Presentation of “ The China Intelligence ” – Defense One
welcome to Chinese intelligence, an occasional series from PW Singer to New America, a Washington, DC-based think tank; and Bluepath Labs, a strategic analysis and technology consultancy that regularly publishes open-source-based analyzes of China.
In a single generation, China has gone from a largely agrarian country to a manufacturing and trading powerhouse – with a corresponding boom in military and technological power. And the consequences have changed the world.
Just ten years ago, the budget for the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, was around $ 35 billion. Today it is around $ 250 billion. The Chinese military now has capable long-range ballistic missiles, 5th generation fighter jets, aircraft carriers and the world’s largest surface fighters. Its forces are increasingly active not only in the Pacific, but also in operations far beyond. Its weapons and equipment are products of China’s defense industry, whose growth and global impact mirror those of the country’s larger economy. Once reliant on imports for its high-end capabilities, China is now a world leader in research, design and production in fields ranging from established fields such as rocket, shipbuilding and aviation , to some of the most advanced fields like robotics, AI, quantum and hypersonic flight. This change has also disrupted the global arms trade. The Chinese arms fairs are now giving a glimpse not only of what will equip the PLA next, but also what will appear on the battlefields of developing countries as well.
This incredible shift is at the heart of monumental shifts in global stability, as well as a bipartisan refocus of US national security and technology strategy around great power competition and perhaps even conflict. with China. Even this creates a new challenge, however; as Defense one Editor-in-chief Kevin Baron notes that “Just Say China” is quickly becoming a means of justifying almost any policy, on any subject.
And yet, a better understanding of the new China and its new technologies is clearly lacking in the popular media and in the security studies community. While there is a literal library of journals and blogs that explore the latest advancements in U.S. military R&D, which come in both a highly specialized and broader readership form, the attention and understanding of other major military and technological powers on the planet are pale in comparison. . This is illustrated by crude metrics – an order of magnitude difference in the number of articles and web visits on the two topics – and illustrated by the fact that few people know about Chinese companies and the technology that will shape the to come up. During the Cold War, knowledge of Soviet technology was much more widespread. You don’t have to be a Russian military specialist to have heard of a MiG fighter jet or the Soyuz spacecraft. Yet small percentages of not only the general public, but also the security studies community and the US military can name their current Chinese counterparts. (The answer: Shengyang and Chang Zheng.)
So what can we do about it, especially when China remains a closed society, an authoritarian state with one of the most advanced surveillance programs in history? Part of the answer lies in what’s called “open source intelligence” or OSINT: the collection and analysis of information that is in the public.
Of course, there are challenges. A lot of valuable information is censored and what comes out of China is sometimes changed. One example is the blur of images even released by the government.
Yet much of the value makes its way through this network. Some information is deliberately shared by the regime, with the aim of disseminating ideas beyond its senior management in an unclassified setting. Examples range from official party papers on technology policy to military newspaper articles on the doctrine of robot warfare. Other messages could be aimed at highlighting Indigenous developments and publicizing defense capabilities, building pride in their national audiences, or deterring outside enemies. There are also reasons for career advancement. Chinese scientists, as a professional requirement, usually publish their research in fields ranging from hypersonic engines to missile guidance. And, finally, there are economic reasons. If they want to make the sale, Chinese companies competing for contracts must show their wares in open places like gun shows.
Then there is the unintentional side. As discussed in this author’s book Like War, our new digital world means that orders of magnitude more information is produced and shared than ever before in human history. This leaked information from China comes in the form of everything from cellphone selfies that reveal OSINT details in the background to publicly available satellite images (such as through ESA and Planet), which provide the ability to monitor strategic weapon tests or even track ships at sea. As Mister Universe said in the cult movie Serenity, even the most devoted authoritarian regime “I can’t stop the signal … Everything is going somewhere.”
The result is that anyone, anywhere, can learn the kind of information that even the CIA would have been envious of just a few decades ago. We have used this approach to explain the developments in Chinese strategies and the people who craft them to provide details on China’s latest nuclear missiles and their location.
And the revelations aren’t just about military systems. Indeed, before the spread of COVID was fully understood by many, we detected that the Chinese military was not deploying to deal with an impending pandemic on the scale needed, as well as documenting how China was censoring. pandemic news, another indicator that must have been worse than previously thought. We then followed China’s early efforts to turn the narrative and blame other countries for the outbreak.
Regardless of the form or subject, the information comes out and someone sees it. These OSINT trackers range from trained intelligence analysts to the online volunteer “military fan” (军 迷) community that regularly surfaces and debates the latest PLA news or data leads.
However, this points to another part of the problem. Too little of this wealth of information comes out of the specialist community. One problem is that it is mainly in Chinese language. But it is also about the communication channels. Much remains in the social media chatter, in the back and forth of these specialists and fans on Twitter. Of what gets published, it usually comes through blogs and thinktank sites which are phenomenal but tend to only reach their already dedicated audience. Every once in a while there will be an article that pops into the mainstream every now and then. Yet there is no consistent outlet for this type of reporting in a general media center. And finally, the information that has emerged is not sufficiently put into context. It’s not just about letting people know about some important new developments, but also explaining what it means.
The bottom line is that much of the latest and greatest news about the Chinese military and technology is in the public domain. Just collect it, make sense of it and share it.
And that’s what we’re going to do.