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Research Report

WAR CONTROL: Chinese Writings on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict

Burgess Laird
Copyright Date: Apr. 1, 2017
Pages: 36

Table of Contents

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  1. (pp. None)
  2. (pp. 1-2)
  3. (pp. 3-3)

    In a chapter examining China’s thinking on escalation, the authors of a comprehensive 2008 RAND study of escalation management in the 21st century came to the stark, and since widely cited, conclusion that Chinese authoritative writings on escalation and escalation management through 2005 appeared “to be undertheorized and still under development.”² The authors arrived at their judgment after examining three broad categories of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) writings in which they found only limited research devoted to analyzing the general issue of escalation in warfare and even less focused on the more specific issue of the effect of PLA doctrine...

  4. (pp. 4-5)

    The purpose of this examination is to review authoritative PLA writings on escalation of crises and conflicts that have appeared since approximately 2008 with the objective of highlighting select aspects of Chinese thought that have evolved over that period as well as those that have remained relatively unchanged. In both instances, the aspects selected for discussion are those the author believes hold special salience for U.S. defense strategists, planners, and decisionmakers – those that, in other words, help illuminate how Chinese strategists are thinking about the questions outlined above.

    Chinese authoritative literature is generally understood to encompass the writings of...

  5. (pp. 6-7)

    From this examination, four central findings about current Chinese thinking on escalation emerge:

    First, escalation of crises and conflicts (“war control”) emerges as a subject of major importance in recent authoritative writings of Chinese strategists. The emphasis given to the subject is especially pronounced in comparison with the authoritative writings of the 2000–2005 period, when there were few treatments of the subject.

    Second, Chinese strategists believe that crises and wars need to be controlled not out of a concern that they could escalate to major war potentially involving nuclear weapons use and catastrophic destruction, but primarily out of a...

  6. (pp. 7-9)

    We begin by examining Chinese views on limited war, a concept widely recognized by Western strategists as the imperative bounding condition of conflict in an age in which all wars between major powers invariably take place under the nuclear shadow and each of which, for a variety of reasons and actions not always fully understood and still less under our control, could escalate into total wars with catastrophic and existential consequences for entire nation-states. Chinese strategists trace the origin of the concept and reality of limited war in the modern era to the advent of nuclear weapons and the ensuing...

  7. (pp. 9-12)

    Chinese writers recognize containment and control of crises as critical aspects of military strategy that function to prevent small crises from escalating into larger ones and large ones from escalating into wars.30 Crisis is described as being a “dangerous condition for possibly igniting wars” that exists “between peace and war.”31 PLA analysts see the likelihood of crises as increasing and warn that they must be controlled lest they jeopardize the “nation’s development in the period of strategic opportunity.” Observing that “The frequency of the eruption of wars has shown a downward trend but the frequency of the eruption of crises...

  8. (pp. 12-16)

    Writing in 2014 in China Military Science, Wang Xixin, PLA lieutenant general and deputy commander of the Shenyang Military Region, described the concept of “war control” as

    actions taken under the framework of national political objectives, a variety of mandatory and non-mandatory means dominated by the military are chosen flexibly and applied ... to effectively curb the war, control the war situation, eliminate war chaos and safeguard national interests and world peace. More simply, it is to firmly grasp warfare and dynamically manage warfare. Its substantive connotation is using the minimum cost to safeguard national interests. ... The scope of...

  9. (pp. 17-19)

    In the 2013 version of The Science of Military Strategy, Chinese strategists characterize space and cyberspace as independent domains critical to modern warfare, and in doing so, as Kevin Pollpeter and Jonathan Ray point out, the authors provided a level of strategic prominence for both domains absent from the 2001 version of the document.72 The more recent version goes on to proclaim that “Space has become a strategic elevation point, and space-based assisting-support and support systems are an indispensable strategic brace-support in winning informationized wars.”73 For its part, China’s 2015 defense white paper adds, “Outer space has become a commanding...

  10. (pp. 19-21)

    From the foregoing, it should be clear that Chinese strategists hold a broad perspective of deterrence as they recognize multiple modes of and roles for deterrence: conventional deterrence, space and cyberspace deterrence, and nuclear deterrence.87 In fact, PLA writings make it clear that China’s conception of deterrence encompasses not just military capabilities, but also diplomatic, economic, and scientific and technological strength. However, this section of the examination focuses on how Chinese strategists conceive of escalation within the context of nuclear deterrence.88 More specifically, given the breadth of the subject of deterrence, the author confines the discussion to an examination of...

  11. (pp. 21-22)

    From the foregoing examination, the author discerns four central findings about current Chinese thought on escalation.

    First, in comparison with the authoritative writings of the 2000-2005 period, when there were few treatments of the subject, in more recent Chinese writings, crisis control and war control clearly emerge as subjects of major importance for the Chinese military. More appears to be written about them today than in the first decade of the 21st century, and Chinese strategists appear to believe adamantly that crises and wars must be controlled lest they escalate.

    Second, Chinese strategists believe that crises and wars need to...

  12. (pp. 23-24)

    It has almost become obligatory to conclude examinations such as this by arguing that the insights of the study suggest that confidence- and security-building mechanisms (CSBMs) between the United States and China need to be reinforced. To be sure, there is goodness in the aim as well as the track record of CSBMs: They aim to reduce fears of attack in tense situations such as crises or in situations such as in the South China Sea today where the possibility is increasing for an accident or miscalculation to spin rapidly into a crisis. They do so through processes and mechanisms...

  13. (pp. 25-25)

    In prior presentations of the arguments presented in this examination, the author has encountered the objection that the focus on Chinese strategic and doctrinal writings is overly narrow and that a richer and more compelling, if not more accurate, understanding of Chinese thought about escalation can only be gained through an integrated assessment that accounts not only for Chinese military writings but also for trends and investments in Chinese military capabilities and operational concepts and for actual Chinese behavior in past crisis and conflict situations through an examination of case studies.

    The author will be the first to agree that...

  14. (pp. 26-32)
  15. (pp. 33-34)