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April 18, 2005

For China, Foreign War Is Just A Tool For Domestic Politics

People misunderstand what's going on with China if they think their current threatening protests against Japan, or their earlier national law approving war to reclaim Taiwan, mean that we should start a military buildup. Maybe we should, but here's a strange fact: you can't necessarily ward off war with China by making it clear that their forces would lose. Of course China is not mad for territory the way Nazi Germany was, and it isn't a believer in an ultimate world-revolutionary war like the Russians under the Soviet Union. But whether it's talk of China someday going to war over Taiwan, or to reclaim the islands China disputes with Japan, or anything else, it's important to remember: Chinese leaders have a tradition of risking military defeats to score political victories.

One reason is that Chinese citizens, like Americans, think of their country as history's chosen winner. Chinese people know that their country has been the leading civilization in the world through most of about two thousand years of human history up to 1800. It's not surprising that modern Europeans see war as a good way to be terrified and ruined, because World War I and II and the Cold War terrified and (in two of the three) ruined them. That's today's European view, even as modern Americans figure based on the same history that we'll win almost any war we decide we really have to fight. And modern Chinese figure from their history that their country is fated to always bounce back from foreign oppression, and so it's better to fight than let foreigners screw you over -- and getting screwed by foreigners happened continually to China from about 1840 to 1945. 1898-1900 saw the breakout of the Boxer Rebellion ("United Fists for Justice"), an uprising whose members declared that the government was too weak against rapacious foreigners. Chinese citizens worry less that their leaders won't be prudent than that China's leaders won't stand up to foreign enemies and be properly tough. In China today, unlike Europe, it's easy for the leadership to make fighting with another country popular.

And since the Communists took over, China has waged "political wars" with almost all its neighbors, sometimes with an eye on territory but mostly just to show that China has to be taken seriously. In 1954 China bombarded the Taiwan-controlled islands of Quemoy and Matsu -- not because it was committed to seize them, but to make Taiwan think twice about using them as bases for action against China. In 1969, China provoked a series of fights on its northern border with the Soviet Union -- not because China thought it would win a serious war, but just to show the Russians that China couldn't be pushed around like the smaller Communist bloc countries. In 1979, China sent thousands of troops into the territory of its sometime ally Vietnam for a month -- not to take any specific prize from the Vietnamese, but just to push the Vietnamese into cooperating more with China and less with the Soviet Union. Chinese leaders have been happy to take territory when they think they can, as when they pushed India out of some Himalayan valleys in 1962, or when they tried and failed to push the American-led forces all the way out of Korea in 1951, but conquering territory has never been necessary for the Communist government to consider a war a success. In fact, the Communists' most useful foreign war was a moderately successful foreign invasion: when Japan went to full-scale conquering occupation of China in 1937, anti-Japanese popular sentiments sent the Communists' popularity skyrocketing, and paved the way for the Communist takeover of all of mainland China from the Nationalists in the years after World War II. With some exceptions, Communist China's wars have been about political leverage first, territory a distant second.

China's history, ancient as well as modern, teaches its leaders that whether you win or lose, war by itself rarely makes permanent changes. This contradicts the whole experience of every other civilization, in which war takes on a life of its own and can massively alter or even annihilate whole countries. The United States appeared on the map because of a war neither the colonists nor the British Parliament wanted in 1776, and the USA doubled its size by an almost casual war with Mexico in 1846-1848. Over in Europe, half the countries on the map at the end of World War II in 1945 didn't even exist on the map before World War I in 1914. Indians, Persians, and Arabs have all experienced huge territorial divisions and reallocations through war. But China is different. On the map, you see the same heartland of Han (the central Chinese cultural ethnicity) Chinese folk under a single rule with astonishingly similar boundaries whether under under the Han dynasty near 0 AD, under the T'ang in the 800s, or the Ming in the 1500s. China's river-linked agricultural zones tended to pull the Han Chinese heartland back under one government whenever it temporarily split; China's sheer size and cultural depth tended to assimilate or overthrow would-be outside conquerors; and most of all, China's geography made it hard for either China or foreign nations to make big territorial shifts. China is bordered on the west by Tibetan and Uigur/Turkic mountain zones, on the north by the Mongols' steppe grasslands, on the east by the Pacific Ocean and on the south by the jungles of Laos and Vietnam. Armies that were successful in China tended to fail in these border lands with such different terrain, and vice versa. Even in modern times, the Europeans were able to enforce special privileges for Europeans on China in the 1800s, but never were able to annex more than small enclaves of China as direct European territory -- unlike India and Vietnam, which were wholly British and French property respectively by 1900. And in the 1930s the Japanese, with a huge technology and training advantage, found their armies inadequate to secure even a fraction of China from continual rebellion when Japan tried to conquer coastal China. So China's leaders have good reason to think war won't give China major permanent gains or cost China permanent losses. China's history teaches that war really is just a very violent way of making a political point.

Going to war for political leverage without seeking decisive change seems deeply wrong and stupid to most Americans. Our last attempts at non-decisive punitive war came in the 90's when President Clinton ordered missile strikes on Osama bin Laden or sent bombing raids against Saddam Hussein, and those didn't impress anyone. Democracies, especially ours, seem to prefer wars to be decisive or not at all. But non-decisive political wars have often been used by autocratic governments to distract their citizens from domestic troubles. The Argentinian junta hoped to shore themselves up with their population when they temporarily seized the Falkland Islands from Britain in 1982. The Egyptian government pulled off a more successful political war with their surprise crossing of the Suez Canal to seize a piece of Sinai from the Israelis in 1973: as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat told his generals, it didn't matter if they could only seize and hold 100 square meters -- that would be enough to prove to everyone that Egypt was a power Israel had to respect. And back in 1914, one of the factors that drove the German and Russian Empires into war was their belief that leftist politicians would feel a patriotic duty to stop agitating for socialism and support the government and the troops. (The leftists did quiet down -- for a while.) Sadly, China today fits this "limited war for political purposes" template of an autocratic government troubled by increasingly frequent citizen protests. So both China's own history, and that of similar governments, suggest that China's warmaking decision will follow domestic politics more than the odds of traditional military success.

But Americans and Europeans still think that war always means decisive war, which means that a country like China should be willing to do almost anything to avoid war with a big country like America or Japan. We think of gains through war as, in the words of Norman Angell, The Great Illusion. Angell predicted that industrialized countries would not go to war; four years later, World War I began. It does seem that democracies rarely go to war with one another, but China is not a democracy. China's leaders don't have to worry about votes from war widows. And realistically, looking at their history, wars -- even losing wars -- have been a pretty acceptable gamble. So why should China's leaders take our attitudes about war when theirs have worked for decades and centuries? China thinks of war as usually limited and political; what Chinese leaders are watching is not the military balance outside China, but the domestic politics inside China.

This doesn't mean China's leaders think war is safe; it means they're watching a different set of risks from the rest of us -- the domestic political risks. The economic cost to China of a protracted war (or an economic blockade after a war) would be huge, and China's leaders firmly believe that a major recession could cost them their government. So war is not likely unless political tensions in China get extreme. But if China's domestic politics get rough, China may follow the path of Egypt in 1973, Argentina in 1982, and China's own leaders for a long time past, and launch a war that China's leaders may not intend -- and may not need -- to win.

[E1] Traffic Jam and Mudville Gazette linkagenesis.

Posted by danielstarr at April 18, 2005 12:48 AM

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I'm very excited to have found your site! (I followed the Mudville link.) Good post--I like the historical overview. A question, though, if you have time to respond; you say that a military buildup might not prevent war with China because the Chinese have historically feared domestic threats more than foreign threats, and risked military defeat to secure political victories. War with China would be a nightmare for the US, but wouldn't not being prepared for such a war be worse? I understand US military power might not deter the Chinese, but is that a reason not to build up forces?

Posted by: jean anne at April 19, 2005 06:02 PM

If you're in charge of the American military, the answer is yes, you want to put more forces in the way of Chinese aggression. But if you're in charge of America's overall policy, the answer is you get more leverage by pushing on China's domestic political incentives than just by trying to alter the military balance.

If you want someone to change their ways, dangle the carrot that they care about most. China's leaders care more about impressing their citizens than about how many soldiers they win or lose. We want to make China's leaders think that peaceful behavior will give them lots of opportunities to impress their citizens, while militaristic behavior will lead to their citizens seeing them as troublemakers rather than heroes. A military buildup may well be part of that, but only one part.

In particular, a military buildup versus China has three unusual drawbacks. Number one, the more we brag about any military buildup, the more our own "hostile" posture becomes an excuse the Chinese government can use to make war popular. Number two, China's leaders think they may be able to convince us that fighting them would be too expensive for us, in which case the real deterrent from us is not how big our forces are but how visibly committed to using those forces we seem to be. Number three, if China does turn to aggression, America's best plan is not a head-on confrontation but a blockade, which is less bloody, more politically persuasive and (if necessary) a better way to choke off China's long-term strength than a direct attack on its military -- and a blockade requires different forces from a direct rescue-Taiwan task force. So for all those reasons, it's easy to end up wasting a lot of money on military assets that could have been spent more effectively on political leverage. Ideally you'd do both, but "ideal" and "government" are two words that rarely make it peacefully into the same sentence.

Posted by: Daniel Starr at April 20, 2005 06:06 AM

Thank you! A great explanation--thank you for taking the time to answer.

Posted by: jean anne at April 25, 2005 08:15 AM

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