November 1, 2011  

Polyglot dragon

What the PLA’s language school says about China’s strategic direction

China watchers searching for clues to Beijing’s strategic direction generally look for changes in government policy, diplomatic liaisons or force realignment. Here’s another useful indicator: language training.

When global ambitions push a nation beyond the boundaries of its homeland and away from its native language, a state designs and invests in foreign language training. If China peers out across the operational environment and determines, for example, that Central Asia or African energy reserves are top priorities, we would expect to see resources allocated for training personnel in the applicable languages and dialects.

As an external instrument of the state, the military is often at the forefront in dealing with foreign entities, and language capability is crucial. Since 1949, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has run a joint-service university on the bank of the Yellow River in Luoyang City, Henan province. Created to serve as the “cradle of defense language talent,” the PLA University of Foreign Languages (PLAUFL) has graduated more than 50,000 students who have taken jobs in military translation, military diplomacy, anti-terrorism and peacekeeping operations. A look at the course curriculum suggests further that the university is a military intelligence facility for training cryptologic linguists.

A study of the PLAUFL course curriculum and its major publication suggests a close correlation between the languages taught and China’s directional assessment. Expanding national strategic reach is a logical reason for developing a polyglot force capability to protect economic and security interests abroad. The language capability prerequisite can be plotted and used to expose the potential direction of China’s strategic interest.

26 Languages

The PLAUFL publishes its own periodical, the Journal of Foreign Languages. The earliest editions, published from 1978 to 1987, establish English, Japanese, Korean and Russian as core languages. The relatively low number of languages indicates a country concerned with peripheral security, not regional capacity.

Issues from 1988 to 1997 show a nation broadening its strategic direction beyond eastern security concerns. In the north, Russian remains the mainstay of strategic interest, but the Mongolian language sees increased focus in the mid-1990s. In the west, India (Hindi) is a major subject of interest for Beijing, which is also looking through Central Asia (Kazakh) to Turkey (Turkish) and the Middle East (Arabic). In the southern region, China pays particular attention to Burmese, Thai and Vietnamese.

More recently, the institute’s 2011 curriculum reveals an interest in Iranian and Middle East politics amid programs of study in 26 languages. These may be organized by geographic proximity to China: border countries (Bahasa, Burmese, Cambodian, Hindi, Japanese, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Korean, Laotian, Malay, Mongolian, Nepali, Pashto, Russian, Thai, Urdu, Uzbek and Vietnamese), Eastern European (Ukrainian), Western European (English, French, German and Spanish), and Middle Eastern (Arabic, Persian and Turkish).

The change in languages taught at the PLAUFL reveals a nation following Mao’s tenets on guerrilla warfare: First, secure your bases, then expand operations. The core languages (English, Japanese, Korean and Russian) show a nation fully engaged in defensive orientation, biding its time during the establishment and consolidation phases. The introduction of languages outside of China’s core defensive interests mark a shift to an expansive phase.

Strategic Routes

More specifically, these new languages may outline at least three potential offensive strategic directions — two that pass north of the Caspian Sea and a southern route that extends from Indonesia all the way into Turkey. Viewed as a comprehensive strategy, these three routes appear to be a modified version of the ancient Silk Road.

The northern strategic route runs from China through Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, passing north of the Caspian Sea.

The middle strategic route runs from China through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Russia and Ukraine, also passing north of the Caspian Sea.

The southern strategic route runs from Indonesia into Vietnam, and up through Nepal. It then crosses from Pakistan and Afghanistan under the Caspian Sea from Iran into Turkey. Its language chain includes Arabic, Bahasa, Burmese, Cambodian, Hindi, Laotian, Malay, Nepali, Pashto, Persian, Thai, Turkish, Urdu and Vietnamese.

These routes correspond with China’s reported plans for high-speed rail lines that cross the Asian continent and ultimately link up with the European rail system by 2025, as described by Jiaotong University’s Wang Mengshu in the Global Times. The first line would run from Yunnan province to Singapore (a start along the southern strategic route). The second line, corresponding with the middle strategic route, would begin in Xinjiang and travel through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan into Germany. The final, northern line would connect Heilongjiang and southern Europe.

Besides the obvious economic advantages in opening these corridors, high-speed rail may have security implications as well. In the event of conflict and blocked sea lanes, the overland route could provide a valve for the continued inbound energy resources and outbound exports. While it would not be impossible to interrupt the overland supply lines, the multinational nature of the railroad could present political dilemmas. The rail lines would also be a valuable supplement for China’s insufficient military airlift capability in moving troops and equipment to various parts of the country. High-speed rail could move troops rapidly across the country, followed by conventional trains carrying heavier equipment; however, they would still be vulnerable to precision weapons.

Languages unassociated with these strategic routes — Arabic, English, French, Japanese, Korean, Russia and Spanish — still serve multiple purposes, including resource-gathering tools languages essential to operations in Africa and South America.

Chinese military and police units have in recent years begun to make substantial contributions to United Nations peacekeeping missions. With Beijing in a worldwide search to secure resources, it is difficult to ignore the disproportionately large contingent of troops located in the resource-rich region of Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to U.N. statistics, China on Dec. 31 had 2,039 troops deployed on 10 U.N. missions worldwide. More than 80 percent, however, were dispatched to oil and mineral-producing regions of Africa. Moreover, U.N. missions placed Chinese forces in close proximity to other potentially lucrative nations not involved in peacekeeping operations, such as Angola, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria. Whether intentional or not, China is using U.N. missions as a deployment vehicle to move military troops into strategically valuable areas. Moreover, the deployments correspond with soaring Chinese direct investment in Africa, with a welter of new deals for cobalt, copper, iron ore, manganese and other mineral resources.

Has China adopted a strategy of pushing military personnel into areas adjacent to its burgeoning national interests? What can the PLA’s language-training curriculum tell us about this?

Chinese peacekeepers need only five primary languages to communicate with a majority of the resource-producing African states: Arabic, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The PLAUFL trains service members in all but Portuguese. It is interesting to note that last year, Chinese relations with Portuguese-speaking Angola cooled considerably despite Chinese investment of $8.5 billion.


China’s thinking on national security has evolved in three-stages: defensive military strength, consolidation through comprehensive national power, and expansion by means of national strategic capability. During the Cold War, while militarily weak, the Chinese developed a defensive strategy to prevent external invasion through a combination of military and cultural forces. In stage two, following Deng Xiaoping’s reform, increased confidence led to the concept of comprehensive national power and consolidation of gains. Military requirements were lowered and national development moved into the spotlight. The current stage, national strategic capability, is founded on safeguarding sovereignty and national interests while expanding international influence. In short, China is now strong enough to begin expanding outward in a meaningful way, and language has become a key ingredient behind the move.

To determine the most beneficial strategic avenue for that movement, China weighed its domestic and international environments and chose the path best suited for its future prosperity and security: westward. Beijing has supplemented strategic western movement with resource outreach, moving into Africa and South America to secure mineral and energy rights. The military element of these moves is being partially assisted through U.N. peacekeeping mission deployments. The close integration of Beijing’s economic interests and national security may force us to re-evaluate the People’s Liberation Army as a resource military deployed forward to protect Chinese financial interests abroad.

From the linguistic evidence, China is interested in pushing westward and challenging the commonly held belief that sea lanes and air transport are the only viable model for modern distribution of goods and economic activity. This potential swing in its strategic orientation, through the re-establishment of an overland rail above and below the Caspian Sea, could substantially change the face of the players and infrastructure in the Eurasian economy and perhaps alter the balance of power. AFJ