17 February 2018

The theory and practice of war termination Assessing patterns in China's historical behavior

Whether China will rise peacefully is hotly debated in both academic and policy communities. Power transition theory presents the possibility of conflict as largely dependent on relative power, with the most dangerous stage emerging when the rising power is approaching parity with the dominant power. Conflict can erupt then either because the rising power is dissatisfied with the current system and seeks to change it in its image, or because the declining power launches a preventive war as a last-ditch attempt to hold onto its position in the international system (Organski and Kugler 1980, Gilpin 1981, Copeland 2000). Offensive realism focuses on balance of power more broadly, and how increased power—and the expanding military capabilities that tend to accompany it—will inevitably encourage revisionist and expansionist behavior (Mearsheimer 2001). Scholars have tried to understand Chinese behavior through these theoretical lenses, most recently by evaluating the degree to which China harbors revisionist intentions, with a particular focus on its assertiveness in territorial disputes (Johnston 2013, Mastro 2014). Leveraging international relations theory on how crises escalate to war has also been a fruitful avenue for evaluating the likelihood of conflict between China and the United States (Goldstein 2013, Swaine and Zhang 2006).

The heightened possibility of an armed conflict involving China according to international relations theory justifies an examination of Chinese strategic thinking about the onset, conduct and termination of wars. China specialists have contributed greatly to our understanding of the first two components. A comprehensive study of past incidents of Chinese use of force internationally and domestically posits that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has not hesitated to move beyond coercive diplomacy to use force to further its policy goals, though with varying degrees of success (Scobell 2003, 2). Allen Whiting (2001) points out that early warning for deterrence, seizure of the initiative, risk acceptance, and risk management consistently characterize past cases of PLA deployment from 1950 to 1996. Alastair Iain Johnston (1998a) analyzes the Seven Military Classics of Ancient China and concludes that China has a strategic culture that emphasizes offensive action and flexibility, which still influences China’s use of military force against external threats to this day. Another systematic review of historical cases reveals that China responds with deterrent or coercive strategies primarily when it feels threatened or feels a sense of urgency to resolve a dispute (Godwin and Miller 2013). Thomas Christensen (2006) argues that China may use force even without a clear provocation if its leadership perceives a closing window of opportunity to create favorable long-term strategic trends. When China does respond with the use of force, Chinese leaders tend to rely on surprise attacks, inflicting casualties, creating tensions, and deception to achieve a systematic advantage over its opponents, even those that are more technologically advanced (Burles and Shulsky 2000).

While all these studies contribute to our understanding of contemporary China and the challenges of its rise, none address Chinese war termination thinking and behavior. How has China historically performed when it attempts to engage in conflict resolution? Are historical patterns of war termination behavior likely to manifest themselves in future conflicts, even with all the changes to China’s internal and external environments since its last war in 1979? Such an analysis of Chinese war termination behavior is absent from both academic and policy research.

The broader war termination literature has potential to shed light on this, but in its current form its findings are not easily and directly applicable to the specific processes, strategies and decisions that can facilitate or hinder resolution. Given these gaps and challenges, this article addresses the question of how China ends wars in a three-stage approach. First, I synthesize the central elements of the extensive literature on war termination and conflict resolution. From this review, I derive three independent variables that impact the likelihood of conflict resolution in a given period: states’ approach to wartime diplomacy, views on escalation, and receptiveness to mediation. I then evaluate the values of these three factors in each of the three major wars the PRC has fought since its founding in 1949: the Korean War (1950–1953), the Sino-Indian War (1962), and the Sino-Vietnamese War (1979). Though I use this framework to identify Chinese tendencies, this three-pronged diplomacy, escalation, mediation framework can be applied generally to assess state behavior and the likelihood of war termination in any given period.

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