How China’s government escalates warnings before military action

The government of the People’s Republic of China has displayed a fairly consistent pattern of escalating signals followed by deterrent military deployments before engaging in a hot conflict, argues a new report [pdf] from the U.S. National Defense University. Reviewing each instance of armed conflict since 1949, as well as several cases that never made it that far, the authors suggest that the Chinese government has used evolving but similar signals, including statements by leaders and official publications, to indicate the degree of its resolve on a given issue.

The authors, Paul H.B. Godwin and Alice L. Miller, are experienced analysts of Chinese military and strategic history. Miller offers a framework for ranking the authoritativeness of various statements by leaders or in official media, one very similar to her account that was the basis of a post I did over at 88-Bar.

Godwin and Miller offer perhaps the clearest available review of the circumstances and signals that led up to China’s military engagements. For this alone, the paper is worth a read. They argue that China’s use of military force should be understood as divided between Taiwan-related and non-Taiwan-related cases. Non-Taiwan cases include the Korean War (from 1950), the 1962 border war with India, the 1963-75 deployment in North Vietnam, and the 1979 attack on Vietnam (as its ties to the USSR grew stronger). They are similarly thorough on confrontations over maritime claims, making this an essential read for those watching today’s events unfold.

Some interpretations are perhaps too confident in attributing intent to actions observed from afar. The accounts tend to assume a sort of Realist calculus undergirds decisions on each side and pushes for greater and more refined attention to Chinese signals in such situations. The result is a very strong framework for evaluating signals, one that fits the history presented in almost every case. It can be understood as a strong model fit to moderately jagged data.

Will past patterns continue?

Though the report does not claim to predict the future, there is a strong implication that the Chinese government’s signaling and deterrence patterns can be expected to continue. As the authors repeatedly note, however, China’s strength has increased, reshaping the playing field. They argue in part:

  • There are “indicators suggesting that changes in China’s security environment have reduced rather than increased the possibilities for military confrontation with the United States. Moreover, within PLA doctrinal development, increasing capabilities are as much related to deterrence as they are to offensive operations.”
  • There is enormous potential for damage to “China’s economic future and security” if the country is perceived as disruptive or aggressive.
  • “[T]he chances of a cross-strait military confrontation are now among the lowest they have been since 1949.”
  • It is improbable that China would strike first. If China escalated warnings and deployments, the United States would likely move more military force into the region, making a strike a losing proposition for China. A surprise attack, they argue, is unlikely as well.
  • In sum, military confrontation with the United States is unlikely on each of the potential triggers.

In the context of the report, these arguments assume a generally status quo scenario for signaling and deterrence. Left under-considered is the possibility that increased capabilities would be accompanied by a new pattern of signaling, deterrence, or offensive action. Indeed, the current situation in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the India borderlands, the cybersecurity area, etc., could be viewed as an “all-fronts” increase in activity. Are these all understood to be deterrent? If so, what new threats or challenges have they responded to? Did the external environment really turn that sour all at once?

The authors, I believe, would argue that these actions amount to a deterrent targeted at the United States, akin to efforts to prevent U.S. control of North Korea or North Vietnam. Of course, the U.S. government’s goals in the South China Sea and the western Pacific are very different than they was in those conflicts. But the fact of the matter is that there is an overall increase in Chinese deployments in the country’s maritime periphery. In the past, the report suggests, increased deployments were designed to deter specific actions by potential adversaries. Things are different today, and time will tell whether the signaling-deterrence pattern identified here holds.

A process-tracing media analyst’s treasure

The paper concludes with a remarkable compilation of Chinese government signals, ranked by authoritativeness, in three chronologies: the 1978–1979 Sino-Vietnamese border crisis; the 1961–1962 Sino-Indian border crisis; and signaling over Taiwan in 1991, 1995, 1999, and 2003–2004. Whatever happens in the future, these appendices are treasures for historians and the curious.

The following table (p. 32) outlines the report’s hierarchy of authoritativeness, by which the authors suggest observers should rate signals from the leadership, government bodies, and the People’s Daily.

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The appendices apply this framework and classify each signal to portray the incremental increase in authority of those delivering statements. Meanwhile, there is a corresponding “ascending order of threat,” included below:

■ X is “playing with fire” and may “get burned”
■ Beijing so far has “exercised the greatest restraint and forbearance” but this “should not be taken as weakness and submissiveness”
■ Do “not turn a deaf ear to China’s warnings”; China “cannot stand idly by”
■ “How far will you go? We shall wait and see”
■ “China’s forbearance has limits”; X is “deluding itself in thinking we are weak and can be bullied”
■ If X does not cease its behavior, it “will meet the punishment it deserves”
■ “Do not complain later that we did not give you clear warning in advance”
■ We have been “driven beyond forbearance” and are “forced to counterattack”; our “restraint was regarded as an invitation to bullying”; our “warnings fell on deaf ears”
■ “We will not attack if we are not attacked; if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack.”

Regardless of the overall analysis’s  validity in the future, these are very useful guides for assessing signals. Add to this increasing transparency (at least in the form of rumors online) that might allow more detailed analysis of decision-making within the regime, and increased official and Track II contact between the Chinese and U.S. political leadership, and we might just have a recipe for better understanding.

This is my second or third attempt at an informal review, for a general-if-nerdy audience, of recently published academic and policy writing. Comments are very welcome below or by e-mail at mail // at // gwbstr // dot // com.

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