PLA-watchers mind their language

For Asia Times Online

TAIPEI – American predictions on the speed with which China modernizes the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have more than once proved embarrassingly wrong. A factor for the dangerous shortcoming is researchers’ reluctance to flip through open-source material from China, according to a latest study.

A newly-published report from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission [1] singles out the development of four Chinese weapon systems that has been grossly underestimated.

There’s the Yuan-class diesel-electric attack submarine, which was unexpectedly unveiled in 2004, and to the astonishment of US analysts even came along with air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems, greatly enhancing the subs’ endurance. Then there’s the anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, which in 2007 destroyed

China’s own satellite in a successful test firing, and the Dongfeng-21D, the ballistic anti-ship missile, announced in 2010, that can reputedly take on US aircraft carriers. Early in 2011, it was the test flight footage of China’s prototype fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighter that caused a worldwide stir.

All these weapon systems had been subject to some form of Western monitoring, but estimates expected them to reach operational capabilities years later than they did.

One of the study’s conclusions is intriguing. It suggests that a good deal of blame for researchers’ failure to circumvent Chinese “information denial and deceptions”, as well as to avoid underestimations and misjudgments, is a general failure to exploit open-source Chinese-language materials.

“Some of the past flaws in analysis on China’s weapons program could have been partially corrected by increased attention to open-source materials, particularly in regards to academic technical journals and related publications,” the study finds.

“Increased attention to the messages in authoritative PRC [People’s Republic of China] media and political science publications would also have improved understanding of the worldview of the Chinese leadership.”

United States observers furthermore make the mistake of taking statements from the Chinese government on military policy at face value, even as they could either be deceptive, or simply issued by agencies that have no real say over military matters, it adds.

While it is difficult to grasp why Western researchers spending their entire careers studying the PLA would choose to neglect military-related literature from China, they, too, have their convincing arguments. As Beijing refuses to divulge important technical and tactical literature, what ends up being actually published is meant as a deception anyway, deliberately laying false trails for China’s opponents, they say.

It’s furthermore argued that open-source research can only represent the tip of the iceberg of information, and what should be taken into account much more completely than Chinese-language academic technical journals is material on Chinese internal politics and preferably that from non-Chinese, and therefore trustworthy, sources.

United States researchers who do actually resort to Chinese-language material even often enough come under attack by their academic peers. John F Copper, a professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, shed light on one such example in an interview with Asia Times Online.

“Michael Pillsbury is one of the few military experts in the US that reads Chinese,” Copper said, referring to a senior defense policy adviser, whose idea that Washington should establish intelligence and military ties with Beijing became US policy during the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations.

“He published using this skill and became disliked by many people in the US government and academia because of what he said about China’s progress,” Copper said.

Copper then brought into account that many other US military experts on China do not rely on reading Chinese documents. Copper said this could be due to the perception that it would amount to a too formidable task to both assess the military significance of China’s progress and read Chinese. He also pointed out that it has been said that naivete and racism plays a certain role in the attitude of not realizing that China’s military produces breakthroughs in leaps and bounds.

To illustrate that it could well be an intolerable lot slipping through the West’s fingers, Copper then took a historical excursion.

“Many China experts have no realization of China’s historical attainments in weapons. Most of them know that China invented gunpowder but believe they never used it for anything. They take little or no notice of the fact China invented the crossbow, missiles, etc,” Copper said.

Westerners almost never take on explaining the historical fact that the Mongols – though in the old days only numbering a few million and illiterate – managed to built the largest empire in human history, Copper furthermore pointed out. “How did they do this? They learned Chinese and utilized the advanced military technology that China possessed.”

Another US academic who came under fire for drawing extensively on Chinese-language open-source material is James Holmes, an associate professor at the US Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US. Maritime Strategy.

According to Holmes, at least as important as a naval fleet’s technical characteristics on paper – tonnages, fuel capacity, missile ranges, etc – is the human factor. He who neglects Chinese literature doesn’t know how well seamen and airmen will handle all the weapons and tactics they’ll have at hand in battle, and neither will they come to understand how China’s strategists think, let alone its political cast.

Holmes argues that the political leadership in Beijing is bombarded by conflicting opinions of military advisors, and only by taking these voices’ commentaries that are often published in Chinese media or learned journals thoroughly into account, US analysts can fully apprehend which schools of thought end up shaping the decision-making processes in China in the end of the day.

In an interview with Asia Times Online, Holmes emphasized that there are actually two “languages” involved with studying Chinese military development, namely Mandarin and the language of strategy, operations, and tactics, but that the circle of people who speak both “languages” fluently is rather small.

He then expounded on mistakes seemingly being made.

“There is a tendency to [neglect open-source material but to instead] see official documents as the final authority on important matters and to insist that the way to understand and forecast developments is to learn to read between the lines in these government-issued writings – to discern all the coded messages that supposedly lurk in there,” Holmes said.

“But although reading and parsing official documents provides an important part of the picture, it’s just not the whole picture. [It has to be taken into account that] the authors of such documents have a range of incentives and pressures, from ideological to group-think to simple careerism, that may shade what they write.”
Holmes finally took on the wide-spread notion that all Chinese open-source information is censored and thus worthless. “It’s worth pointing out that the People’s Republic of China is no Soviet Union, morbidly obsessed with secrecy,” he said.

“It is open and transparent for a closed society. Indeed, we would rate China above democratic India and Japan along this axis. We recently had a Chinese book on fleet tactics delivered to our doorstep in Rhode Island, courtesy of”


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