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Getting to know China's armed forces

BEIJING – Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ three-day visit to Beijing this week was intended to help jump start military-to-military relations with China, which have been rocky in recent years due to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and the periodic arrival of carrier groups near the mainland.

Larry Downing / AP

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates talks while visiting the Great Wall in Mutianyu, China Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011.

Gates instead found himself fielding a barrage of questions about recent Chinese military innovations and calls from home to meet those developments with more focused U.S. military spending.

The startling photos of China’s new J-20 stealth fighter – anticipated by many experts not to be operational for several more years – as well as admissions this week by intelligence chiefs that they had underestimated new anti-ship ballistic missiles, have been feeding the discussion.

To his credit, despite negative press in the U.S. over the PLA’s provocative J-20 display on the eve of the visit, as well as disturbing news that President Hu Jintao appeared unaware of the new stealth plane’s debut, Gates stuck to his stated goal.

The announcement Wednesday that Gen. Jing Zhiyuan, commander of China’s nuclear forces, will visit the United States Strategic Command in Nebraska was a notable score for the U.S., according to many China watchers. It represents a fresh opportunity to establish some rapport and an opportunity to push for transparency from a military force the U.S. knows precious little about.

“China’s Naval Ambitions” is an instructive article from the Armed Forces Journal on this point. Written by two former U.S. military attaches posted to Beijing, Navy Cmdr. Thomas Henderschedt and Marine Lt. Col. Chad Sbragia, the piece critically calls attention to what they view as an institutional failure within the U.S. armed forces to understand the People’s Liberation Army.


In pointing out the deficiencies of the United States’ intelligence gathering mechanisms on China, Henderschedt and Sbragia emphasized the importance of military-to-military visits as a means to balance out a relationship where the PLA has a far better understanding of the motivations, tactics and thinking of the U.S. military than America does of China:

Conversely, while many U.S. maritime services personnel are dedicated to China, few currently on the “China account” have visited China, fewer still speak Chinese and nearly none have enjoyed direct, day-to-day experience with the PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] and PLAN strategic initiatives... The deep understanding by the PLAN allows its officers to be extremely predictive on how the U.S. will act, react and negotiate. The inverse is also true — our superficial approach does not allow deep, predictive analysis of PLAN strategic initiatives.

As China has rapidly modernized its armed forces in the last two decades, Chinese military officers have been sent off to learn English and military strategy and over time have acquired a surprisingly intimate knowledge of U.S. tactics and policy.

On the other hand, as the authors note, few Americans officers are well-versed in China’s military capabilities, strategy or political thinking.

Though the article is strictly on the U.S. naval relationship, it is not much of a stretch to suggest that this inverse relationship probably applies across the board to all branches of the American military.


Experts were surprised by the sudden debut of China's J-20 stealth fighter, which many believed would not be in operation for a few more years at least.

This makes Gates’ successful trip a huge step towards gaining a better understanding of the PLA’s leadership and its intentions, which is a growing concern not just for the United States, but China’s Asian neighbors as well.

The intentions and motivations of the PLA’s leadership is a critical unknown, as the authors note, despite steady American calls for cooperation in the South China Sea and the Pacific, China still acts, with its own best interests at heart:

It is imperative to understand, however, that China, and by extension the PLAN, will behave in its own interest, even as the U.S. seeks cooperation and avenues for PLAN transparency. While we continue to pursue “dual wins” with the Chinese, it is very instructive to note that the Chinese language has no native means of conveying this concept.

Henderschedt’s point that the Chinese for the term, “dual wins,” or shuang ying, is not native to Chinese is a good point. It is rare that you hear that term used outside of the standard party propaganda and even rarer to hear examples of it in reference to the recent military relationship.