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Research on China’s Behavior in International Military Security Crises


In this sweeping analysis of China’s behavior in military crises since 1949, a prominent security analyst argues that Beijing has refined and improved its international crisis management paradigm over time and provides suggestions for future improvements. He argues that China should “closely integrate crisis management, conflict resolution, and opportunity management” as part of its peaceful development.

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Since the founding of New China more than 60 years ago, as the international situation and China’s domestic and foreign policies have evolved, China’s international military security crisis behavior has undergone profound changes. Especially in the last 20 years, in China’s national security decisionmaking mechanisms, crisis management mechanisms have been continuously strengthened, its guidelines and principles of crisis management have been increasingly enriched and developed, and China’s ability to carry out crisis management has been significantly strengthened.


Based on the basic theory of crisis management, this paper focuses on the major international military security crises experienced by China. It compares, analyzes, and summarizes China’s crisis behavior (with particular attention to crisis management) in different periods, paints a general picture, summarizes its changes and the reasons for these changes, and puts forward prospects for its future development.


I. Definitions and research object


In order to discuss and summarize China’s international security crisis behavior, we must first provide clear and accurate definitions of key terms and our research object.


(i) On international military security crises

As normally defined, international military security crises refers to a situation where the relationships between countries are in a dangerous state where military conflict or even war may erupt. Such a crisis involves three factors: First, the core or major interests of the parties involved in the crisis are threatened. Second, there is a time limit or a sense of urgency. Third, there is a serious danger of military conflict. 1


An international military security crisis is conceptually different from an international security crisis. The former is only a subset of the latter. International security crisis has a more expansive definition, including both traditional and non-traditional international security crises. The concept of an international military security crisis basically overlaps with the concept of a traditional international security crisis, mainly involving disputes over territory and sovereignty as well as geopolitical conflicts. In addition, under the new situation, it also involves certain non-traditional security crises, such as international terrorism crises and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. However, it is quite different from more non-traditional international security crises, such as financial crises, energy scarcity crises, and international crises that may be caused by climate change, environmental pollution, and the international spread of infectious diseases. The latter usually does not have the potential of directly triggering a military conflict.


International military security crises are divided into potential and actual. When a relevant country (or countries) has a conflict of interest in military security, but the degree of confrontation or external conditions have not yet reached a certain critical point, the crisis is in the latent stage. At this stage, the crisis is called a potential crisis. When the degree of confrontation intensifies or the conflict of interests is rapidly exacerbated due to changes in external conditions, the possibility of military conflict increases sharply, and the potential crisis becomes an actual crisis. Of course, there are also some crises that persist for a long time with alternating periods of high and low intensity, so it is hard to divide them into potential and actual crises. In these crises, the sense of urgency is relatively diminished, but the inherent conflict of interests and the risk of triggering a military conflict are always there.


Some international military security crises are called quasi-crises because their nature and extent are somewhat different. These crises involve relatively serious conflicts of military security interests and time pressure and may cause serious damage to the political and diplomatic relations of the relevant countries, but generally do not lead to military conflicts and wars.2 Such crises are mostly sudden or unexpected events that produce limited direct consequences. But even in such crises, the possibility of a misfire accidentally triggering a military conflict [擦枪走火, to accidentally shoot a gun while polishing it] remains serious. In addition, given the extreme urgency in time, the risk of a military conflict will rise sharply in the event of a miscalculation of the nature of the crisis.


(ii) On military confrontation and crisis management

In the face of an international military security crisis, crisis participants usually have two types of approaches: One approach is to determine to resolve conflicts of interest by military means in order to safeguard one’s own interests, even at the cost of war. This paper defines this approach as military confrontation. A military confrontation may be a proactive decision, an action forced upon the actor, or the result of the failure of crisis management. Another approach is to strive to safeguard one’s own interests on the one hand, while making every effort to control the risk of crisis escalation, prevent the outbreak of military conflicts, and gradually mitigate the crisis on the other hand. This is crisis management. In the process of crisis management, the two sides involved in the crisis usually adopt various crisis negotiation strategies, both gamesmanship and cooperation, both conflict and compromise. In most cases, successful military crisis management does not seek to resolve conflicts of interest, but rather looks to avoid worst-case scenarios.3


In addition to the two clearly different crisis behaviors described above, a third situation sometimes occurs, whether crisis management is the main approach, but it is supplemented by military confrontation, with the latter approach serving the former. In this case, the degree of military confrontation is limited.


(iii) Research object

According to the above definitions, the research content of this paper involves the main international military security crises experienced by New China, including actual crises, potential crises, and quasi-crises. Such crises either occur directly between China and foreign countries, or although they occur between other countries, they lead to intervention by China because they have a significant impact on China’s national security interests. Among these crises, the Taiwan Strait crisis is particularly distinctive. The Taiwan question is a part of China’s internal affairs, but due to the long-term U.S. policy of interference in Taiwan, this issue has a certain “international character.” Military conflicts and crises between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have repeatedly triggered military security crises between China and the United States.


Among the many international military security crises that China has experienced, some have directly triggered military confrontations between China and foreign countries. Others have triggered military conflicts or even wars, although both crisis management and military confrontation have been combined in the development of the crises. Still, others were contained or mitigated by the practice of crisis management. This paper deals with two major international military security crisis behaviors practiced by China—military confrontation and crisis management. However, the focus of our research is on crisis management. The former approach is involved in order to better study and explain the latter, and to demonstrate the profound changes in China’s behavior in international military security crises.


Many non-traditional security crises that are quite different from military security crises are outside the scope of this study, but the global nuclear proliferation crisis, especially around China’s periphery, provides an important context for our study. In addition, we should point out that, after the start of the 21st century, the crises and challenges brought about by international terrorism have attracted more and more attention from China. So far, China has been less involved in international crisis management in this area, but in the long run, it is inevitable that China will gradually intervene more in the future.


II. Overview of crises response


This section is divided into two periods and provides a brief analysis of the major crisis events that China has experienced over the past 60 years.


(i) Cold War period

When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the Cold War had already begun, and it lasted for more than 40 years after China’s founding. During this period, faced with frequent international military security crises, China repeatedly intervened in or became involved in military conflicts and wars.


The Indochina War was the first war in which New China intervened. Shortly after the end of World War II, the Indochinese Communist Party, led by Ho Chi Minh, launched a struggle against French colonialism. In early 1950, they requested that China send troops to join the war. At that time, because they wanted to support the national liberation movement and eliminate the threat of Western colonial forces facing China’s periphery, the Chinese leaders did not hesitate to make the decision to aid Vietnam in resisting the French. However, after careful consideration, they decided not to send troops to join the war directly, but to intervene by sending a military advisory group and providing weapons and material assistance. In 1953, after the war in Indochina entered a state where the forces were evenly balanced, France tried to seek a compromise, but the United States wanted France to continue to fight, and actively planned to send troops to aid the French. Under these conditions, China participated in the Geneva Conference and worked hard on all parties to the conflict, especially the Vietnamese side. China made important contributions to the signing4 of the Geneva Armistice Agreement in July 1954.


The Korean War was a major local war in which China was directly involved. The Korean War erupted on June 25, 1950. Very quickly, U.S. military intervention turned a Korean civil war into an international war and posed a serious threat to China’s national security. The Chinese leaders decided to prepare in two ways: On the one hand, they ordered troops to quickly concentrate on the border between China and North Korea, and on the other hand, they actively carried out diplomatic activities in the hope of easing tensions and preventing the war from expanding and directly involving China.5 At that time, China and the United States had no diplomatic relations, communication was very difficult, and there was a serious lack of mutual understanding. Due to these as well as other reasons, the United States wrongly judged that China could not send troops to take part in the war.6 After the U.S. military ignored a series of warnings from China in crossing the “38th parallel” on a large scale and approaching the Yalu River, the long-brewing major military confrontation became a reality even though both sides had wanted to avoid it. From October 19, 1950, when the Volunteers secretly crossed the Yalu River and went on to push the U.S. military back to the “38th parallel” to the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea lasted for nearly three years. This war had a significant and far-reaching influence on the subsequent strengthening of military security crisis management between China and the United States.


In 1954 and 1958, China twice launched military struggles against Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait known as the “shelling of Kinmen.” The goal of the former struggle (August 1954 to May of the following year) was to liberate the islands off the coast of Zhejiang, combat the harassment by Chiang Kai-shek’s army toward the coast of the mainland, and prevent the United States from signing a military alliance treaty with the Taiwan region. The goal of the latter struggle (August to October 1958) was to counter the harassment by Chiang’s army of the mainland of the motherland, take the opportunity to seize the islands off the coast of Fujian occupied by Chiang, and clarify the scope of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States of America and the Republic of China.7 In the two crises in the Taiwan Strait, the United States responded strongly both times, not only concentrating its forces on the Taiwan Strait, but also publicly issuing nuclear threats to China. Chinese leaders insisted on the military struggle against Taiwan, while at the same time trying to avoid direct military conflict with the United States. 8 They did not end military operations until some of the goals of the military struggle were achieved. Through these two military struggles, Chinese leaders clearly identified the bottom lines of the U.S. side and made important judgments: The United States is determined to protect the Taiwan region militarily, but it does not support the use of China’s coastal islands by Taiwan authorities to harass the mainland and is even less willing to become involved in a military conflict between the two sides of the strait on these islands; the Taiwan issue will be protracted due to U.S. interference. Mao Zedong decided to adjust his policy. He abandoned the original plan to capture the two islands of Kinmen and Matsu in order to oppose the United States’ attempt to create “two Chinas.”


In 1962, a serious military conflict occurred between China and India concerning a territorial dispute. In the autumn of 1959, armed men from the two countries exchanged fire on the border for the first time. At that time, in order to ease tensions, China proposed to India in November that the two sides retreat from the Line of Actual Control, and unilaterally retreated 20 kilometers after the Indian side rejected the suggestion. In early 1960, after negotiating with some neighboring countries to demarcate boundary lines, China once again gave a concrete proposal to India for the signing of a boundary agreement, but this was once again rejected by the Indian side. At the end of 1961, India began to send troops to encroach on the disputed western sector. Then, in June of the following year, it began to cross the Line of Actual Control between the two sides in the disputed eastern sector in order to set up military points.9 In the face of China’s renewed proposal for negotiations, India stated that it could only discuss the issue of China’s “withdrawal.” In this situation, Chinese leaders made the judgment that India was taking advantage of the difficulties faced by China 10 to forcibly change the status quo on the border using a policy of military encroachment. In order to maintain the status quo along the border and maintain the stability of the border, China decided to conduct a border self-defense counterattack against India. On October 20, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched an attack on the invading Indian army. In late November, China announced a ceasefire and withdrew its troops within 20 kilometers of the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control.


The effort to aid Vietnam to resist the United States was China’s longest indirect military conflict with the United States during the Cold War. In August 1964, the United States comprehensively escalated the Vietnam War and began a policy of “strike the south and bomb the north” against Vietnam. China responded strongly, clearly announcing that it would send personnel to Vietnam to fight the U.S. military and attack any U.S. planes that invaded Chinese airspace.11 At the same time, China still hoped to prevent a direct large-scale military conflict with the United States and prevent the flames of the Vietnam War from spreading within China’s borders. In the first half of 1965, Chinese leaders sent the following messages to the United States through various channels: China had no intention of provoking a war against the United States, China’s response would be reciprocal, the United States must not cross the 17th parallel, and China would not send troops to southern Vietnam. If U.S. military operations against northern Vietnam were limited to naval and air operations, the participation of Chinese troops in the north would be limited to combat support.12 This time, the United States clearly noted the signals sent by China. Up to the end of the war, the United States did not launch a ground war against northern Vietnam, and it always strictly prohibited U.S. military aircraft from entering China on combat missions. After 1968, as the war transitioned to “Vietnamization,” the military security crisis between China and the United States gradually eased. In 1970, all Chinese support troops withdrew to China.13 In this crisis, the format and outcome of the confrontation between China and the United States were very different than in the Korean War. The two countries not only avoided direct military conflict, but also embarked on the road of de-escalation before the crisis was concluded.14


The Battle of Xisha (Battle of the Paracel Islands) in January 1974 was an episode at the end of China’s effort to aid Vietnam and resist the United States. Under favorable circumstances, Chinese leaders decided to launch a self-defense counterattack against the South Vietnamese navy that had invaded the waters off the Xisha Islands. In one stroke, the Chinese recovered their islands that had been occupied by the South Vietnamese regime.


In 1969, a serious border conflict broke out between China and the Soviet Union. The direct cause was a territorial boundary dispute, but the deeper context was the intensification of ideological differences between the two parties and the overall breakdown of the relationship between the two countries. Before the outbreak of the conflict, the friction between the two sides along the eastern sector of the border was intensifying, and it had progressed to the point of an imminent eruption. Faced with the high-pressure policies adopted by the Soviet Union, Chinese leaders decided to respond in kind and make no concessions. In March and August 1969, the border guards of both sides participated in armed clashes, first on Zhenbao Island in the eastern sector of the border and then at Tielieketi in the western sector. Faced with a very severe situation, Mao Zedong issued a call to the whole country to “prepare for war,” and China entered a war footing. The Soviet Union accelerated the deployment of troops to the border area between the two countries, doubling its troop strength in a short period of time, and issued a nuclear threat to China. In September of the same year, a meeting between the premiers of the two countries at the Beijing airport eased the atmosphere of confrontation. However, the consensus to ease the conflict and maintain the status quo on the border reached during the meeting was not supported by the top leaders of the two countries, so the meeting resulted in failure. Afterward, Sino-Soviet relations remained in a state of complete confrontation for a long time.


China’s final foreign military conflict during the Cold War occurred in 1979. Starting even before the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, historical grievances, disputes over territorial and maritime rights, and strategic differences between China and Vietnam gradually emerged. In 1977, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, and Sino-Vietnamese relations deteriorated sharply. In 1978, with the support of the Soviet Union, Vietnam aggressively attacked Cambodia, igniting the fuse that set off a Sino-Vietnamese military conflict. In order to maintain its own and regional security and oppose the expansion of the Soviet Union and Vietnam in the Indochinese Peninsula region, in the autumn of 1978, Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders decided to conduct a self-defense counterattack against Vietnam. To this end, China actively conducted diplomatic actions15 and fully prepared for the possibility of Soviet intervention. The operation started in February 1979. After reaching their basic combat objectives in March, the Chinese troops completely withdrew from Vietnam. From 1980, China continued to carry out small-scale follow-up cross-border combat operations against Vietnam.16 In March 1988, China and Vietnam fought a battle in the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands), and the Chinese navy subsequently recovered some islands and reefs occupied by Vietnam.


In addition, during the Cold War, China also intervened to a certain extent in the two Indo-Pakistani wars in 1965 and 1971. At that time, China provided military assistance to Pakistan at the request of the Pakistani government. In particular, in 1965, Chinese leaders made an explicit decision to send troops to assist Pakistan when necessary. Because India took measures to retreat from the Sino-Sikkim border after receiving an “ultimatum note” from China, China did not ultimately send troops.17


(ii) Since the end of the Cold War
(二) 冷战结束以来

The Cold War ended in 1991. Since then, in the region and on the global scale, various military security crises have continued to occur from time to time. However, there has been a significant reduction in crises directly between China and foreign countries, and China has not been involved in any more international military conflicts.


The Mischief Reef incident between China and the Philippines in 1995 presents a microcosm of the South China Sea dispute between China and five Southeast Asian countries. In January of that year, China sent a scientific research vessel to conduct a scientific investigation of the Mischief Reef in the Nansha islands and build shelters for fishermen on the reef. The Philippine government not only rapidly sent more troops to the disputed area, but also took a variety of actions to intensify the conflict on the grounds that “Chinese warships” had “invaded” its territorial waters and built “military facilities” on Mischief Reef.18 Given this situation, countries involved in other disputes in Southeast Asia intervened one after another and stepped up their activities in the waters of the Nansha Islands. The Mischief Reef incident became the focus of the international community’s attention for some time. After the incident, the Chinese government strengthened its vigilance on the relevant waters of the Nansha Islands to resolutely safeguard China’s legitimate rights and interests on the one hand. On the other hand, it insisted on conducting diplomacy with the Philippine government and opposed its practice of increasing tensions and internationalizing disputes between the two countries. At the end of July, at the China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue, China put forward a comprehensive position on resolving the Nansha dispute, expressing its willingness to peacefully resolve the dispute with relevant countries in accordance with international law and the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This proposal was welcomed by all participants. Since then, the tensions produced by the Mischief Reef incident have gradually eased.


From 1995 to 1996, the third Taiwan Strait crisis broke out between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and between China and the United States. The crisis was caused by the U.S. government’s blatant violation of its promise and its allowance of Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui to visit the United States. The Chinese government responded strongly, first interrupting all dialogue and exchanges between the two countries, recalling the ambassador to the United States, and then conducting a series of military exercises and missile tests in the Taiwan Strait in June and July of 1995. In March 1996, in response to the “presidential” election in the Taiwan region, China decided to conduct additional missile test launches and military exercises. The U.S. government was highly tense and urgently discussed military deployment to the Taiwan Strait. They decided to send two aircraft carrier groups to the Taiwan Strait. In the face of this serious situation, China remained steadfast and insisted on completing the scheduled missile test launches and large-scale joint land, sea, and air military exercises. On March 28, the PLA’s joint military exercise ended, the same day as the end of the “presidential” election in Taiwan and the arrival of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Western Pacific. Afterward, the crisis in the Taiwan Strait significantly eased. Taiwan decided to cancel its planned military exercise, and the U.S. Navy quietly left. After this test of strength, the United States gained a new understanding and awareness of the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue,19 and the Taiwan authorities’ attempt to change the one-China framework by pursuing “Pragmatic Diplomacy” was suppressed. During this crisis, both China and the United States wanted to avoid military conflict, and the two sides maintained necessary lines of communication.20 In this crisis, there was no military confrontation between China and the United States in the true sense.21


Since then, the “Taiwan independence” forces have created trouble and caused tensions in the Taiwan Strait many times.22 By enacting the Anti-Secession Law, China fully expressed its goodwill to the Taiwanese people on the one hand, while on the other hand, it clearly declared its bottom lines regarding the use of force for “Taiwan independence” and continuously strengthened preparations for a military struggle for Taiwan. In addition, on the basis of maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, China is actively working to cooperate with the United States and the main opposition parties on the island of Taiwan against “Taiwan independence”. China’s efforts have created strong and effective political, military, and diplomatic pressure on the “Taiwan independence” forces so that all their attempts to provoke a Taiwan Strait crisis have failed in succession. Since the spring of 2008, Cross-Strait relations have undergone major changes, entering a new stage of rapid improvement and development.


At the turn of the century, two sudden military security crises broke out between China and the United States due to the bombing of an embassy23 and a plane collision24. Relatively speaking, the bombing was a more sudden and serious event than the plane collision25, but the plane collision was more complex26 and entailed greater risks than the bombing.27 At the time, despite their lack of experience in dealing with such emergencies,28 Chinese leaders nevertheless quickly took a series of measures to gradually ease the two crises. China’s basic response policy was to resolutely defend the country’s sovereignty and dignity, fight against the wrongful behavior of the United States, and at the same time, strive to maintain the general situation of Sino-U.S. relations and strive to avoid confrontation. Tensions after the bombing incident began to ease after the United States apologized many times and paid corresponding compensation. The collision incident was finally resolved by adopting separate methods to deal with the pilot and the machine29. These two events allowed Chinese leaders to accumulate valuable experience in dealing with sudden crises. Since then, China’s security crisis management coordination mechanisms have been significantly strengthened.


A crisis also broke out between China and Japan in 2004 due to disputes over maritime rights and interests. In May of that year, Japanese media began to report extensively on China’s development of oil and gas fields in the East China Sea, claiming that Chinese oil and gas exploration west of the “middle line” would siphon off oil and gas resources belonging to Japan. Japan unreasonably accused China of trying to monopolize the seabed resources of the East China Sea. This required the government to take decisive measures to defend Japan’s maritime rights and interests.30 The Japanese government immediately strengthened its military reconnaissance and oil and gas resources investigation in the relevant waters and made “stern representations” to China. The disputes between China and Japan over oil and gas development and the demarcation of the East China Sea abruptly heated up. The East China Sea dispute aggravated public opinion and increased political tensions in the already fierce confrontation between the two countries,31 and calls that “China and Japan must go to war” began to be heard. In the face of a highly tense situation, the Chinese government resolutely safeguarded its national sovereignty and rights and rejected all unreasonable demands from the Japanese. At the same time, it clearly put forward to the Japanese a proposal for joint development in the disputed area and for dialogue concerning the dispute. In addition, the Chinese government also strengthened coordination between relevant departments and the guidance of public opinion, in an effort to prevent the occurrence of a misfire in the East China Sea that could trigger a military conflict. In October of that year, China and Japan began negotiations on the East China Sea, and the tensions in the East China Sea dispute were brought under control.


Since 1998, China has also intervened in several international nuclear crises, making active efforts to maintain the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, ease tensions, and avoid military conflicts. During the India-Pakistan nuclear crisis32, China fully cooperated with the other member states in the UN Security Council33 to bring the crisis under control relatively quickly. In the face of the North Korean nuclear crisis,34 China consistently maintained close contact and consultation with relevant parties including North Korea and the United States, viewing the Six-Party Talks as the main platform to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, while supporting the necessary role played by the Security Council.35 In addition, China has also strengthened coordination among relevant domestic departments and its own military preparedness. In response to the Iranian nuclear crisis,36 from participating in discussions at the International Atomic Energy Council to participating in the UN Security Council consultations, from participating in the Six-Nation Talks to directly working with Iran, China’s involvement in the management of the Iranian nuclear crisis has gradually deepened and its influence has gradually expanded.37


In addition, before the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2002, China made unremitting efforts to de-escalate the Iraqi crisis38. At the time, China actively participated in international cooperation to fight terrorism, but did not approve of the so-called “War on Terror” fought by the United States around the world. It was even more opposed to the “pre-emptive” military strikes conducted by the United States against other countries in the name of fighting terrorism. Facing the tense situation resulting from the decision by the United States and the UK to use force against Iraq, China called for a political solution to the Iraqi issue within the framework of the United Nations and opposed the Security Council’s automatic authorization of the United States to use force against Iraq39. Together with many countries, it waged a fierce contest with the United States and the UK. Although these efforts failed to prevent the United States and the UK from starting a war, they upheld international morality and the UN Security Council’s basic principles of maintaining peace and security. In the end, the Security Council did not give the green light to the United States and the UK to use force against Iraq. At that time, China not only coordinated and cooperated with major powers with similar positions such as France, Germany, and Russia, but also fought against countries with opposite positions such as the United States and the UK. With the Security Council as the main diplomatic platform, bilateral consultations and summit diplomacy were also frequently carried out. This allowed China to accumulate many new experiences in international military security crisis management.


In September 2010, a collision of Chinese and Japanese ships in the Diaoyu Islands40 triggered a serious crisis between the two countries. Facing a state of emergency in which Japan detained the Chinese fishing boat and crew members and claimed that the incident would be handled in accordance with domestic law, China first made urgent and solemn representations to Japan through diplomatic channels. While Japan continued to detain the Chinese captain, China went on to announce the suspension of all exchanges between the two countries at the vice-ministerial level and above, showing its uncompromising attitude towards the incorrect practices adopted by Japan. During the crisis, the two sides maintained necessary diplomatic contacts. The crisis gradually eased after Japan released the Chinese captain on the 24th of the same month.41 In December, the leaders of the two countries held their first official meeting since the crisis on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Tokyo. Both sides agreed that maintaining the long-term and stable development of the strategically mutually beneficial Sino-Japan relationship was in their common interest.


III. Summary and conclusions


Based on the analysis of major crisis case studies, this section provides an overall analysis and summary of China’s international military security crisis behavior over the past 60 years from different perspectives, and then attempts to draw some basic conclusions.


(i) Overall changes in crisis behavior
(一) 危机行为的总体变化

From the above overview of China’s response to international military security crises, we can clearly see that, over the past 60 years, China’s crisis behavior has followed a trajectory from military confrontation to crisis management, from conflict avoidance to mutual benefit.


Faced with frequent international military security crises during the Cold War, China five times decided to directly adopt military confrontation to deal with crises, namely, to aid Vietnam and resist France, in the Sino-Soviet conflict on Zhenbao Island, in the Sino-Vietnamese (southern Vietnam) Battle of Xisha, in the self-defense counterattack against Vietnam, and in the Sino-Vietnamese (North Vietnam) Nansha skirmish. In these cases, military confrontation was the clear choice made by China.


During the same period, there were also five occasions where China adopted both crisis management and military confrontation, including resisting the United States and assisting North Korea, the two military struggles in the Taiwan Strait, assisting Vietnam and resisting the United States, and the Sino-Indian border counterattack. Among these cases, before becoming involved in the Korean War and the military conflict with India, China had made crisis management efforts to try to de-escalate the crisis and avoid conflict but failed in this aim. In the two military struggles against Taiwan and when aiding Vietnam and resisting the United States, China carried out military strikes against the Taiwan military and limited its involvement in the Vietnam War. At the same time, China actively managed the crisis and avoided direct military confrontation with the United States. In these cases, military confrontation was still one of the important options for China to deal with the crises.


Taking the above two together, China intervened or became involved in 10 military conflicts and wars during the Cold War. In addition, China almost dispatched troops to intervene in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. “Military confrontation is the main approach, supplemented by crisis management” was the main feature of China’s international military security crisis behavior during this period.


Since the end of the Cold War, various international military and security crises have continued to occur frequently, but China has not yet experienced any foreign military conflicts so far. Crisis events have directly occurred between China and foreign countries, such as the Sino-Philippines Mischief Reef incident, the Taiwan Strait crisis, the “embassy bombing incident”, the “Sino-U.S. plane collision incident”, the Sino-Japan East China Sea Crisis, and the Diaoyu Islands Collision Incident, all of which were brought under control or controlled relatively well. Especially concerning the Taiwan issue, while maintaining the right to use force, China extended crisis management from between China and the United States to between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, demonstrating the greatest determination and desire to strive for peaceful reunification.


At the same time, some disputes over territory and maritime rights and interests that have historically led to battlefield confrontations between Chinese and foreign forces have been completely resolved, such as the Sino-Soviet/Russian border dispute, the Sino-Vietnamese land border dispute, and the Beibu Gulf (Tonkin Gulf) delimitation dispute. Others have been brought under better control without triggering new military security crises, such as Sino-Indian territorial disputes42 and Sino-Vietnamese maritime disputes.


In addition, China has also intervened in the management of major international military security crises such as the India-Pakistan nuclear crisis, the Iraq crisis, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and the Iranian nuclear crisis. China made active efforts to control the escalation of these crises, avoid military conflicts, and seek long-term and comprehensive solutions. In these crises, China was not a party or a major party to the crises, but they posed a major threat to regional and world security, involved huge risks of causing military conflicts or even wars, and they all occurred in areas around China or in areas of interest to China. Therefore, with the rise of China’s national strength and international influence, China’s involvement in these international military security crises has gradually increased.


In short, the most notable changes in China’s crisis behavior since the 1990s are: Military confrontation, China’s main approach during the Cold War, has been replaced by crisis management; foreign military conflict, a phenomenon that recurred in crises during the Cold War, has been avoided with active crisis management; with the strengthening of crisis management, important changes have taken place in the conditions that led potential crises to often become actual crises during the Cold War, so that now some potential crises tend to be weakened and resolved and other potential crises have been effectively controlled; efforts to find long-term solutions to conflicts of interest and achieve mutually beneficial outcomes have started to become the direction of China’s efforts.


In fact, the starting point of this major shift in China’s behavior in international military security crises may be traced back even earlier to the early 1980s. For the decade or so from this time to the end of the Cold War in 1991, there was a significant reduction in China’s foreign military conflicts, with the only exception being small-scale military conflicts between China and Vietnam. In addition, before the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990, in order to achieve Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait in order to resolve the Gulf crisis peacefully, China began to use diplomatic mediation, taking an important step in the direction of intervening in the management of an international military security crisis.43


(ii) Development and changes in crisis decision/management mechanisms
(二) 危机决策/管理机制的发展变化

China’s decisionmaking/management mechanisms for international military security crises have always been determined by China’s national security leadership system and its operations. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, China’s national security leadership system has been relatively stable and continuous. Its basic arrangement is as follows: Major diplomatic and military decisions are made by the Politburo of the CCP Central Committee and the Politburo Standing Committee. The Secretariat of the Central Committee is responsible for handling the daily work of the Central Committee, including matters related to national security. The State Council, the Central Military Commission, the relevant leading groups of the CCP Central Committee, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and relevant national security departments are involved in handling specific matters related to national security.44


However, in the past few decades, the operation of China’s national security leadership system has undergone three major changes, which have had different effects on the country’s military security crisis decisionmaking/management mechanisms. The first change was during the ten-year “Cultural Revolution,” when Party and government organizations at all levels were paralyzed or rendered ineffective. The original central collective leadership system was severely damaged. An extremely abnormal situation occurred, where decisionmaking was limited to a very small number of people, and final decisions were made by Mao Zedong alone. Under these circumstances, China’s decisionmaking for international military security crises suffered a significantly negative effect. The second change was that, with the end of the “Cultural Revolution,” the operation of the national security leadership system returned to normal, and a central leadership collective with Deng Xiaoping at its core was formed. Under these circumstances, China’s decisionmaking/management mechanisms for international military security crises were strengthened. The third change was when the older generation of leaders withdrew from the national political arena. China’s national security decisionmaking began a major shift from relying mainly on the experience of a few leaders45 to relying mainly on the top leadership collective for institutionalized decisionmaking. This transition is still ongoing. This change has accelerated the process of improving and strengthening China’s international military security crisis management mechanisms.


Since the late 1990s, for major security and foreign policy decisions, the Politburo Standing Committee has had the highest decisionmaking authority. In this group, top party and state leaders play a central role. In the face of different military security crisis events, the Central Foreign Affairs Leading Group, the Central National Security Leading Group46, the Central Leading Group for Taiwan Work, and the Central Military Commission respectively undertake the main tasks of policy formulation.47 The Foreign Affairs Office of the CCP Central Committee, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the General Staff Department, and the Taiwan Affairs Office of the Central Committee (the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council) are responsible for internal coordination, formulating crisis management plans, and proposing countermeasures and suggestions. Numerous relevant functional departments and national think tanks are gradually starting to participate in policy coordination.


External communication mechanisms including hotlines, emergency liaison systems, special envoys, and second-track contacts have been initially established.48 For example, China and the United States have established a hotline between heads of state and a military hotline. China and Russia have established a hotline between heads of state. China and Japan have established a hotline between prime ministers/premiers and are discussing the establishment of an emergency liaison system between the navies and air forces of the two countries. China and South Korea have established direct telephone lines between the navies and air forces of the two countries. The practice of dispatching special envoys has been used many times in handling the Taiwan Strait crisis, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and some other international crises. Various second-track mechanisms have also played a role in helping decision-makers understand the real situation and explore solutions during some crisis events.


Due to the development of informatization and the increasing influence of public opinion, during crisis events, the Chinese government increasingly focuses on listening to and guiding public opinion. The establishment of relevant coordination mechanisms played an important role in handling the Sino-U.S. plane collision, tensions in the Taiwan Strait, Sino-Japanese political and security frictions, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and other security disagreements between China and foreign countries. In addition, in the past 20 to 30 years, information intelligence work has been greatly developed and strengthened as an important part of China’s national security decisionmaking mechanisms and military security crisis decisionmaking/management mechanisms. The ability of foreign affairs, news, military, security, and other departments to collect information and intelligence has been significantly improved,49 and the ability of relevant leading departments to comprehensively evaluate information and intelligence has continuously strengthened. This has played an important role in ensuring that Chinese leaders make timely and accurate decisions on various military security crises.50


(iii) Development and changes in crisis management principles and behavioral paradigms
(三) 危机管理原则与行为范式的发展变化

Over the past 60 years, Chinese leaders have formed some basic crisis management principles and behavioral paradigms through their abundant practice in dealing with various military security crises. These principles and paradigms are of great significance for guiding and understanding China’s international military security crisis behavior.


These crisis management principles first came from some important strategic and tactical ideas formed by the older generation of Chinese leaders such as Mao Zedong during the long-term revolutionary struggle. For example, “Strategically despise the enemy but tactically respect him”—we must combine courage and skill in fighting and unify a principled approach to strategy and a flexible approach to tactics; or “on just grounds, to our advantage, and with rational restraint”—we must uphold the “defensive,” “local,” and “temporary nature” of the fight while acting in accord with morality, so as to achieve “self-defense,” “victory,” and an “end of hostilities” altogether; or “respond in kind” [以两手对两手, literally: use two hands against two hands]—we must adopt both hard and soft approaches, talk when we are talked to, and strike when we are struck, and practice both cooperation and struggle; or “promises must be kept and action must be resolute”—once we show our determination to act and our bottom line, we must say what we mean and back up our words with deeds. Since the founding of New China, these strategic and tactical ideas have been extensively applied in the practice of successive Chinese leaders when dealing with international military and security crises. Up to the present, they still play an important guiding role in crisis management and are recognized by the Chinese strategic research community as crisis management principles with Chinese characteristics.


However, with the development and changes in the international security situation and the increasing awareness of the dangers of military security crises and the importance of crisis management, China’s crisis management principles are also developing and changing, with their content being continuously enriched and improved. Since the end of the Cold War, while implementing new practices for dealing with foreign relations, including various international military security crises, Chinese leaders have also put forward many new principles and policies from various perspectives, such as adhering to the UN Charter and the norms of international law and seek authorization for the use of force against other countries from the UN Security Council except in cases of self-defense; always grasp the overall situation of the country’s overall relations and insist on “fighting without breaking” [斗而不破, competing with an adversary but avoiding military conflict]; prioritize peaceful dialogue, increase trust, and avoid confrontation; and give equal importance to crisis prevention and crisis control.51 In addition, some research results52 from the Chinese strategic research community have been valued highly by relevant functional departments in the Chinese government. This has supplemented and refined China’s principles for the management of international military security crises.


The principles of crisis management mentioned above are not all at the same level. I do not intend to classify them here, but one thing is certain, which is that China’s military security crisis management principles have already developed a great deal. They not only carry on the tradition but also innovate. They not only adhere to Chinese characteristics but also draw on the experience of other countries and are gradually aligning with international practice. The main focus has been on achieving the transformation from an approach that gives prominence to struggle to one that takes into account both struggle and compromise.


Compared with the development and changes in military security crisis management principles, China’s military security crisis management behavior paradigm53 has remained relatively stable over the past 60 years. From the “Overview of Crisis Response” section above, it is clearly apparent that some basic practices have appeared repeatedly in China’s management of international military security crises, including issuing timely diplomatic warnings, taking certain military actions to demonstrate credible deterrence,54 always fighting in self-defense and never firing the first shot, seeking necessary compromises in the contest in order to maintain long-term and overall interests, and valuing morality and “face” (that is, always putting the maintenance of international justice and the maintenance of the dignity of the nation and the people in a very prominent position).55


In fact, over the past 10 years, as its crisis management mechanism and guiding principles have developed and changed, China’s relatively stable international military crisis management paradigm has also shown some subtle but important changes, the most important of which are the following four: first, China started to use more non-military means such as diplomacy rather than military actions to send warning signals; second, China pays more attention to acting in accordance with international law and seeking legitimacy for its actions; third, China is strengthening efforts to build security confidence measures with relevant parties; and fourth, China pays more attention to seeking mutual compromises and concessions, striving to achieve win-win situations and avoid a lose-lose situation. These developments and changes have made China’s international military security crisis management more reasonable and effective and increased the predictability of China’s military security crisis behavior.


(iv) Reasons for changes in crisis behavior
(四) 危机行为变化的原因

China’s international military security crisis behavior is not the result of arbitrary choices by Chinese leaders. Rather, it is determined by multiple international and domestic factors. Among them, the most influential are the international strategic landscape, the relationship between China and the international system, the central mission and ideology of the CCP and the nation, and the resulting Chinese concept of the international security order.56


In general, during the Cold War period when the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for hegemony, and especially in the first 30 years after the victory of the Chinese revolution, due to the severe hostilities with the United States and then the Soviet Union and its policy of alignment, due to long-term exclusion from major international organizations such as the United Nations, due to the fact that the world was still in the era of revolution and war, and a new world war would be hard to avoid, and due to the long-term policies of “taking class struggle as the key link” and opposing “imperialism, revisionism, and counter-revolution”, plus the fact that Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders had the experience of leading a long-term revolutionary war to achieve national independence and liberation and a unique understanding of crises, it should come as no surprise that New China intervened or became involved in one military conflict after another. At that time, it was subjectively difficult to make crisis management the main approach by which Chinese leaders dealt with military security crises, while efforts to avoid military conflicts were also limited in effect due to the lack of necessary objective conditions. Military conflict is the main approach, supplemented by crisis management was the main feature of China’s international military security crisis behavior during this period.


During the final period of the Cold War, and especially since the end of the Cold War, with the continuous development of multi-polarization, globalization, and informatization, China’s international environment and surrounding environment have undergone tremendous changes. Bipolar confrontation has disappeared, peace and development have become the themes of the age, and the forms and roles of war have also undergone profound changes.57 With the emergence of a new pattern of major power relations and the overall improvement of China’s relations with neighboring countries, China no longer faces major direct military threats. Domestically, Chinese leaders have abandoned the erroneous policy of “taking class struggle as the key link” and continued to develop reform and opening up with modernization at the center. In order to adapt to the changes described above, Deng Xiaoping proposed that world wars could be avoided and China should implement an independent foreign policy of peace and diplomacy and a policy of non-alignment,58 adhere to peaceful development, and actively integrate into the international community. After entering the 21st century, Chinese leaders such as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao proposed a new security concept centered on “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, and cooperation”. They proposed that China would always “hold high the banner of peaceful development and cooperation” and be a responsible major power and that China would “build a harmonious world and strive for mutual benefit.” Under this new situation, the views of Chinese leaders concerning crises have changed significantly,59 and crisis management was highly valued by the Chinese government and China’s strategic research community.60 Resolving disputes and avoiding military conflicts and wars through dialogue not only became an important means of maintaining security, but also a major goal for maintaining national, regional, and global security. Crisis management replaced military confrontation, becoming the main feature of China’s crisis behavior during this period.


It is worth pointing out that, in the context described above, the improvement and strengthening of China’s security crisis management mechanisms, the enrichment and development of its crisis management principles, the significant rise of China’s position in international mechanisms, and the remarkable progress of national defense modernization61 have all greatly strengthened China’s ability to conduct crisis management.  This makes it possible for China to manage international military security crises more effectively and to actively participate in the management of some regional and even global military security crises.


It is precisely because of the strong awareness of and desire for crisis management and the significant improvement in crisis management capability that China’s international military security crisis behavior has undergone such huge and profound changes.


IV. Outlook for the future


The various international military and security crises facing China have and continue to undergo profound changes.


For a long time, the international military and security crises that China has dealt with can be divided into three main categories: The first is crises in the surrounding area and military security crises between China and foreign countries caused by military conflicts and wars in China’s surroundings. The second is crises caused by disputes over territory and maritime rights and interests between China and foreign countries. The third is the crises caused by the Taiwan issue. Since the end of the Cold War, and especially since the beginning of the 21st century, all three types of crises have undergone profound changes.


First, on the global scale, military conflicts or local wars caused by traditional security issues and geopolitics (especially great power geopolitics) have been on the decline, and there has been a gradual decrease in military security crises resulting from these conflicts. However, security crises and military conflicts caused by non-traditional security issues are on the rise. This change has a profound impact. Compared with traditional security crises, in most non-traditional security crises, although there are still various differences in interests and fierce gamesmanship, the international community, including major powers, has greater room for maneuvering in crisis management and a stronger tendency to seek cooperation because countries often have greater common interests.


Second, some disputes over territorial and maritime rights and interests that previously led to military conflicts between Chinese and foreign countries have either been completely resolved or maintained in a basically stable state so that no new military conflicts have been triggered. Compared with territorial disputes on land, disputes over territorial waters and maritime rights and interests between China and some other countries have fluctuated in recent years. These disputes show a gradual trend towards greater tensions, but they are generally still under control. The general improvement in and development of political, economic, and security relations between the disputant countries, the existence of various dialogue and negotiation mechanisms, the establishment and strengthening of military security confidence-building measures, and the gradual acceptance of the idea of “putting aside disputes and pursuing joint development” (搁置争议,共同开发) by the parties to disputes62 are all important reasons for this situation.


Third, after renewed outbreaks of crises and constant tensions, the situation in the Taiwan Strait has seen a major turning point in recent years, and we can see prospects for continued easing of tensions, improvement, and development in cross-strait relations. Although there is still a long way to go to completely resolve the Taiwan issue, because China has made the peaceful reunification of the two sides its unwavering goal, and China’s comprehensive national strength will continue to increase rapidly for a long time in the future, this coupled with the changes in the balance of political power within the island of Taiwan has caused the probability of a recurrence of another Taiwan Strait crises to drop significantly.


Under this new situation, further strengthening the management of international military security crises and striving to combine this approach with conflict resolution and opportunity management should become the direction of China’s future efforts. These three changes are closely connected and are of great significance for better safeguarding national security and promoting peace and development in the region and the world.


Crisis management (including crisis avoidance and crisis control) is a process in which the two sides in the crisis practice both gamesmanship and cooperation. The main goal is to try to protect one’s own interests while attempting to prevent conflicts of interest from escalating and turning into military conflicts and wars. Even in response to those major or serious conflicts of interest that cannot be eliminated for a long time in the future, such as land and maritime territorial disputes between China and foreign countries and maritime security frictions between China and the United States, some traditional security crises that still exist in China’s surroundings (such as the traditional conflict between India and Pakistan, the north-south confrontation on the Korean Peninsula, and the hostility between North Korea and the United States), and certain non-traditional security crises that are increasing in importance (such as crisis events and crisis situations that may be triggered by nuclear proliferation or international terrorism), crisis management should still be the primary and most important approach and method. In order to deal with these crises more effectively, in addition to continuously strengthening its own crisis management mechanisms, China should make greater efforts to establish bilateral and multilateral crisis management mechanisms with relevant countries.


Conflict resolution means we must go beyond the temporary suppression of the crisis to completely eliminate the root cause of the conflict, allowing the parties to the conflict to rebuild their relationship with each other so that their goals are no longer in conflict with each other, or making all parties aware that their goals can be achieved without conflict.63 This is a more difficult and time-consuming task, but if it is achieved, it will have greater significance for peace and security. For some disputes over maritime rights and interests between China and foreign countries and concerning the differences that still exist between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, conflict resolution should be the focus of China’s future efforts. In addition, China should also redouble its efforts to move toward conflict resolution once some multilateral crisis management has achieved significant results.64


Opportunity management requires the relevant countries and parties to transcend their differences in interests to seize all opportunities and conditions, cooperate as much as possible, and strive to attain the best possible outlook in security fields or issues where they share overlapping interests. To this end, we must completely abandon the Cold War mentality, change all the mindsets that start from considering the worst-case scenario, and avoid missing important opportunities for cooperation on other issues due to the prominence of differences at the current time or with regard to a single issue, much less be quick to stop cooperation on major issues as a means to resolve differences. This effort plays an irreplaceable role in expanding common interests, increasing mutual trust, and restraining and resolving differences.


Opportunity management is an inevitable necessity given the new international situation, new challenges, and new types of major power relations facing a China that is determined to follow the path of peaceful development. It should develop together with crisis management and conflict resolution, with each promoting the others, and become an increasingly prominent aspect of China’s foreign relations.


In fact, in recent years, China has actively promoted the concept of “building a harmonious world”, worked hard to implement a foreign policy of peaceful development and mutual benefit, actively advocated a new security concept that reflects the concepts of comprehensive security, common security and cooperative security, proposed many new crisis management principles one after another, and put forward pragmatic solutions to specific disputes and various policies to address the non-traditional security challenges intensifying around the world. This has already pointed out the direction by which China can closely integrate crisis management, conflict resolution, and opportunity management. This effort should accompany the whole process of China’s peaceful development. Its successful realization will not only vigorously promote China’s own security and development, but also promote lasting peace, development, and prosperity for the world.


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Cite This Page

张沱生 (Zhang Tuosheng). "Research on China's Behavior in International Military Security Crises [中国国际军事安全危机行为研究]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in World Economics and Politics [世界经济与政治], April 14, 2011

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