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Did Hu Jintao Call For War?

Earlier this week, media reports suggested that China had placed a new emphasis on preparing for war in response to recent events in the region, including the disputes in the South China Sea and the “pivot” in U.S. policy from the Middle East to Asia.  According to the AFP, “Hu Jintao…urged the navy to prepare for military combat amid growing regional tensions over maritime disputes and a U.S. campaign to assert itself as a Pacific power.”

The AFP report, however, contained two significant errors.  First, the report stated that Hu’s remarks were delivered at a meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC), suggesting they were part of a major policy speech.  In fact, as reported in the PLA’s own newspaper (ChineseEnglish), the Jiefangjun Bao, Hu made the remarks when he and other members of the CMC met with party delegates from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).  Second, the report mistranslated a key term, junshi douzheng, as “military combat,” implying a new emphasis on preparations to fight a specific war.

Did Hu urge war?  No.

To start, a literal and more accurate translation of junshi douzheng would be “military struggle” or, simply, “warfare.”   In the phrase “preparations for military struggle,” the term refers to the characteristics of future wars that China may have to fight and the implications for the development of operational doctrine and training.  It’s similar to the concept of operational readiness. Nevertheless, it does not refer to a desire to go war, much less preparations for specific combat operations.

By using this phrase, Hu was highlighting the importance of continued naval modernization to ensure that the PLAN would be prepared to fight in conflicts in the future, a goal shared by all military organizations.  The U.S. military, for example, uses similar language to describe its force development goals. The 2010Quadrennial Defense Review described the objectives of America’s defense strategy as follows: “prevail in today’s wars, prevent and deter conflict, prepare to defeat adversaries and succeed in a wide range of contingencies, and preserve and enhance the All-Volunteer Force.”

More generally, the phrase “preparations for military struggle” is a standard, boilerplate formula used in Chinese military writings and speeches by Chinese leaders on military affairs.  As shown in this chart, the phrase appears frequently in articles in the print edition of the Jiefangjun Bao, the PLA’s official newspaper (though, interestingly, its use has been decreasing since 2005).

In addition, the AFP report missed the broader context in which this routine phrase was used.  In particular, Hu urged the PLAN to deepen preparations for military struggle within the broader context of “closely focusing on the main theme of national defense and army-building.” The term “army-building” (jundui jianshe) refers to long-term force development goals, including personnel policies and force structure. Indeed, as shown in the chart, these two phrases are often used together in Chinese statements, as they reflect different aspects of the PLA’s current modernization effort.  For instance, in a September 2011 speech to researchers from the Academy of Military Science, CMC Vice Chairman General Guo Boxiongcalled on researchers “to meet the needs of army building and preparations for military struggle.”

Finally, the timing of Hu’s remarks to the PLAN delegates was probably a coincidence and not linked with the defense talks with the United States or events in the South China Sea in the past year.  Members of the CMC routinely meet with deputies from various parts of the PLA and use the language of army building and preparations for military struggle in their remarks.  This particular meeting occurred alongside an army-wide conference on weapons development that was probably scheduled months in advance, and may explain why the entire CMC met with the PLAN group.

In sum, Hu’s statement didn’t reflect a change in policy or a new emphasis on preparing for war.  His routine statement received more attention than it warranted.

[This post original appear on The Diplomat on December 10, 2011.]

China Views India’s Rise

In this chapter for Strategic Asia 2011-12, I examine how Chinese foreign policy elites view the rise of India.  I make two main arguments:

  • Contrary to the conventional wisdom, China views India’s rise as a positive development that promotes China’s own core interests and strategic objectives more than it threatens or challenges them. Enhanced cooperation with a rising India allows Beijing to avoid a potentially costly confrontation that would harm the growth of both countries, block the formation of a close U.S.-India relationship, and reduce the overall influence of the U.S. over China.
  • China’s strategy toward a rising India combines engagement with deterrence. China pursues comprehensive political, economic, and international engagement with India to advance its broader strategic objectives. China also seeks to deter India from undermining Chinese interests by withholding cooperation or maintaining its policies on specific issues, such as its ties with Pakistan.

Click here for a preview of the chapter.  Email me for an off-print

China’s Search for Assured Retaliation

After exploding its first nuclear device in 1964, China did not develop sufficient forces or doctrine to overcome its vulnerability to a first strike by the United States or the Soviet Union for more than three decades. Two factors explain this puzzling willingness to live with nuclear vulnerability: (1) the views and beliefs of senior leaders about the utility of nuclear weapons and the requirements of deterrence, and (2) internal organizational and political constraints on doctrinal innovation. Even as China’s technical expertise grew and financial resources for modernization became available after the early 1980s, leadership beliefs have continued to shape China’s approach to nuclear strategy, reflecting the idea of assured retaliation (i.e., using the fewest number of weapons to threaten an opponent with a credible second strike). The enduring effect of these leadership ideas has important implications for the trajectory of China’s current efforts to modernize its nuclear force.

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The Limits of Diversion

In this article in Security Studies, I challenge the diversionary theory of war. The diversionary hypothesis offers a powerful alternative to rationalist explanations of war based on the state as a unitary actor. Most recently, it has been used to explain why democratizing states are more likely to initiate the use of force. In the past two decades, however, quantitative tests have produced mixed and often contradictory empirical results regarding the relationship between domestic unrest and external conflict. This article uses a modified “most likely” case study research design to test the hypothesis. Examination of Argentina’s seizure of the Falkland Islands and Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, two cases that should be easy for diversion to explain, provide surprisingly little empirical support for the hypothesis, raising doubts about its wider validity as well as the relationship between democratization and war.

Read the article.