Correction: A previous version of this article misrepresented background information on the report. The report was commissioned by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, but it does not reflect the commission’s official recommendations to Congress. The commission’s recommendations will be released later in November 2022 in its annual report.
WASHINGTON — A report commissioned by the congressionally mandated U.S.-China commission suggests Congress fund backchannel military diplomacy with Beijing, citing growing gaps in Washington’s knowledge of personnel matters and reform efforts in relation to the People’s Liberation Army.
A report on PLA personnel from BluePath Labs, requested by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, advocates for nongovernmental and quasi-governmental dialogues with the Chinese military. The U.S.-China commission is due to issue its full set of recommendations to Congress on Nov. 15 in its annual report.
“While the current state of U.S.-China bilateral relations is not conducive to exchanges in this area, Congress should work with the Department of Defense to reestablish Track 1.5 and 2.0 military dialogues with China if conditions support,” the report states. “Given the increasingly closed nature of China’s information sphere, properly planned and managed interactions could be enormously helpful in better understanding the inner workings of the PLA.”
Track 2 diplomatic dialogues between two countries are usually comprised of nongovernment representatives from academia and think tanks. In a Track 1.5 dialogue, each delegation consists of a mix of government representatives acting in an unofficial capacity alongside outside participants.
“China and the United States previously had multiple forums for exchanging military-related information,” the report reads. “However, almost all of these have disappeared in recent years, likely in part due to worsening bilateral relations and the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, the United States has lost access to valuable information concerning the PLA, including educational and promotion pathways, how unit leaders are chosen and the success of reform initiatives.”
The PLA began slow-walking senior military leaders’ exchanges between the two countries prior to the pandemic. China also suspended multiple military dialogues with the United States following the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to Taiwan in August.
During the pandemic, China also began to crack down on backchannel exchanges. Professor Wang Jisi of Peking University visited Scott Kennedy, a China analyst at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, in February — the first apparent Track 2 event between the two countries in more than two years.
The report also suggests Congress fund an organization that can facilitate the purchase of PLA open-source publications, which China provided for free until 2018.
“One of the keys to understanding the PLA and its personnel is having access to PLA primary sources, including newspapers, journals, books, and websites,” the report states. “Although some organizations have limited access to at least some, but not all, of those publications, the cost has increased appreciably and each organization must pay for them individually.”
Despite the decreased visibility into the PLA in recent years, the 63-page report details the Chinese military’s efforts at personnel modernization, including recruitment and training reform for noncommissioned officers and enlisted personnel as well as its anti-corruption campaign.
“While progress has been uneven, the sum of these initiatives is likely to produce a PLA that is more educated, professionalized and technically proficient in the coming years,” the report says.
The Chinese military in 2021 switched from one to two conscription cycles per year to boost combat readiness.
Nonetheless, the report also mentions that “many commanders are still judged as incapable of properly assessing situations, making operational decisions, deploying forces or leading forces in a modern, joint, informationized war.”
The PLA “has made significant changes to its non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps, gradually empowering it to take on greater responsibilities,” according to the report. It has also “begun new partnerships with civilian academic institutions to provide education to NCOs, as well as directly recruiting civilians with in-demand technical skills as NCOs.”
The report notes that “efforts to recruit a more educated enlisted force overall appear to be succeeding, even if they have not always met the PLA’s high recruitment targets.”
While the PLA has recruited students to study “aerospace, radar, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), missile technology, and maritime science,” it does not efficiently use them after their recruitment, the report adds.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has declared victory on President Xi Jinping’s war against corruption in the ranks. But the report states that it’s “unclear if this has actually changed the culture of pervasive corruption in the PLA,” which has historically included bribery for promotions and graft in the defense procurement process.
The report also recommends Congress fund a follow-up report specifically devoted to the “annual training cycle for each service, force, and branch” of the Chinese military as well as a conference on PLA force structure and reorganization.
The report’s release coincides with a bipartisan push to create a China Grand Strategy Commission via an amendment to the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which the Senate is expected to vote on later this month.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.