What is the right way to study China’s military?

Written by Amelie Theussen, Ph.D. Candidate at Center for War Studies

China continues to be of central interest to scholars of military modernization, strategy, and international relations. While scholarship is growing, assessing the quality of existing works can be difficult. How do you study China right? Peter Mattis has some good tips for all newcomers to the Chinese security field in his new article for The National Interest.

Mattis argues that there is an urgent need for well-informed generalists who are capable of generating original insight. It seems that training and guidance is in short supply and criticism widespread. Instead of educating people to be able to pull together and understand the big picture, the hiring binge of the 2000s create niche experts learning narrower and narrower accounts. The following four challenges will have to be overcome by those working on Chinese military modernization:

1)     Finding the right sources: Most serious scholarship on matters of Chinese security can be hard to find. “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”.

2)     Acquiring the right sources: Despite the large amount of material available online, most “online materials fall short on providing insight into how PLA officers view operational problems, strategy, and other key security policymaking issues”. While one might find something at CAN Corporation and RAND, traveling to China (and Taiwan and Hong Kong) is necessary to gain access to many books and internal periodicals vital to good scholarship on Chinese security.

3)     Chinese language skills: There has been a fundamental growth in Chinese military publications, and some of these authoritative and important sources are even available online. However, with the cessation of the public availability of Open Source Center translations of these documents, a critical resource was shut down for those researchers without Chinese language skills. Learning Chinese is difficult and takes time – time that could be spent on developing other analytical skills instead.

4)     Lack of clarity about sourcing: Few studies explain how their sources can and should be evaluated and why. This, however, is essential, as “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”. 

If you want to know why there is a need for generalist who can generate original insight on Chinese security matters, and why these four challenges are crucial, take a look at Peter Mattis’ article The Right Way to Study China’s Military at The National Interest

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