war on the rocks

So You Want to Be a PLA Expert?

June 2, 2015

When the U.S. Department of Defense announced it was considering more aggressive proposals to test freedom of navigation around China’s island reclamation projects, a flurry of articles asked what Beijing would do in response. Part of the answer surely has to do with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Some answers are to be found in China’s new defense white paper, China’s Military Strategy, but the English translations of PLA jargon often confuse foreign readership about how Beijing is likely to use the military instrument.

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 Scholarship: Most 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.

Check the White Paper: The biannual defense white paper, China’s National Defense, may be propaganda, but useful propaganda must contain truth. No one should rely on the white paper for order of battle information or PLA capabilities. China’s National Defense, however, does contain basic terminology, concepts, and policies of which any would-be analyst should be aware. Even if the most recent iteration does not contain the desired information, it can still be worthwhile to check previous white papers to see if the question was addressed. Sometimes these older white papers contain the best or simplest explanations of issues that can be difficult to describe on the basis of press reporting, so, when in doubt, see what the white papers had to say about the topic. The last two white papers — The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces (2013) and China’s Military Strategy (2015) — are a little light on military policy, focusing instead on where the PLA fits in China’s future, so do not forget to go back.

The Science of Military Strategy, Not Unrestricted Warfare: One of the first clues about whether someone is a credible analyst of the PLA comes from their preferred source for Chinese military thinking and strategy. If someone places Unrestricted Warfare above (or perhaps does not even reference) The Science of Military Strategy, then that analysis offers little insight into how the Chinese military actually has settled on how to wage war and protect China’s national interests. Unrestricted Warfare is the product of two colonels thinking as individuals about the future of warfare. Science of Military Strategy is the product of 35 researchers at the Academy of Military Science — which reports to the Central Military Commission, China’s highest military decision-making body — and coordinated with the relevant PLA departments. The newest Science of Military Strategy (2013) does not yet have an English-language translation, but the previous version (2001) has a well-translated edition (2005) that is worth a few hours of your reading time. Later this year, a new book should be out assessing the changes and evolution of The Science of Military Strategy. This will be a useful secondary source if you cannot get your hands on the real thing.

Be Transparent: The PLA matters to a lot of people, and that means there are a lot of people who can and will check what you write. In most cases, they will have read the same articles and bought the same books. In the other cases, they will have additional articles and books of which you might not be aware. There is too little reliable information. Taking a little time and space to say what sources you chose and why goes a long way to defusing criticism, bad feelings, and other unnecessary back-and-forth. Transparency goes beyond sourcing via hyperlink or footnote. China’s strategy (or whether it even has one) is subject to considerable debate, so it is best to explain the criteria upon which you are passing judgments. Not only is your argument then clearer to the reader, but you can define how others will engage with or criticize your work.

Starting the Library: Developing a sound knowledge of the PLA requires a lot of reading, and the explosive interest in China has generated a robust supply of good analysis of Chinese military modernization and capabilities. It cannot be easy to come to the PLA as a blank slate and choose one of many numerous books and articles to start with. The literature is a hodgepodge of materials spread out across dozens of outlets and publishers. Here are my must-read books on the PLA:

  1. Dennis J. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, 2nd Edition (New York: Routledge, 2012).
  2. Mark Ryan, David Finkelstein, and Michael McDevitt, eds., Chinese Warfighting: The PLA Experience since 1949 (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2003).
  3. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi, eds., The Science of Military Strategy (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005), which unfortunately is increasingly rare, or, for Chinese linguists, Academy of Military Science Strategic Research Department, The Science of Military Strategy, 2013 Edition (Beijing: Academy of Military Science Press, 2013); 军事科学院军事战略研究部, 《战略学2013年版》 (北京: 军事科学出版社).
  4. James Mulvenon and Andrew N.D. Yang, eds., The People’s Liberation Army as Organization: Reference Volume 1.0 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2002). But keep your eyes peeled for Kevin Pollpeter and Kenneth Allen, eds., PLA as Organization v2.0 (Vienna, VA: Defense Group Inc., Forthcoming).
  5. Finally, pick a book related to your favorite PLA service. Those interested in the Second Artillery have to scrounge among journal articles, and those interested in the ground forces can stick with a close read of Blasko’s The Chinese Army Today. Bud Cole’s The Great Wall at Sea is a good starting point for the PLAN, and the more advanced The Chinese Navy: Expanding Capabilities, Evolving Roles. For the PLAAF, the best recent book is the freely-available The Chinese Air Force: Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities.

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’ War (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).

With U.S. and Chinese forces in such close proximity in the East and South China Seas, the costs of failing to understand the PLA have risen exponentially. In an age when an analysis can be blogged and recycled almost endlessly, it is more important than ever to get it right the first time. Our minds too often and too heavily anchor to the first information we receive. If competition is more likely than cooperation to shape the next phase of U.S.-China relations, we need more than a few salty quotes from Sun Tzu to count as expertise on Chinese security issues.


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.