July 31, 2005
We Apologize For the Unscheduled Interruption in Service...
I'm not dead yet, really I'm not. Regular blogging should resume on or about August 18. Sorry about the gap in posting, and thank you for your patience!
July 04, 2005
China's War Odds and Negotiation Theory, or the Battle of the BATMA
Brad DeLong's latest lunge at the "China hawks" hints at a point that deserves to be said out loud. If China's leaders were to go to war, it wouldn't be because war was fated, but because war seemed to them like a better choice than peace. So the easiest way to prevent war with China may be simply to keep China's leaders confident in the political payoffs of a China at peace.
As Daniel Nexon points out, wars are a horrible waste. Just as most contract disputes are better settled out of court, there's almost always some peaceful (if deeply uncomfortable) agreement that would leave each country better off than the likely result of going to war. Brad DeLong replies correctly that a lot of preindustrial wars were justified for the rulers, even if they were horrid for the people, because wars can make leaders stronger even when their people can only suffer by it. Unfortunately, that kind of political war still occurs even today: Argentina's junta opened war with Britain over the purely symbolic Falkland Islands in 1982, Sadat led Egypt to attack Israel with no expectation of winning in 1973, and China sent its divisions to clash with the USSR's border forces just to prove a point in 1969. In the past and today, national leaders sometimes go to war for political advantage, even when they know it won't materially help or may even ruin their citizens.
We've noted before that China in particular has a record of making war as a political gesture. So why wouldn't China's leaders repeat this pattern? What can we do to head off a future where China's Politburo decides to invade Taiwan so that China's leaders can make themselves look like heroes?
Brad DeLong's answer seems to be: help China's leaders become heroes through peace instead, by bringing their citizens economic growth. After all, there's a comon theme to the "political wars" of the 20th century: they've been started by leaders who're trying to take their people's minds off a record of economic failure. Sadat in 1973 Egypt, the junta in 1982 Argentina, even the German Parliamentary leaders cutting the deal that gave Hitler the chancellorship in 1933: all were leaders who gave power to a belligerent platform after (and only after) economic decline had eaten away their authority. So as long as China's citizens are getting rich, perhaps China's leaders will see more glory for themselves in keeping economic growth going than in turning to war.
Of course, Germany in 1914 chose war despite a prospering economy. But by then "war for glory" was an established tradition, even a custom, for German leaders: under the Prussian kings and under Bismarck, the Prussian/German state had expanded and secured itself over and over through deliberately chosen wars. By contrast, China has no tradition of "glorious" war: war is just a tool of statecraft for traditional Chinese foreign policy, and a second-class tool at that -- right now China's leaders tend to see America as much more war-prone than themselves. So if China's leaders can continue to hold power by giving their people rising incomes, they have no reason, and no tradition, to pull them toward war.
Negotiation theorists like to talk about each side's "best alternative to a negotiated agreement," or BATNA. For China's leaders, perhaps we should talk about their "best alternative to a military approach," or BATMA. As long as China's leaders have a strong BATMA -- as long as "let's give our people economic growth" seems like a workable way to stay in power -- they're unlikely to seek a politically convenient war. So we should do our best to make it easy, not hard, for China's leaders to deliver economic growth to their people.
Conversely, the time to worry about China risking war with America is when the leaders' BATMA has collapsed -- when an economic crisis (and there will be one, sooner or later) has sapped their authority, and led them to think of desperate measures.
Let's hope that when that crisis comes, the "desperate measure" the Chinese Politburo thinks of is holding elections -- not waging war.
Now, if we could figure out a way to make holding free elections an attractive and not merely desperate option for China's leaders, that would be a BATMA worth smiling about.