Editor’s Note: In
a February 25, 2014 Eastern Arsenal blog post
, Peter W. Singer and Jeffrey Lin discuss the critical importance of monitoring the status and evolution of the Chinese military, which may have a large effect on global peace and stability. This monitoring has been made substantially easier by the internet and open-source mapping technologies.
While there is a literal library of journals and blogs that explore the latest in US military research and development, the amount of focus on the world’s other great military power is minuscule by comparison.
The People’s Republic of China is the world’s second largest economy and growing, and the past twenty five years have seen its People’s Liberation Army move as rapidly ahead as the Chinese economy. While there is deep discussion of the changes in the world’s largest military by personnel and second largest by spending in the specialist community, perception and understanding in both the popular media and mainstream security studies community has not matched this new reality. Too often, China is portrayed as dependent on foreign bought post-Soviet fighters, missiles, submarines and tanks, or poor copies of these outdated systems. While there is certainly a deep debt to Russian designers in particular, the reality is, just as in its broader economy, China’s 21st century military industrial complex has moved from being a mere consumer to producer to now an emerging innovator. It is already designing, manufacturing, and selling globally competitive defense products in everything from electronically scanned radars to ballistic missiles and air defense systems. More importantly, China is quickly moving onto the cutting edge of a variety of potential game-changing 21st century military technology fields, like robotics, cyber, space, hypersonics, and directed energy weapons.
These developments are fascinating in and of themselves, but also could have huge resonance for global peace and stability. So it is better to understand them than ignore them.
Fortunately, much as with US military, while there is a huge amount of activity going on in the classified realm, it is harder to keep secrets in the 21st century. There are literally thousands of Internet sites, in China and aboard, that painstakingly collect Chinese military technology related official and unofficial photographs, reports, documentation and other media from first and second hand sources. The overwhelming majority of such documents and discussions are, of course, in Chinese, which is why they often go unnoticed or misunderstood in the West. There are challenges to be sure. Inside China, these reports and online enthusiasts are monitored by official censors, who sometimes embargo or modify the most sensitive of media. Yet much open source information makes its way through, and indeed, often with a purpose. The Chinese government has its own goals in allowing media reporting and online discussion on new military developments to be proud of, while, in turn Chinese scientists as a professional requirement habitually publish basic research in fields like hypersonic engines and missile guidance. The bottom line is that, just like intelligence collection at official spy agencies, a huge part of understanding the latest and greatest Chinese military technology lies in the public domain. One simply has to collect it and make sense of it. And that is what we hope to do in Eastern Arsenal.