The evolution of interstate security crisis-management theory and practice in China - CWP Director Alastair Iain Johnston
As the frequency and scope of China’s paramilitary and military presence activities in the East and South China Seas have increased in the last few years, officials and analysts inside and outside China have worried more and more about the potential for military crises erupting between China and other actors. Given the perceived high stakes of many of these potential disputes—they touch on sovereignty, territorial integrity, national dignity, and development resources—some observers are concerned about the risks of escalation to military conflict, whether deliberate or accidental.1 Adding to the worries is uncertainty about China’s commitment to crisis management and escalation control.2 The purpose of this article is to help fill the gap in knowledge about Chinese crisis-management theory and practice. Focusing mainly on the evolution of thinking in China about international security crisis management over the past ten to fifteen years, the study begins with a short introductory description of Chinese theorizing about the definitions and characteristics of interstate crisis, about crisis-management principles, and about how crisis management fits into the evolving military operations of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It then analyzes factors in Chinese crisis-management theory and practice that might be in some tension with these principles. Finally it examines some of the problems that Chinese crisis-management experts themselves have identified in setting up a leaner, more efficient, and better coordinated military crisis-management decision-making system. The bottom line is that China has developed a relatively large body of research on crisis management, work that more or less endorses the principles and practices developed by many American experts during the Cold War. Indeed, much of the Chinese research explicitly draws on the substantial body of American literature on crisis management. Chinese experts have also developed concepts (e.g., nonwar military actions) and scenarios (e.g., border instability) that explicitly articulate roles for the PLA in crisis management distinct from its traditional war-fighting role. But there is also considerable tension between these principles and practices on the one hand and certain military operational concepts in China on the other. In addition certain biases—hypernationalism and visions of Chinese exceptionalism—are in tension with crisis-management principles as well. Finally, crisis-management decision-making institutions, mechanisms, and procedures are still relatively underdeveloped. CRISIS-MANAGEMENT THEORY DEVELOPMENT It is common in the United States, and to some degree in China, to hear commentators pronounce that in the Chinese language “crisis” (weiji) means “danger” plus “opportunity.”3 According to some Western and Chinese crisis-management experts, this is an inaccurate or facile way of understanding the term. Rather, “crisis” comprises the characters for “danger” (wei) and for “decisive point/fulcrum [ji] between life and death.”4 Some believe it can also mean “danger” plus “turning point” (zhuanji or zhuanzhe), a sense in which some positive outcome is possible.5 Indeed, a seminal study of crisis management by the influential China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) notes that the EP-3 crisis in 2001 led the United States (and China) to improve Sino-U.S. relations.6 In contrast, much of the Chinese literature focuses on the negative nature of crises. One of the first Chinese works on crisis management, published in 1989, refers to a crisis as the intensification of contradictions between states that damages their normal relationship.7 It is a situation with some probability of escalation to armed conflict or war, and where there is only a short period in which to resolve the crisis. It is also common for Chinese sources to describe a crisis as being situated between war and peace.8 One source is explicit that there are three types of security situations: peace, crisis, and war.9 More recently, Yu Qiaohua, a PLA crisis-management specialist at the PLA National Defense University (NDU), citing Chinese dictionaries, concludes that a crisis is a “hidden/ concealed disaster or danger, a moment of serious difficulty[,] . . . a dangerous situation or stage where there is a possibility of war or armed conflict between countries or political groups.”10 CICIR’s study calls a crisis a cut point in a line or trend of normalcy and notes that after a crisis the situation rarely returns to the status quo ante.11 A widely cited NDU study argues that the resolution of a crisis means neither that complete cooperation has returned nor that the basic problem behind the crisis is resolved.12 In short, interstate-security crises occur between adversaries and enemies, not between friends. Generally, Chinese crisis-management experts characterize crises much along the lines of standard American definitions. This should not be surprising, as much of the Chinese literature draws extensively on the U.S. literature.13 In the American academic literature Michael Brecher and Jonathan Wilkenfeld’s definition of a crisis has been the most influential. They define it as a politicalmilitary conflict where decision makers perceive there to be a threat to important interests, where stakes are high, where there is a growing probability of armed conflict, and where there is perceived pressure to resolve a dispute before it escalates to war. Chinese crisis-management experts have adopted this definition.14 According to the 2003 CICIR study, crises have three main characteristics: threats to important interests (weixiexing), high levels of uncertainty (buquedingxing), and a high sense of urgency (jinpoxing).15 According to a 2006 NDU study on crisis-management decision making, crises have five characteristics: they are threatening (weixiexing), sudden (tufaxing), and marked by a high sense of urgency (jinpoxing) and high levels of uncertainty (buquedingxing) but are controllable (kekongxing).16 A 2008 NDU study of military crises argues that crises have four characteristics: the possibility of escalation to war (zhanzheng weixianxing), seriousness of threat to interests and costliness of escalation (weixie yanzhongxing), uncertainty about the direction of the crisis (fazhan buquedingxing), and urgency in handling it (chuzhi jinpoxing).17 And the 2015 edition of the NDU’s Science of Strategy simply adopts Brecher and Wilkenfeld’s definition of a crisis.18 In short, according to Chinese experts, crises are dangerous, given that escalation to war is a strong possibility, but they are controllable through the application of crisis-management principles and mechanisms, as will be discussed more fully below.19 As I will discuss later, the claim that crises reside between war and peace creates a potential set of missions for military power that are distinct from major interstate war. The problem is that, according to many Chinese military analysts, the PLA is still unprepared in terms of command, operations, and training to engage fully in crisis-management missions. Types of Crises Yu Qiaohua identifies six types of military crises: those between great powers, those among alliance members or within political groupings, those between major and minor powers, those between states with traditional adversarial relations or rivalries, those within states between political groups, and those induced by terrorism.20 These types can be aggregated into traditional interstate crises, terrorism, and internal or domestic disorder (intrastate crises). Crises can be further categorized as those that lead to war (where one or more states provokes a crisis as an excuse for war), those that remain on the margins of war (where the threat or escalation to war is used for bargaining purposes to coerce the other side), accidental crises (where the crisis arises from unintended or chance events and actions), and quasi-crises (where sudden events in the context of somewhat conflictual relations precipitate a crisis but the probability of war is low, such as the EP-3 incident in 2001).21 As for the causes of crises, aside from the occasional nod to historical materialism (e.g., the claim that interstate crises are mainly a function of clashing economic interests, U.S. hegemonic pursuit of energy being a major source of these crises), Chinese crisis-management scholars identify a range of fairly specific factors and examples.22 These fall into a number of categories from territorial and resources conflicts (e.g., Diaoyudao, Dokdo, South China Sea issues, energy disputes) to imbalances in, and the spread of, new military capabilities (e.g., nuclear proliferation in Korea and Iran, cyber weapons);23 the spillover of domestic conflicts into other countries (e.g., ethnic separatism, terrorism, DPRK* collapse, diversionary crises); unexpected military accidents and collisions; and the rise of new powers with more points of potential conflict with other states.24 Crisis Management: Definitions and Principles China’s crisis-management specialists commonly define crisis management as involving the use of diplomatic, military, and economic means to establish an advantageous position from which to reduce tension, minimize losses, and get the adversary to compromise, all the while avoiding loss of control or escalation to war.25 Crisis-management policy, therefore, entails “a series of measures to prevent and control the occurrence and development of crises.”26 These can include, among others, building confidence and trust, increasing transparency, strengthening contacts across militaries, prior notification of military activities, participation in multilateral security institutions, deterrence (and sanctions), summit meetings and regularized high-level mutual visits, hotlines, mechanisms for arms control and disarmament monitoring, and the use of informal high-level trusted emissaries.27 A recent NDU study argues that direct communications between top leaders are more effective in restraining crisis escalation than sole reliance on military deterrence or economic sanctions.28 Definitions and characterizations of international security and military crises in Chinese research draw heavily from American academic and government research. Senior Colonel Hu Ping of the PLA General Staff Department (GSD)
* Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; that is, North Korea.
Alastair Iain Johnston