires paying attention to a broad range of publications, research institutes, and conferences. These range from the biweekly China Brief to the National Defense University’s China Strategic Perspectives series to think tanks ranging from the boutique Project 2049 Institute to the far-reaching RAND.

Acquiring the Right Sources:


The Internet has made a great deal of material available to researchers, creating what one report called a “poverty of riches.” Invaluable as this material is for order of battle analysis, evaluating training exercises, and policy developments, online materials fall short on providing insight into how PLA officers view operational problems, strategy, and other key security policymaking issues. Outside of private collections and institutional libraries at CNA Corporation and RAND, one has to travel to China or, to a lesser extent, Taiwan and Hong Kong to acquire the books and internal periodicals that are not otherwise accessible. For example, it took five years for an English-language version of the Science of Military Strategy to appear after its 2001 publication, and the 2013 edition remains only available in Chinese and largely inaccessible in the United States.

The Importance of Chinese-Language Skills:


Two developments have boosted the need for Chinese-language skills in analyzing the PLA. First, the growth of Chinese military publications and their accessibility in China, Taiwan, and over the Internet has made useful, authoritative works readily available for researchers. Although Beijing has gotten much better at clamping down on the leak of internal-use only publications to foreigners, the body of easily-purchasable material remains remarkable. Fifteen years ago, David Shambaugh estimated the translation backlog with 30-40 skilled translators would be at least 2–3 years before such a large team could even start keeping up with current output. Second, the decision related to copyright and funding to cease making Open Source Center (previously, the Foreign Broadcast Information Service) translations publicly available shut off a critical resource for those without language skills. When one surveys the corpus of work on the PLA, these translations served a vital role in developing the field. Learning Chinese is a difficult process that requires time, that most precious of commodities, which in turn make it more difficult to develop other analytical skills necessary to understanding military affairs.

Lack of Clarity about Sourcing:

Finding good guidance on sourcing is difficult, and the ubiquitous citations to retired PLA officers or those with academic posts fill more English-language reports than more authoritative voices from senior commanders and operational innovators. Only a handful of studies, like Andrew Erickson’s comprehensive analysis of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile and Paul Godwin and Alice Miller’s analysis of Chinese signaling, explicitly explain how they think Chinese sources should be evaluated. Moreover, the Chinese publication landscape is filled with deliberately distortive voices that serve political purposes, such as motivating the population or broadcasting messages for deterrence, rather than to inform domestic or foreign audiences. To find this information, however, one would almost have to know already what he or she was looking for.

My recent effort, Analyzing the Chinese Military, attempts to pull together the various strands of the PLA-related analysis in terms of production, publications, and people. The goal is explaining how newcomers can overcome some of the challenges to developing expertise on the PLA, its evolution, and the implications. Providing a catalog of what has been done and how analysts probably should approach the subject hopefully answers some of the questions of aspiring analysts before they are asked—including how to start building a Chinese-language collection.

The next step is to evaluate on how well the methods and approaches used by the community have stood up to the PLA’s modernization. More than a decade has passed since a serious effort was made at a conference hosted by RAND, National Defense University, and the Taiwan-based Chinese Council for Advanced Policy Studies to evaluate predictions against the record. What has come since have been desultory comments from senior officials that may or may not accurately reflect the judgments of working-level analysts. But little has been done to address the growing corpus of work produced based on publicly-available data. Demonstrating the methods work is a crucial element of building a more corporate body of knowledge for educating future generations and the public writ large.