Observations on PLA Studies

Written by Peter Mattis.

As China’s military modernization accelerated throughout the 1990s and 2000s, an outpouring of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) publications threatened to drown specialists in data. These sources, many of them available on the internet, have been a boon for analysts, providing information on order of battle, organizational structure, officer biographies, write-ups of training exercises, shifts in military policy, and much more.

Yet the expansion of military publications and growth of online sources should not be misinterpreted as transparency. Instead it is a necessary by-product of the PLA’s drive to field a modern, effective force capable of “winning local informatized wars” (打赢信息化局部战争). Since China’s war with Vietnam in 1979, the PLA has been transformed from a military barely capable of fighting a border war to one that is reshaping regional security dynamics on land, on sea, and in the air as well as in space and cyberspace. Any military undergoing such momentous changes needs officers to talk among themselves and debate ideas.

Chinese military writings are not reliable enough on their own as indicators of future PLA activities, but their existence and the conversations therein demonstrate the seriousness of China’s intentions to field a modern military. While many resources have become available, important books and other writings are difficult to access without the benefit of the closed institutional libraries or proximity to the few libraries with good collections of PLA publications. The challenge of PLA studies is not drawing upon Chinese sources, but expanding the community of credible analysts and doing so outside the limitations of narrow contractor projects.

The boom in Chinese military publications has brought a new set of challenges to studying the PLA that preclude taking these writings at face value without further analysis. First, the information carried in these publications, including newspapers, is not always up-to-date or accurate. For example, in 2013, Chinese newspaper articles used helicopter regiments and brigades interchangeably, despite the fact that some regiments had been expanded to brigade strength. Similar distortions can be found in personnel billeting, where someone is reported as being in their position long after they have been replaced.

Second, using these sources requires close attention to authorship and affiliation to determine the import and authority of the publication. All militaries that want to conduct highly-coordinated, high-tempo operations need to have a professional conversation about equipment and tactics, and this conversation can only occur in the open source. With the exception of factual news reporting, most opinions of military tactics, techniques, and procedures are just opinions, not statements of PLA intentions.

The best set of guidelines available on how to parse PLA sources arose out of the work of the CNA Corporation (previously, the Center for Naval Analyses). According to their methodology, authoritative books are most likely to have principal editors and editorial committees, rather than individually-named authors, and will have been coordinated across relevant PLA departments. Andrew Erickson’s comprehensive study of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile is a good example of how to do this well. Long-time China watchers inside and outside the U.S. Government Alice Miller and Paul Godwin offered a similar sort of framework for parsing Chinese government and officials’ statements and articles in their study of Chinese signalling ahead of conflict. Without appreciating the problem of authoritativeness, Chinese military publications cannot be used in a straight-forward manner to determine PLA capabilities, doctrine, and intentions.

Third, PLA publications often do not distinguish between actually existing capabilities or doctrine and the military’s desired or planned capabilities or doctrine. For example, the PLA has talked a good game about joint operations, integrated joint operations, and, now, system of systems operations. However, the equipment and capabilities of PLA units can vary widely, and some units still use outdated Soviet-era equipment. Moreover, command and control problems still inhibit cross-service cooperation. These problems would seem to preclude the kind of modular, plug-and-play unit groups that PLA states that it would like to field for military campaigns.

Fourth, only a handful of analysts express any interest in understanding Chinese deception and political warfare; yet, these remain core elements of the effort to “win without fighting.” Many of the military officers who participate in public discourse are not PLA warfighting professionals, but members of the political warfare and external propaganda community writing to shape perspectives on the PLA; enhance deterrence; otherwise mould public opinion; or even to share strongly-held personal views. In addition to providing political oversight, the General Political Department (GPD) coordinates the PLA’s propaganda apparatus and conducts covert influence operations. The GPD is one of the four principal PLA departments that organizes much of the military’s activity, so ignoring the possibility of distortion in PLA publications blithely assumes a factual basis where scepticism should be the rule.

The sad fact is that academia is largely irrelevant to the study of the PLA, and one senior scholar recently told a major PLA conference that the academy had failed the China-watching community in producing knowledgeable analysts. With the notable exceptions of academics like M. Taylor Fravel (MIT), Thomas Christensen (Princeton), David Shambaugh (George Washington), and Oriana Mastro (Georgetown), few scholars in traditional academic positions contribute to the discussion of Chinese military modernization while doing original research. The rest of academia that discusses the PLA does so on the basis of secondary sources, but their work deals largely with broader Chinese foreign and national security policy—not the PLA specifically. PLA watchers largely reside in think tanks, government contractors, military service colleges, and a few university-affiliated research centres. This is largely true for the countries boasting the largest groups of PLA watchers: United States, Taiwan, Japan, and India. A few independent analysts, mostly retired military and intelligence officials, contribute on a regular basis and help provide peer review on draft papers circulating around the community.

Contrary to one scholar’s characterization of PLA studies, influential analysis of the PLA is largely done on the basis of Chinese sources. Whatever criticisms someone wants to level at the annual conference volumes produced from the major annual PLA conferences—the Army War College-National Bureau of Asian Research conference, the RAND-National Defense University-Chinese Council for Advanced Policy Studies conference, and the U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute conference—failing to make use of Chinese sources is not one of them. They also are often supported by personal and institutional libraries acquired over a long period of time. More current analysis appears in the Jamestown Foundation’s biweekly China Brief and Jane’s various publications based on Chinese media sources. With the exception of these sources and a few others, however, those interested in the PLA would do better to follow people rather publications. Good, well-researched work appears in otherwise mediocre publications for PLA watching, including the sometimes blog-like websites The Diplomat and The National Interest, but these are better read on a case-by-case basis than daily.

The use and accessibility of Chinese sources is not without problems. If anything could be done to improve the situation, it would be the systematic building of several large, public-accessible research library collections on the PLA. The closest to this are the cumbersome U.S. Library of Congress with its Asian Reading Room, the China Documentation Center at the Gelman Library of George Washington University, and the libraries at National Cheng-chi University and the Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei. The potential community of PLA scholars and analysts is severely restricted in an era where knowledge and use of Chinese-language sources is required, but such sources are difficult to acquire without knowing the right bookshops and having the luxury to fill several suitcases of books to carry home over multiple trips. And that is not counting the difficulty of tracking down books published more than five or ten years ago.

If a budding researcher cannot access at least some of the materials they might need on the PLA without much trouble, then they have little reason to use their limited time of learning in graduate school to focus their research on the PLA or go beyond the superficial. Building the community of credible analysts of Chinese military affairs has long been the subject of hand-wringing by established analysts (see, for example, this conference report from 2001). The dedicated and intrepid will undoubtedly find a way to pursue their interests, but this is no way to build and sustain a community. As more and more focused research gets funded by narrow contractual projects, the result will be a generation of analysts who lack a broader perspective on the PLA as a whole, much less China. Some of these challenges could be fixed relatively easily and cheaply, at least relative to the costs of misunderstanding China and one of its core institutions.

Peter Mattis is a Fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation and author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army (2015). Image credit: CC by Dan/Flickr.

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