China has taken the welcome step to unveil a website for its College for Defence Studies which is part of China’s National Defence University. (see the website at http://www.cdsndu.org) The College of Defence Studies is one of the highest institutions of military learning in China, and provides education to senior commanding, staff and research officers, as well as senior officials of foreign countries. Located in Beijing, the large campus supports advanced teaching and living facilities. The College has four main offices – a General Office, which is responsible for teaching, research and foreign engagement, as well as administration and logistics; a Political Section, which deals with organisational work, personnel, and information security; a Participants Administration section which handles daily administrative duties for running courses; and the Teaching and Translation Division, which organises and conducts teaching, and undertakes translation. The College is led by the Commandant, Major-General Zhang Yingli, and the Political Commissar, Major-General Wang Ximing.
The College has emerged from previous Chinese military education efforts dating back to the earliest days of the People’s Republic of China, with the first such institution being subordinated to the 4th Department of Nanjing Military Academy in 1951. It was subsequently moved to Beijing as the Fifth Brigade of the Military and Political University in 1969. This move would eventually see it introduce overseas students who wished to study at the PLA’s National Defence University from 1978 onwards. Thus it has a long heritage of over fifty years, providing Chinese PLA and foreign officer education, and exposure to Chinese military thinking for foreign military officers.
It is the first of China’s professional military-education establishments to offer greater visibility to Western observers of Chinese military affairs, and hopefully, it will not be the last. The move by the PLA represents a forward step in enhancing defence transparency to other states because it gives outside observers an important insight into current Chinese military thinking at a high official level. The issue of defence transparency is one of increasing interest to western observers of China’s military affairs, and has been a concern given uncertainty over China’s intentions, particularly in East Asia, where China’s rapid military modernisation is causing concern amongst neighbouring states. Only through developing greater defence transparency facilitated by increased engagement between China and the international community can potential security dilemmas be avoided, and the risk of tension or worse, minimised.
Thus the chance provided by the College website to gain greater access to Chinese military thinking is a valuable one. The website includes a range of academic articles published within China Armed Forces journal, and complements other existing websites such as ‘Window on Chinese Armed Forces’ (http://english.chinamil.com.cn ) which is sponsored by the journal PLA Daily. Having access to English language translations of Chinese military articles is becoming of critical importance in understanding how China perceives international events, and how it thinks about the use of force. Whilst a number of predominantly US writers are providing excellent research sources on this, the broader direct dissemination of scholarly analysis by China’s military thinkers will be crucial. Most of the writers are senior military officers within the PLA, including those in positions to influence the future shape of China’s defence policy and provide advice on capability development to the Chinese Communist Party leadership. These authors are the next generation of China’s military leaders and as such will mould China’s defence policy and military posture as China’s strategic outlook evolves in the 21st Century. Greater access to primary source material directly from influential Chinese military thinkers thus represents a window into the PLA that is normally shut, but now appears to be opening.
Secondly, the College website offers greater opportunity for outside higher educational institutions, including professional military education institutions, such as the Australian Defence College at Weston Creek, Canberra, to engage with their Chinese counterparts in an effort to ensure better mutual understanding, and reduce the risk of misperception or misunderstanding. Only through continuing engagement and communication can the risk of such misunderstanding on both sides be eased, and a more open and transparent profile on the part of the College contributes to this end. Such engagement could include greater continuing communication between academics and military personnel, exchanges and visits, and joint symposiums and workshops. The College is active in this area, and undertakes an annual International Security Symposium, which each year focuses on a specific theme. The most recent of these listed on the website was focused on ‘International Security and Military Mutual Trust and Cooperation’ in 2009.
The College of Defence Studies website thus represents an important forward step by China. China should follow this by opening up other important institutions – for example, the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences – to allow greater access by Western observers to a broad range of unclassified and open-source Chinese military thinking. By developing a greater understanding Chinese strategic culture, and how they think about strategy and the use of force, the international community might avoid potential crises in the future. In return, efforts on behalf of western higher education institutions to engage with their counterparts in China would assist in opening greater visibility on Chinese military thinking, and further reducing uncertainty in the future.
By Dr. Malcolm R Davis, Assistant Professor and Post Doctoral Research Fellow in China-Western Relations, Department of International Relations and Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies, Faculty of Humanities, Bond University.