Foreign Policy Essay

Can China Stop Wars Once They Start?

By Oriana Skylar Mastro
Sunday, May 20, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Tension between the United States and China is rising, and several problems in the region could even lead to war—a frightening risk that deserves serious attention. Oriana Mastro, my colleague at Georgetown, looks at an even harder question: If China is involved in a war, how might it end? She explores China's war termination behavior and concludes that Beijing evinces a number of characteristics that will make it harder to end wars once they start.


You don’t have to look hard to see that tension between the United States and China is rising. The National Security Strategy calls China a revisionist power that is “contesting [U.S.] geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor.” An ideological component to the competition has also emerged: China’s inclusion in the international order has not changed China as once hoped and the United States, in the words of the NSS, now finds itself in a “political contest between those who favor repressive systems and those who favor free societies.” A recent RAND report notes that “despite cautious and pragmatic Chinese policies, the risk of conflict with the United States … will grow in consequence, and perhaps in probability, as China’s strength and assertiveness increases in the Western Pacific.” Tensions exist outside the security realm as well, with threats of a trade war erupting between the United States and China and concerns about Chinese willingness to use economic coercion more broadly to achieve its objectives.

The threat of war in China’s near abroad makes these long-term trends even more disturbing. Notably, China could find itself in conflict with its neighbors over ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and along the Sino-Indian border. If the situation escalates on the Korean peninsula or if Beijing decides to pursue forceful reunification with Taiwan, China could also be fighting in the future on the Korean peninsula or across the Taiwan Strait. This risk should force U.S. policy makers and defense planners to evaluate not only the possibility of and paths to war, but also how it would progress and end. In a longer, in-depth treatment in International Studies Review, I assessed China’s war termination behavior in the Korean War, the Sino-Indian War, and the Sino-Vietnamese War along three dimensions: its approach to wartime diplomacy, views on escalation, and receptiveness to mediation. This assessment suggests Chinese wartime behavior tends to erect additional barriers to conflict resolution that make conflicts longer and bloodier than they otherwise would be.

Generally, war termination is more likely when states are open to talks, favor de-escalation to bring their enemy to the negotiating table, and are open to third-party mediation. In contrast, the likelihood of ending a war decreases when a belligerent chooses not to engage in diplomacy, relies on massive escalation to bring the war to an end, and is reluctant to accede to third-party mediation.

I found Beijing had three tendencies that hindered timely war resolution. First, in terms of wartime diplomacy, China was willing to open communication channels in the initial stages of conflict only with weaker parties. Otherwise, China cut off communications and delayed talking until it had demonstrated sufficient toughness through fighting. This, in turn, can result in a longer war than necessary. The second tendency concerns China’s approach to escalation—China consistently exhibited confidence, especially in the initial stages, that heavy escalation would ensure a short conflict that ended on China’s terms. This discourages Chinese leaders from considering de-escalation strategies, which may result in wars fought at a higher level of violence than would be the case otherwise. Last, with respect to mediation, China did approach third parties, which theoretically could have been beneficial. However, because China specifically involved them to pressure the adversary on China’s behalf and not to act as genuine mediators, the Chinese internationalization of disputes did not lead to swift resolution. Given that outside intervention is most effective when all parties are seriously committed to mediation, this trend to leverage third parties only to pressure China’s enemies is potentially problematic In short, China’s approach to diplomacy, escalation, and mediation created obstacles to conflict resolution.

However, China is not the same country it was when it fought its previous wars. There are three specific changes that may change Chinese war termination behavior. First, the Chinese military is significantly more capable with respect to other regional actors, which could plausibly affect its diplomatic posture. Second, the Party has less control over domestic public opinion in potential conflicts than it did in the Mao and Deng eras, which could plausibly affect its willingness to escalate conflicts. And third, China is now more economically and politically integrated into the international order, which could plausibly affect its approach to third-party involvement. I conducted a closer look at these changes in a recent article and found these three changes are likely to magnify rather than dampen China’s problematic war termination tendencies.

China is currently more powerful than ever before relative to many regional actors with which it has territorial disputes, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan. The good news is that China is now more likely to try to engage in negotiations with these countries in the early stages of bilateral armed conflicts because it will be the stronger party, with the possible exception of Japan with which the power balance is less clear. But the bad news is that a greater openness to wartime diplomacy does not necessarily mean China is interested in quickly and fairly settling disputes. Beijing may just want to open a channel of communication to allow its adversary to capitulate completely to its demands. Also, if China has the military power necessary to take what it wants without having to resort to a negotiated war settlement, it may forgo talks altogether to rely on force alone, which would be extremely destabilizing for the region. Moreover, if Beijing is concerned about U.S. intervention, it could threaten escalatory measures to compel regional players to negotiate early, while simultaneously presenting itself as reasonable enough to talk, all before the United States could get involved.

Beijing is likely to rely even more heavily on disproportionate, rapid escalation as the best way to quickly end a war on its terms for two reasons. First, in any regional conflagration, China hopes to achieve its goals quickly, before the U.S. military can intervene on behalf of its adversary. Beijing therefore has a greater incentive to use disproportionate, rapid force to achieve a fait accompli quickly before the U.S. can respond militarily. Second, increased nationalism in China will also likely contribute to Beijing’s confidence. While there is genuine populist nationalism in China, the Party also creates nationalist fervor through media manipulation and patriotic education to manage social dynamics, secure Party control, and shift the public’s focus away from domestic issues or problems within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Whether its organic or Party-created Chinese nationalism, the demands of the Chinese public to stand up to perceived aggression and slights may make it difficult for the CCP to de-escalate or compromise for the sake of conflict resolution, especially in an emotionally charged conflict with Japan or over Taiwan.

Finally, in past wars Beijing proactively reached out to garner support for its position in a given war and encouraged other countries to get involved to pressure its adversary. China’s influence and leverage in its bilateral relationships have only increased, including with key U.S. allies; as of 2015, China held seventy strategic partnerships with countries across Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. In 2016, China had 212 trade partners and was the largest trading partner for Iran, Russia, the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, India, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam. China also participates in 74 different international organizations, established some new ones, and “across the board, China has become more effective in utilizing international organizations to advance national interests and to extract what it needs from these institutions.” Given these changes, contemporary China has unprecedented carrots and sticks at its disposal to convince third parties, either bilaterally or through international institutions, to adopt policies that benefit China’s war efforts. For example, China is likely to appeal to all its Asian neighbors to stay out of any conflict, not just themselves but also by refusing to provide the United States any support for potential operations. Whether the crisis occurs over Taiwan or maritime disputes, China could even turn to the Europeans or the broader international community to pressure the United States to stay out or back down.

The United States and its partners and allies should take these patterns into account in their defense planning. Given this analysis, there are several ways the United States and its strategic community can manage future Asian conflicts. The United States should consider making openness to wartime talks an official U.S. policy, and as a mediator in conflict it is not directly involved in, consistently propose talks between combatants from the first day of a conflict. Contingency planning should include both U.S. military leaders and diplomats, so they can jointly devise a strategy of fighting and talking that takes advantage of military victories to the greatest degree possible and reduces the costs of operational setbacks. And the United States needs to reconsider which third parties would be most effective at shaping China’s choices. The United States tends to focus on gaining the support of its friends and allies, instead of those of a hypothetical adversary. But, if the United States finds itself directly or indirectly in conflict with China, it should attempt to convince countries close to China—like Pakistan, Russia and Cambodia—to pressure China, in addition to appealing to traditional U.S. partners like Australia, the NATO countries, Japan, and South Korea. This strategy also creates a rationale for revitalizing the UN Secretary General’s role as a mediator, a role codified in the UN Charter.

While it is important to consider best strategies to prevent conflict, it is equally important to identify and mitigate the factors that protract, intensify, or escalate wars. My research argues that China’s approach to wartime diplomacy, escalation, and mediation may be problematic, and internal and external changes may serve to exacerbate these tendencies. This research is only the tip of the iceberg—much more work needs to be done on how to best get the enemy to the negotiating table, inspire mutual restraint and de-escalation in wartime, and convince warring parties to mediation.