05 January 2016

The Evolution of Interstate Security Crisis-Management Theory and Practice in China

Alastair Iain Johnston, “The Evolution of Interstate Security Crisis-Management Theory and Practice in China,” Naval War College Review 69.1 (Winter 2016): 28-71.

Alastair Iain Johnston is the Governor James Albert Noe and Linda Noe Laine Professor of China in World Affairs at Harvard University. He codirects the Princeton-Harvard China and the World program. His published books include Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (1995); Social States: China in International Institutions, 1980–2000 (2008); Engaging China: The Management of an Emerging Power (edited, with Robert Ross, 1999); New Directions in the Study of China’s Foreign Policy (edited, with Robert Ross, 2006); Crafting Cooperation: Regional Institutions in Comparative Perspective (edited, with Amitav Acharya, 2007); Chinese–English English– Chinese Glossary on Nuclear Security Terms (edited, with the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Security and Arms Control and the Chinese Scientists Group on Arms Control, 2008); and Measuring Identity: A Guide for Social Scientists (edited, with Rawi Abdelal, Yoshiko Herrera, and Rose McDermott, 2009).


From the Editors:

It has long been assumed that the most likely trigger of a clash of arms between China and the United States is Taiwan. Given China’s increasingly provocative behavior in the South China Sea (as well as in the East China Sea with respect to Japan), we should revisit this assumption. China’s interest in these areas is not an existential one to the same extent as its well-advertised interest in Taiwan. But this makes it all the more important to develop a general understanding of the dynamics of Chinese crisis behavior across a variety of scenarios. In “The Evolution of Interstate Security Crisis-Management Theory and Practice in China,” Alastair Iain Johnston sets out to do exactly that. In a pathbreaking analysis that encompasses a growing Chinese academic literature as well as the organization and organizational culture of China’s military and security bureaucracies, Johnston shows that Chinese crisis-management thinking has been shaped to a surprising extent by the tradition of American, or more broadly Western, theorizing on crises originating in the Cold War. While emphasizing that this tradition is in many ways in tension with traditional Chinese attitudes toward war, he suggests that there may be an opening here for a productive dialogue between the two nations. Alastair Iain Johnston is the Governor James Albert Noe and Linda Noe Laine Professor of China in World Affairs at Harvard University.


Summary of article:

Chinese theorizing about international crisis management has evolved relatively quickly in key military and civilian institutions. In the last ten years, civilian and military decision makers have apparently been wrestling with mechanisms, procedures, and institutions for operational coordination and control in a security crisis.


Text of article:

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. Adding to the worries is uncertainty about China’s commitment to crisis management and escalation control.

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.