02 June 2015

So You Want to Be a PLA Expert?

Peter Mattis, “So You Want to Be a PLA Expert?War on the Rocks, 2 June 2015.

One of the challenges of developing a good sense of how the PLA functions is that there are so few places to go for regularly appearing analysis that draws on Chinese sources. Instead of being able to go to a few reliable places, anyone anxious to learn about the PLA has to search and search — or avail themselves of this new shortcut. Even then, it is too easy to miss useful pieces (like this one) that help clarify what the Chinese military means by concepts such as “people’s war” and “active defense.” Below are a few steps and sources from which any would-be analyst should draw their inspiration and guidance before analyzing the Chinese military.

Remember Your ABCs: If for some reason you are having difficulty finding a starting point, then begin with your ABCs: Kenneth Allen, Dennis Blasko, and Bernard “Bud” Cole. These three former military officers offer some of the best analysis available on the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), the PLA Ground Forces, and the PLA Navy (PLAN), respectively. In addition to bringing their military expertise to bear on the challenges of evaluating a foreign military, all three have voluminous publication records. This is not to say that talent is in short supply coming up; one need look no further than the prolific Andrew Erickson on the PLAN, Michael Chase on the Second Artillery (China’s conventional and strategic rocket forces), Daniel Hartnett on military policy, and Timothy Heath on party-army relations among many others. However, chances are if a journal article or book does not make at least a nod to the ABCs of PLA studies, then it should be viewed with suspicion.

Fringes of the U.S. Government, Not Traditional ScholarshipMost analysis of the PLA is not done in traditional academic or think tank settings. Instead, many of the experts sit in federally-funded research and development centers (FFRDCs), defense companies, and the military service colleges as well as the niche think tanks like the Project 2049 Institute. RAND has rebuilt its China capabilities and has a robust and talented staff focused on China. The CNA Corporation possesses a large staff of China security experts, and, while much of their work remains behind closed doors, some of it is freely available. The U.S. Naval War College also has built up remarkable and prolific talent in its China Maritime Studies Institute, which publishes a monograph series. Look to the fringes of the U.S. government and the researchers actively engaged with it for most of the best work. …

Here are my must read journal articles, reports, or book chapters on the PLA:

  1. Adam P. Liff and Andrew S. Erickson, “Demystifying China’s Defence Spending: Less Mysterious in the Aggregate,” The China Quarterly, No. 216 (December 2013), 805–830.
  2. David Finkelstein, “China’s National Military Strategy: An Overview of the ‘Military Strategic Guidelines’,” in Roy Kamphausen and Andrew Scobell, eds., Right Sizing the People’s Liberation Army: Exploring the Contours of China’s Military (Carlisle, PA: Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2007), 69–140.
  3. Dean Cheng, “Chinese Lessons from the Gulf Wars,” in Andrew Scobell, David Lai, and Roy Kamphausen, eds., Chinese Lessons from Other Peoples’ Wars (Carlisle, PA: Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2011).
  4. Paul H.B. Godwin and Alice L. Miller, China’s Forbearance Has Limits: Chinese Threat and Retaliation Signaling and Its Implications for a Sino-American Military Confrontation, China Strategic Perspectives No. 6 (Washington, DC: National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies, 2013).
  5. Michael S. Chase, Jeffrey Engstrom, Tai Ming Cheung, Kristen Gunness, Scott Warren Harold, Susan Puska, and Samuel Berkowitz, China’s Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (Washington, DC: RAND and U.S.-China Security and Economic Review Commission, 2015). …

Peter Mattis is a Fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation and a visiting scholar at National Cheng-chi University’s Institute of International Relations in Taipei. He also is the author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army.