Guide to PLA watching Part II: Sources
Featured picture: log in screen of China Defense Forum (CDF)
This second entry on PLA watching will describe some sources and outlets that one should seek out to further their knowledge on the Chinese military, or to keep up to date with the latest Chinese military matters and developments.
As with the rest of this instructional series, this entry is meant for enthusiasts or amateurs new to watching the Chinese military, who only speak and understand English, and thus will focus primarily on English language sources.
For the purposes of this entry, a variety of sources and outlets will be grouped as Primary, Secondary and Tertiary, based on their usefulness for following Chinese military developments. Small explanations and caveats will follow each source or each collection of similar sources, so newcomers can maximize the usefulness from these outlets.
Certain sources will feature hyperlinks that will directly take an individual to that site. Note, some Chinese language sites may present with warnings regarding security, and it is up to the individual if they choose to venture into those sites.
These sources are the websites, outlets and forums which should be any civilian Chinese military watcher’s first ports of call for the latest and most reliable information on Chinese military matters, from the latest news and developments on new aircraft, ships and weapons. Rumours may be listed along with new pictures to be dissected and scrutinized.
-Chinese language military following forums, including FYJS, CJDBY, HSH:
Unfortunately for English speakers and anyone who cannot read Chinese, the best and primary source are Chinese military forums. Virtually all the news and developments of Chinese military matters that eventually percolate through English speaking PLA watching forums, to English speaking defence websites, all the way to Western mainstream news outlets, all have their source through a few select Chinese military watching forums, three of which are listed, but which many also exist. These sites are home to “wall climbers” who take photos of airfields of Chinese aerospace companies to provide the latest pictures of aircraft or individuals who go out of their way to keep an eye on shipyards from both surface and air to. These sites are also home to “big shrimps,” who are users with a record of making accurate predictions on future Chinese military developments such as what a certain aircraft or ship may look like, when they may appear, the details of a particular subsystem or weapon, and other details which only certain “insiders” may have.
However, these sites are also generally impregnable for individuals unable to read Chinese, and even the use of a translating tool such as Google Translate provides only marginally acceptable browsing at best. And even then, one requires months of constant watching to identify potentially useful information from background noise, which may include doctored photos and false rumours deliberately meant to “troll” other users.
–China Defense Forum:
China Defense Forum, sometimes shortened to CDF, is arguably one of the most primary Chinese military watching forums on the English speaking internet. While it is no true substitute for being able to navigate Chinese language forums, it is definitely the next best thing. The forum is populated by driven individuals, many with Chinese background or ancestry who are driven and consistent in following Chinese military developments and posting and scrutinizing the latest news and photos. Many other individuals are professionals with expertise in certain military derived fields, and are often willing to share their knowledge and expertise.
CDF, along with SDF below, are typically among the first English language forums to post and relay the latest Chinese military developments including rumours, as well as new photos of aircraft and ships, among many others.
However, CDF also requires an account to browse and is not an open forum, therefore if one wants to merely observe, they must first register.
Sinodefence Forum, or China Defence Forum, and usually called SDF, is another frontline English language forum dedicated to following the Chinese military. In many respects, SDF is similar to CDF, however SDF is an open forum where one does not need an account to browse, and SDF is also easier to access and register, therefore SDF tends to field a greater population of “fanboys” and it is sometimes more difficult to have serious discussions on certain matters compared to CDF.
SDF is also substantially more “western” than CDF, with more moderating staff of western descent. This does not tend to affect the bias of the forum too much, however it does mean some discussions (such as outrightly discussing potential war) on SDF are banned while allowed on CDF.
However, SDF together with CDF are both complementary in nature, and together they provide an interactive, up to date resource for Chinese military watchers and should be considered vital for any individual interested in following the Chinese military, even for professionals.
–Chinese Military Aviation (Huitong’s site):
If there is anything as close to a “gold standard” for verifying Chinese military aviation rumours, Chinese Military Aviation is it. The site, run by a long standing Chinese military called Huitong, has existed for two decades since the mid 1990s as a site documenting Chinese military aircraft (and previously ships and submarines).
Since then, it has been constantly updated with the latest rumours, pictures and information which have been aggregated and critically scrutinized and subsequently posted on the site through new entries. The relatively easy to access, consistent and reliable nature of the website has meant Chinese Military Aviation is considered by many English speaking Chinese military watchers as a major milestone for the reliability of new rumours.
However, the site and Huitong himself are not infallible and have occasionally made mistakes in various entries (such as being duped by doctored photos or false rumours), and some entries are a result of Huitong’s own speculation and assumptions, and some specifications listed should not be considered gospel. A degree of caution should accompany viewing Huitong’s site as much as any other outlet when seeking information on the Chinese military, but Chinese Military Aviation still remains easily the comprehensive resource for the subject.
-Chinese state media, including CCTV, PLA daily, Xinhua, People’s Daily:
Chinese state media is often considered to be a mouthpiece of the Chinese government and their various bodies, including the Chinese military, and it is assumed that any information from such sources may be considered “official” and thus “accurate”. This is not always the case, especially for Chinese military matters, as high Chinese military operational security means up to date information are almost never published through their official news organs and even accurate specifications may be subject to deliberate understatement on occasion.
That said, if one is able to maintain a degree of vigilance when viewing Chinese state media and official military media, it may remain a very viable resource for other subjects, including following various military exercises, confirming the existence of some new military projects, and sometimes on rare occasions even accurate specifications may be posted by certain state news sites.
-Chinese scientific studies:
All military developments are a result of scientific research and development, and such efforts are in turn measured, cataloged, assessed, and sometimes published. In the case of Chinese military developments, sometimes such research and development may find certain aspects of their work in scientific articles, journals, or have screenshots posted online, or have excerpts republished.
Such studies are often considered bounties of information for the presumed accurate nature of their information as well as the general rarity of these disclosures. These studies and articles, when they do appear, may often provide proof of Chinese research and development in certain domains of weapons or systems development, and on occasion may even provide specifications or operational details as to how a particular weapon or system may end up functioning.
Unfortunately, there are no easy to access sources for such documents, and one generally has to follow various Chinese military forums (either in English or Chinese) to catch such posts when they do occur.
Chinese state and private defense companies often have a presence at various defense expos in China and outside of China, and such expos are often very useful displays of certain new weapons and systems that the Chinese military have cleared for export.
One of the most closely followed expos is Zhuhai Airshow, held biannually on every even numbered year in Zhuhai in Southern China.
While these exhibitions are very useful for ascertaining export oriented products, they often do not host weapons and systems operated or under development by the Chinese military which have not been cleared for export. Therefore, defense exhibitions are useful only as a “minimum” barometer for Chinese military developments and one has to realize there is a far larger portion of the Chinese defense industry exclusively oriented for the Chinese military which is far more capable than what is willing to be shown to the public and for overseas guests.
Scramble is a website maintained by aviation and military aviation enthusiasts dedicated essentially to plane watching.
Among its databases for a variety of civilian and military aircraft and airports, is a database for Chinese military aviation. It is a well updated and accurate site which is relatively easy to navigate, and useful for anyone seeking to keep tabs on the order of battle and disposition of Chinese military aviation assets.
Sinodefence.com was once considered once one of the primary sources for Chinese military matters, and was a comprehensive and informative site with accurate information. Indeed, Sinodefence Forum was formed in relation to the original Sinodefence.com.
However, since the late 2000s, the site apparently ceased consistently updating and entered a state of decline. It was only in recent years that the site reemerged, seemingly new management, where a greater focus was placed on Chinese space activities rather than conventional military forces. And what information that remained surrounding conventional military forces lacked the immense detail of Sinodefence.com in its previous incarnation.
The site itself remains a useful source that all new Chinese military watchers should acquaint themselves with, however it no longer fields the same dominant presence it did for Chinese military watchers as it did in the mid to late 2000s.
These sources are considered secondary rather than primary, because while they often include well researched and accurate information on Chinese military matters, they may often feature small mistakes, or may sometimes be out of date.
For some sources, their content may not be significantly applicable to Chinese military watchers interested in Chinese military developments rather than other subjects (such as geopolitics or US military developments in relation to China).
–China Defense Blog:
This blog is run by moderators of the aforementioned China Defense Forum, however it is considered a Secondary rather than Primary source, as it is often not fully comprehensive in relaying the most significant Chinese military developments onto its posts.
Sometimes, various posts may also feature mistakes, confusing failures of logic, and may inadvertently post doctored photos or even computer generated images.
Generally speaking, it is useful for anyone interested in maintaining a rudimentary accurate following of Chinese military matters, but all the content are actually sourced from articles, pictures and information first posted on CDF itself (though of course acknowledgement is usually given to the original poster). Therefore, China Defense Blog can be considered as a poor man’s substitute to truly following CDF itself.
–Eastern Arsenal blog on Popular Science:
Eastern Arsenal can be considered the first “mainstream” outlet on this list. Eastern Arsenal is a blog as part of the website of well known outlet Popular Science.
Eastern Arsenal is in many ways the first outlet derived from a mainstream western parent, dedicated to following Chinese military developments as its only mission, and more importantly, it is the first mainstream western outlet where the authors consistently follow rumours and photos directly from Chinese military watching forums, which traditional western based news and defense media have yet to realize are an untapped goldmine of potential information.
Therefore, Eastern Arsenal has earned a distinction for acting in some ways as a “credible” proxy for relaying the latest Chinese military rumours and developments from forums to more mainstream western outlets.
Unfortunately, Eastern Arsenal has also made a few mistakes in its past reporting, and many posts often lack detail due to the brisk and commercial nature of the blog format (which it cannot be faulted for). Sometimes, information may also be unintentionally misrepresented or exaggerated. However despite all this, Eastern Arsenal remains a useful additional source to keep track of, especially for individuals very new to Chinese military watching who may prefer to follow an outlet with a more “established” set of credentials from its parent company.
–Navy Recognition, as well as Air Recognition and Army Recognition
Navy Recognition, along with Air Recognition and Army Recognition are a family of defence media websites which follows defence industry news and general military procurement of national military forces. These sites are particularly valuable due to their presence at a variety of defence expos where Chinese military enterprises may often showcase export products, and have been the first English language outlet to report on new Chinese produced weapons offered for export, on more than one occasion.
Navy Recognition, Air Recognition, and Army Recognition also contain fact files for some Chinese weapons systems which are generally accurate and reflective of current open source knowledge, and while occasional mistakes in entries do occur, they are almost never due to bias.
The only reason these sites are not listed as a Primary Source, is that only a minority of their content is relevant to Chinese military developments as most of their content is oriented towards international and western defence developments — which needless to say, they do an exceptional job at — thus, when any of the Navy/Air/Army Recognition sites do produce a rare new entry on a topic related to the Chinese military it is always worth reading.
–Andrew Erickson’s site
Among the many US based Chinese military scholars, Associate Professor Andrew Erickson is arguably one of the most well known. Among open Chinese military watching communities, he is considered very credible and is even thought to be somewhat even handed in regards to his assessment of most Chinese military developments.
His research, commentary, and articles have been published widely across many academic and mass media platforms, and he is also quite well respected in Chinese military watching forums for his willingness and appreciation of the importance of Chinese language sources as well as his well researched and logical academic articles. Andrew Erickson is also well known for his publications on the development of the Chinese Anti Ship Ballistic Missile program, as well as reporting on the Chinese Navy’s escort missions in the Gulf of Aden, among many other topics.
However, the only reason that Andrew Erickson is considered a Secondary rather than Primary source, is due to his greater focus on geopolitical issues involving China rather than the latest military technological and asset developments, and also due to occasional lapses in logic in certain write ups, as well as an inherent degree of bias against China and the Chinese military in some regards (which is quite fair, given he is employed at the US Naval War College after all).
–China Brief of the Jamestown Foundation
The China Brief project of the Jamestown Foundation website is another good source for generally well researched developments for Chinese geopolitical developments, military organization, Chinese military doctrines, and domestic Chinese politics. While it is less useful for finding the latest photos of Chinese fighter aircraft or destroyers at Jiangnan Shipyard, the consistently updated nature of China Brief and the accessibility of archived write ups going back to the 90s, makes it a useful source for Chinese military watchers interested in a more comprehensive view of Chinese military policy and doctrines… written from a western perspective.
-US government sources, including ONI and DoD; and think tanks, including RAND, Stratfor, and others
The US government and military tends to annually publish reports on Chinese military developments, one of which is the Annual Report to Congress on Chinese military developments, by the Department of Defense.
Another is the Office of Naval Intelligence publication on the Chinese Navy, produced in 2015.
US based think tanks such as the RAND corporation and Stratfor, among others, also regularly write assessments of Chinese military developments, sometimes in regards to specific flashpoints or scenarios, sometimes only looking at Chinese military developments alone, and sometimes directly comparing Chinese military power with US military power.
Outlets of the above category all tend to be very well researched, and provide very useful background on certain organizational, historical, and policy subjects related to the Chinese military.
However these publications typically only cite sources which they deem as “authoritative” or “credible,” thus leaving a substantial amount of “open source” information and pictures unreported. Occasionally, rather blatant mistakes may also be made. For instance, in RAND’s The US-Chinese military scorecard published in 2015, the very existence of the KJ-200 AEW&C aircraft was not mentioned in any of the relevant sections discussing Chinese military AEW&C and force multiplier aircraft, despite at least eleven such aircraft in active service within the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation since around 2008.
It is also very important to appreciate the above outlets are affiliated with the US government and military, if not simply one of their organs, therefore all publications will typically be framed with a US audience in mind with all the associated biases and intentions that may pervade any writings. Therefore vigilance is advised when reading their documents.
Tertiary Sources/sources which require nuance:
–Sina Military News and “unsubstantiated” Chinese websites
In recent years, western defence media have begun trying to dig into Chinese language media for information on Chinese military news.
Unfortunately, in some cases, western defence media may often be unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of nuance and credibility between the differing Chinese military sites. Sina Military News (a military oriented site of the larger Sina online media company) has been one such site whose articles and write ups have been reported by western defence media, but the credibility of articles and write ups within Sina Military News varies greatly, and a significant proportion of articles are often highly inaccurate if not outright uninformed lies or “trolling”.
Further adding confusion to the mix, is the propensity for western media to perceive any and all Chinese media outlets as directly under government control, therefore any articles and write ups on Chinese media sites about Chinese military matters may be inferred as “official”. Needless to say, this is not the case, and great caution must be exercised while venturing onto any Chinese media site dedicated to military matters, especially if the site itself appears too comprehensive and “well-made” as in the case of Sina Military News and other similar outlets.
Such websites do feature accurate information, however this is typically only after the subject matter in question has percolated through Chinese language military watching forums, who are the vanguard and harbinger of the latest Chinese military developments.
Therefore, one must remain vigilant and constantly question the credibility of pictures (including many CGIs) and claims on such websites which seem too outlandish or written in too aggressive a manner.
-Mainstream Western news outlets: BBC, CNN, Fox, ABC, New York Times, Washington Times, and others
Any Chinese military watcher worth their salt would consider mainstream western news media as a distraction at best, or with spite at worst.
Mass media typically are unable to delve too deeply into many topics where nuance is important, and nuance is essential to appreciating the smoke and mirrors of Chinese military developments. More often than not, articles on the Chinese military are not written by subject experts on large media conglomerates, but rather journalists or experts either on “China” or “security” in general.
When one further adds in some inherent bias which almost always pervades reporting on Chinese military developments (let alone Chinese actions on the geopolitical stage), the usefulness of such media outlets are thus considered to be very limited.
–Jane’s and other sites which report on defence matters, including Aviation Week, Flight Global, and USNI, Defence Updates, Defencetalk
Jane’s Defence has its heritage in the late 18th century All the World’s Fighting Ships, originally published by John F. T. Jane, and in the 20th and 21st century, it has been and continues to be considered one of the most reliable and up to date sources and references for global military matters.
However, the usefulness of Jane’s for Chinese military developments varies greatly, depending on the writer and subject matter at hand.
Jane’s is very useful for reporting on subjects which are resource intensive: for instance, its willlingness to pay for satellite intelligence means it is very useful for providing updates on certain large and visually imposing projects such as the 001A domestic carrier under construction at Dalian. Jane’s also fields a presence at many defence expos around the world, and inevitably are well placed for reporting on various Chinese weapons offered for export.
But on the other hand, Jane’s is far less useful than Primary and Secondary sources in detailing the latest Chinese military developments in a comprehensive way, and sometimes also presents only a fraction of the full information for a certain topic. Bias may also exist, depending on the author. Therefore, despite the usefulness of Jane’s in reporting on other global military developments, it is far less of a practical resource in reporting Chinese military developments.
This similarly applies for the other listed sites of a similar nature, which tend to focus on global or western military matters as their primary topic of interest rather than Chinese.
-Western geopolitical commentary sites, including, The Diplomat, National Interest, Foreign Policy
These outlets typically report on geopolitical subjects rather than military, however military development go hand in hand with geopolitics, therefore it is common for Chinese military developments to feature on such outlets.
The quality of writings on Chinese military developments varies greatly, and ultimately depends on the author of a particular article. The National Interest in particular, seems to have found a habit for clickbait titles with articles of minimal substance. Even more disturbing, is the willingness for certain authors to flaunt blatant nationalism under the guise of neutral article writing.
Therefore, such sites are useful to read occasionally, but the bias and overall quality of individual articles may be quite prominent and difficult to avoid, and substantial nuance (and possibly use of aspirin) is advised when reading any articles on Chinese military developments by these outlets.
-Western military “blog-news” sites, including, Foxtrot Alpha, War is Boring
Chinese military development has also caught the eye of defence blog-news sites. In a similar vein to western geopolitical commentary sites, western mass media and western defence media, there is often an inherent bias against Chinese military developments prevalent in articles discussing the Chinese military, either by over-simplification of complex matters, exaggerating Chinese actions to their most aggressive intent, or simply disparaging Chinese efforts, capabilities, or intents through thinly veiled racist undertones.
This is not to say such sites are not useful for other topics, including exclusive reporting or journalistic follow ups on US and western defence matters. But their usefulness for up to date, regular, accurate and unbiased reporting on Chinese military matters is ultimately limited.
These sources are sites where extra caution must be considered when reading their content. In fact, these outlets are considered by many Chinese military watchers on forums to be so poor quality or biased that any article from any of these sites are immediately disregarded.
Strategypage as a site is not inherently different to other western military blog-news sites. The only reason it is singled out for additional vigilance, is due to its tendency to post extremely opinionated and nationalistic articles regarding China that are often clouded by immense bias, as well as past history of making claims that were either unsubstantiated or simply false.
This isn’t to say Strategypage cannot produce decent articles on Chinese military developments, if they circulate write ups from other sources which are more credible. But more often than not, Strategypage is regarded with coldness if not contempt in their usefulness for Chinese military developments.
Kanwa Defense Review is an online magazine for Asian security matters, and its Editor is an individual known as Andrei Chang, but also sometimes called Andrei Pinkov. Under the direction of Andrei Chang, Kanwa Defense has been known over the years to make an array of incomprehensible and unsubstantiated claims on Chinese military matters. Andrei Chang is also known for taking a strangely pessimistic view of many Chinese military developments.
Like other fairly well funded and coordinated media organizations, Kanwa has a presence at defence expos and airshows, and thus may be able to accurately report on Chinese military presence or export products at such events, despite other shortcomings such as making poor inferences, inaccurately assessing the latest open source Chinese miltiary developments, or making unfounded rumours.
But there are additional reasons for singling out Kanwa and its editor. Andrei Chang has gained notoriety on Chinese language military watching forums, where he is often mocked and mildly hated for reasons including his inaccurate writings, but also due to past unfriendly actions such as removing watermarks of individuals who have taken original photos of Chinese military developments and not citing the original source on his publications.
-Some non-Chinese news sites, including those from Taiwan, Russia, Japan, Korea, and others:
The reason why non-Chinese, non-western news media sites are listed independent of western news media sites, is due to a perception that such media outlets are considered strangely credible, when in reality they may often describe
For instance, the Taiwan based Want China Times has rapidly gained a reputation in recent years for writing a host of wildly inaccurate articles on a range of supposed Chinese military aircraft and ships and other projects which are either unsubstantiated or simply do not exist.
The Israel based Debka has also caused confusion in late 2015 by claiming the Chinese Navy has sent a cruiser and the Liaoning aircraft carrier to support Russian airstrikes in Syria, despite the Chinese Navy not operating any cruiser at such time, and despite Liaoning still remaining in the Western Pacific and still far from reaching full operational capability.
Some Russian news sources in English have also earned a spot of frustration in recent years, due to seemingly annually reporting deals of Russian military hardware to China as imminent. While discussions for some hardware likely were occurring throughout periods of time, the consistent nature of such reports tend to cause a degree of derision and tiredness from many Chinese defence watchers due to many proclamations over the years (such as rumours of an Su-35 sale) that were not followed by material progress (though in late 2015 a deal was finally announced, but only after many years of repeated statements that a deal was imminent).
In short, the same vigilance applied for western news media sources and defence media should also be fielded when reading non-Chinese and non-English news media.
These sources are sites, blogs and outlets which may not be updated very often and may not post exclusively Chinese military related matters, but are still very much worth reading for any new Chinese military watcher so as to appreciate the context for current Chinese military developments, or for experienced watchers to catch new tidbits of information that Primary sources may occasionally miss out on.
–China Air and Naval Power (Feng’s site):
This blogsite by Feng was once one of the most well updated, comprehensive, and informative sites on the English speaking internet for reliable and in depth information on Chinese military developments. In its early days the site was prone to speculation, it, along with Sinodefence.com, were among the most valued resources for Chinese military developments.
However in recent years, the author has not posted as often due to his own real life commitments. It remains a very useful resource and full archives going back to the mid 2000s are available, and any new Chinese military watcher should take a glance at those past posts to get acquainted with the context and background of the state of China’s military today.
–Rising Sea Dragon (Jeff Head’s site):
Jeff Head’s “Rising Sea Dragon” site is another good resource for archival information of Chinese military development going back to the early 2000s, especially for the Chinese Navy.
While the site features its anachronisms (such as referring China as “red China”), the site also features a host of pictures throughout the years and relatively accurate information for many Chinese naval ships from the early stages of its modernization drive to the present.
The Chinese Navy section is also only a portion of the larger site created by Jeff Head, and includes a tapestry of information for other world navies with substantial focus on the US Navy, worldwide aircraft carriers, and various aegis type surface combatants of the world.
–Henri Kenhmann Youtube channel:
Henri Kenhmann, also known as Henri K on some forums, is a Chinese military watcher who maintains a very up to date Youtube channel where many Chinese language videos regarding Chinese military, science and technology matters are posted. Many of these are video clips from CCTV, and include reporting of exercises. Sometimes, videos from “wall climbers” posted on the Chinese internet for specific Chinese military developments such as the J-20 stealth fighter are also posted on this channel.
-Various defence blogs with information related to Chinese military, including Chinese Military Review, China Defense Mashup, Defence Updates, Asian Defence News, Alert 5:
These websites and blogs range in their accuracy and consistency of posting Chinese military related news, however they are also useful to keep an eye on.
–International Assessment and Strategy Centre:
Strategy Centre reports on many geopolitical and military issues, which includes that of China. Richard Fisher is the predominant scholar who writes on Chinese military affairs, and despite his immensely hawkish stance on a number of geopolitical entanglements involving China, his past write-ups on the Chinese military are not entirely poor. In fact, he is known to have made use of some Chinese language sources and possibly even English language Chinese military forums such as SDF and CDF, and has displayed impressive judgement in the types of rumours and potential new weapons systems to discuss.
Rick Fisher has also written for the Jamestown Foundation and Jane’s, among other aforementioned sources. If one can look past the excessively nationalistic and hawkish overtones of his articles, some of his past write ups can be useful background reading.
A controversial but comprehensive website mostly created and written by Carlo Kopp, this site is written from an Australian point of view in regards to Australian security.
Entries on Chinese military matters are scarce but present, and many are unfortunately out of date. However they help provide a degree of context despite their lack of comprehensive coverage, and like other sources of this category, it is useful background reading.
It should be noted, that the entire site and the author is significantly biased against the F-35 and very pro F-22 and pro F-111, therefore any of his write ups must be understood in that specific context.