Book from the People's Liberation Army Conference
Introduction: The Differences and Risks in U.S.-China Military Crisis Management and Response
This is the introduction to the edited volume China’s Military Decision-making in Times of Crisis and Conflict.
The July 2022 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Conference, cohosted by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), the China Strategic Focus Group at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and the Department of Foreign Languages at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, evaluated the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and PLA’s crisis response decision-making and behavior. Key questions the conference sought to address included:
How is the PRC’s crisis decision-making and behavior today different from the past?
What impact has Xi Jinping had on the PRC and PLA’s crisis decision-making and behavior?
In what domains may the PRC be inclined to escalate or de-escalate a crisis?
Against which actors may the PRC be inclined to escalate or de-escalate a crisis?
What do past crises involving the PLA reveal about the PRC’s crisis response?
Key findings included:
The PLA may be increasingly comfortable in an environment that is characterized by more frequent crises and heightened tensions with the United States.
The PRC likely sees crises as opportunities to change the status quo in its favor by advancing territorial claims, testing the commitment of the United States to its allies and partners, and signaling displeasure with the actions of other countries to compel policy change.
The PRC and the United States have fundamentally different understandings and approaches to crisis management and response, meaning that it may be difficult to swiftly address and resolve crises.
The PRC may experiment more frequently with the employment of a wide range of capabilities—from conventional to asymmetric to nuclear—to test the resolve of the United States and other Indo-Pacific states without appreciation for possible escalation risks.
The PRC may be willing to risk sharper escalation dynamics in situations where the United States is not directly involved.
Resolving crises between the U.S. military and the PLA has never been a straightforward task for Washington and Beijing. Beijing still believes that the accidental bombing in May 1999 of the PRC embassy in Belgrade was a deliberate act by Washington and that the blame for the collision between a U.S. EP-3 aircraft and a PLA J-8 fighter jet over Hainan Island in April 2001 lies with the United States. Although the resolution of previous crises was not without difficulty, crisis resolution with the PRC today and in the future will be exceedingly difficult and complex due to perceptions of a shifting balance of power in conjunction with a sharp deterioration in the bilateral relationship. As diplomatic, economic, and military competition between the two countries intensifies while unplanned and risky encounters between their militaries become more frequent, the United States must review and update its understanding of the PRC’s crisis response behavior. This PLA Conference volume offers an in-depth analysis of why the PRC undertakes actions in crises with the United States and other Indo-Pacific actors, the institutional structures under which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership makes decisions in military crises, and the implications of PRC crisis response behavior for the United States and its allies and partners. It builds on the findings from the 2021 PLA Conference volume Modernizing Deterrence: How China Coerces, Compels, and Deters, which examined both China’s evolving approach to deterrence and its possible responses when deterrence fails.
Escalation Pressures in U.S.-China Crisis Management
Unplanned and potentially dangerous encounters involving the PLA and regional militaries as well as the U.S. military have occurred with increasing frequency, while opportunities for dialogue and crisis management have shrunk. In response to then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, the PLA undertook live-fire exercises around the island, dispatched warships, and increased already frequent incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and across the median line of the Taiwan Strait. At the same time, Beijing announced the suspension of several defense dialogue mechanisms with the United States, including the China-U.S. Theater Commanders Talk, Defense Policy Coordination Talks, and Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meetings, among others. Since then, additional unplanned encounters involving the PLA and the U.S. military have occurred. In December 2022 a PLA Navy J-11 fighter jet operated dangerously close to a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane, and in June 2023 a PLA Navy guided-missile destroyer nearly collided with a U.S. Navy destroyer and a Canadian frigate during a joint transit through the Taiwan Strait. Later in June, a visit to the PRC by Secretary of State Antony Blinken intended to stabilize the U.S.-China relationship and re-establish dialogue at the highest level resulted in the PRC explicitly rejecting an offer to set up a direct military line of communication between Washington and Beijing.
In addition to the United States, several other countries in the Indo-Pacific region have been subject to unplanned encounters with and unprofessional maneuvers by PLA operators. These often dangerous incidents have taken place despite the promulgation of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), signed by more than twenty countries, including the PRC, in 2014. The agreement is intended to both reduce the likelihood of incidents at sea and prevent escalation when unplanned encounters occur between the signatories, but Beijing has continued to flout the standards and undertake aggressive behaviors against other countries. In February 2023, for example, a China Coast Guard ship used a laser against a Philippine patrol vessel in disputed waters in the South China Sea, temporarily blinding some of the crew aboard. Incidents have occurred in other domains as well. In June 2022, PLA Air Force planes intercepted and harassed Australian and Canadian military aircraft operating in international airspace. And since the deadly skirmish in June 2020 in the disputed Sino-Indian border region, subsequent confrontations have taken place between the PLA and Indian Army at the Line of Actual Control.
An exacerbating factor in these incidents is the fundamentally different approach to crisis management and response by China and other countries. Despite efforts by the United States to re-establish and normalize communication channels and confidence-building measures to reduce the likelihood of miscalculation and crisis, the PRC remains fundamentally disinterested in adopting such frameworks. As this volume finds, Beijing is suspicious of efforts by the United States and its partners to establish crisis management mechanisms—or “guardrails”—because it interprets such measures as legitimizing the very operations the PRC wants to bring to an end. Chinese perspectives have a long history. Beijing continues to promote the narrative that if the U.S. military were not operating within the first island chain, there would not be an issue.
This lack of common understanding concerning the role of crisis management further reduces the space for such mechanisms. PRC scholars believe that “crisis escalation is often the only way to resolve a crisis.” In other words, while the United States may desire to de-escalate a situation through crisis mechanisms, the PRC often seeks to further its interests without triggering a military conflict by manipulating a crisis scenario to its advantage. As subsequent chapters in this volume argue, the PRC may be more comfortable than the United States with elevated levels of tension. Whereas Washington seeks a return to the status quo ante through dialogue and crisis management mechanisms, Beijing may prefer to leverage instability in crises to alter the status quo and thus advance its strategic objectives.
The PLA’s modernization of its strategic and asymmetric forces also gives rise to novel escalation risks and pressures. In particular, the PLA’s nuclear expansion raises questions about how the PRC may seek to incorporate its increasingly sophisticated nuclear arsenal into both its conventional operational planning and crisis behavior. Russia’s nuclear threats against Ukraine, as well as the United States and NATO, have effectively deterred direct third-party intervention. The efficacy of such nuclear brinksmanship raises the possibility of the PRC leveraging its nuclear arsenal in a potential conflict with the United States to challenge Washington’s commitment to the defense of U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, the asymmetric capabilities of the PLA afford it a more diverse range of coercive and kinetic options to employ against an adversary—a particularly concerning prospect given the lack of mutually accepted rules and norms governing the cyber and information warfare domains.
Xi Jinping’s consolidation of authority, especially in the military decision-making domain, also holds profound implications for China’s crisis behavior and crisis management. Through the 2015–16 organizational reforms to the PLA, Xi consolidated his control over the party-military apparatus, including by reinvigorating the Chairman Responsibility System within the Central Military Commission (CMC) under his sole leadership, purging rival and potentially disloyal officers through a widespread anticorruption campaign, and placing the CMC under his direction at the pinnacle of national security decision-making. The 2018 PLA Conference volume People in the PLA 2.0 explored these institutional changes and found that Xi has assumed a degree of influence over military affairs unmatched by recent PRC leaders. The consequences of his preeminent influence in military decision-making, the growing frequency of unplanned encounters between the PLA and the U.S. military, and a lack of common understanding on crisis management heighten the risk of crisis and even conflict between the world’s most advanced military powers.
Taken together, these developments require a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of why the PLA takes certain actions and exhibits certain behaviors in a crisis, how Chinese leadership approaches crisis response decision-making, and the collective implications of these trends for the United States and its allies and partners. Moreover, it is vital to better understand how the PRC integrates and operationalizes conventional, strategic, and asymmetric capabilities with other sources of national power in peacetime and in preparation for crisis. To these ends, this volume examines doctrinal and theoretical guidance concerning military decision-making, institutional control structures, and decision-making procedures, as well as relevant case studies, to understand Chinese behavior in various crises, including China’s ongoing border dispute with India and territorial disputes with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, and in emerging domains, including the cyber and strategic nuclear realms. This introduction briefly reviews the scope and arguments of each chapter and summarizes key findings.
The Doctrine and Theory Behind China’s Crisis Behavior
The opening section evaluates the doctrinal concepts that frame the PRC’s approach to crisis response and decision-making. In recent years, several crises have tested the ability of the United States, as well as its Indo-Pacific allies and partners, to engage responsibly with the PLA in an increasingly contested regional environment. As the PRC continues to resist efforts to establish and regularize crisis management mechanisms and dialogue with the United States, understanding how, when, and under what conditions Beijing may decide to escalate or de-escalate during a crisis is critical to preventing miscalculation and possible conflict. David Santoro of Pacific Forum and Balazs Szanto of Chulalongkorn University open the volume with chapters that examine the doctrinal guidance that informs decisions by PRC leadership in a crisis scenario.
In the first chapter, Santoro examines China’s views of and approach to military crises and discusses the implications for crisis avoidance and management options, especially with the United States. He argues that in crisis situations China’s primary objective is to advance its interests and “win” and that reducing escalation risks is, at best, a secondary consideration. Moreover, he argues that Beijing’s confidence that it can readily control military crises, conflicts, and even wars means that it often believes that it can benefit from escalation. The one exception to this proclivity to escalate a crisis is the potential use of nuclear weapons. Beijing does not think that nuclear escalation would be controlled in a crisis or armed conflict between the United States and China. Yet certain behaviors, such as the commingling of nuclear and conventional variants of the same missile system using the same launchers and co-located at the same missile base, call into question whether the PLA is aware of how such risky behavior might result in the very escalation the PRC seeks to avoid. Santoro concludes that Beijing’s mindset leads it to assume that Washington pushes for crisis avoidance and management mechanisms less to deal with problems as they emerge and more to undermine China and, in the end, increase U.S. power and influence. Thus, understanding China’s views of and approaches to crises in general and military crises in particular is paramount to manage expectations about the prospects for crisis avoidance and crisis management mechanisms. Moreover, focusing these mechanisms less on managing or resolving emerging military problems and more on communicating positions and intentions may yield better results. Finally, Santoro recommends that investing in unofficial U.S.-China dialogues about crisis escalation and management should be a priority, given the wide conceptual gap that exists between the U.S. and Chinese approaches as well as the misperceptions and misunderstandings that each side has about the other.
In the second chapter, Szanto presents a typology of China’s crisis behavior through an examination of ten representative crisis scenarios. He argues that to successfully manage a conflict with China, it is essential to understand crisis scenarios as an interplay of complex factors, both purposive and expressive. Through his analysis, Szanto demonstrates that China depicts a strong capacity for expressive (nonrational) behaviors, which require that crisis management policies balance deterrence with reassurance in order to be successful. As such, he states that over-reliance on either deterrence or reassurance would lead to suboptimal results: too heavy deterrence plays into the insecurities of China, while pure engagement is likely to fail due to the expressive considerations of Chinese policy. The expressive component will make it difficult to engage with or counter China’s behavior based on purely rational political calculations. Moreover, Szanto claims that to successfully counter escalatory behavior, one must distinguish between offensive and defensive behavior. Whereas successfully countering offensive behavior requires deterrence, defensive behavior is exacerbated by deterrence and requires reassurance while signaling resolve. China has shown a general reluctance to respond to a crisis with de-escalation, instead demonstrating a preference for an initial escalatory response. As such, he concludes that de-escalation can only be effectively pursued if this escalation is countered; otherwise, China will seek to use it as a coercive tool.
Control and Decision-making under Xi Jinping
This volume’s second section examines the changing nature of crisis decision-making in the PRC within an institutional and technological framework. Given Xi Jinping’s high degree of involvement in national security matters, his personal role in crisis decision-making must be considered as a discrete factor in the PRC’s decision-making apparatus, especially as the PLA vies for greater bureaucratic influence. Moreover, the “New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan” released by the PRC State Council in 2017 clarifies China’s ambitions to become a world leader in artificial intelligence (AI) by 2030. As the PLA continues pursuing “intelligentization,” the role of AI in command and control will become an increasingly central feature of its modernization objectives and milestones. Drew Holliday of the U.S. Department of Defense and Zi Yang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) assess, respectively, the human-centric decision-making procedures within the PRC bureaucracy and the role that AI-enabled technologies could play in future military decision-making.
In the section’s opening chapter, Holliday examines a set of baseline institutional and cultural crisis-response behaviors exhibited by the PRC within a context of changes in how the Xi administration views the PRC’s relationship with the United States, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. He finds that the CCP considers the political aspects of a crisis to be of central importance and thus that institutional structures and processes for responding to crises are designed to manage and shape their political ramifications. The Xi administration perceives an external security environment characterized by very broad and complex challenges, to which PRC leaders believe they must respond in a proactive, shaping manner. Holliday argues that the Xi administration’s inverted foreign policy model is inherently less stable, and its emphasis on legal warfare in contested areas increases the risk of unintended confrontation and potential conflict. This analysis may explain why PRC leaders appear to believe that the previous, stable framework of the U.S.-PRC relationship may be losing—or may have already lost—its political viability. Holliday concludes with three key findings. First, the Xi administration’s perceptions of the need to employ greater national power to proactively shape the PRC’s security environment will increase the likelihood of crisis eventuation and exacerbate crisis resolution. Second, shifts in the U.S.-PRC relationship may have reduced the confidence of PRC leaders that a future military-crisis trigger event could be managed within a stable, bilateral framework. Finally, their belief that the previous framework with the United States has lost political viability and that the relationship has entered a longer-term period of strategic crisis may result in calls for greater emphasis on shaping behaviors rather than stabilizing behaviors.
Yang investigates how the Chinese state and its military experts theorize, experiment, and apply AI to military decision-making and explores what positive and negative factors might affect its future use in this particular area. China has designated AI development as a national priority, and the use of AI has benefited the regime in various capacities that are increasingly prominent in the defense and security sectors. Looking ahead, Yang claims that AI will be a force multiplier for the PLA, pointing to the role of AI in military decision-making and recent gains in developing this technology for military use. Nonetheless, he finds that the progress of China’s AI development in this domain has so far been limited and argues that the widespread adoption of AI technology to enhance military decision-making is more likely to be realized in the medium term than the short term. Xi’s policy missteps and his adverse influence on state and military institutions present the greatest encumbrance to the PRC’s AI ambitions. In particular, domestic difficulties under enduring despotism may become detrimental to the PLA’s modernization and preparations for future AI-enabled warfare. Yet, even though the PRC’s current progress in developing AI for military decision-making is limited, advancements in the coming years can be expected to bolster civilian and military leaders’ confidence in undertaking military action.
The PLA in Action: Case Studies and Domain Analysis
The volume’s final section uses case studies and domain analysis to understand how PRC and PLA decision-making takes place. From the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff and the repeated confrontations with the Indian military at the disputed Line of Actual Control to heightened escalation pressures brought about by the PRC’s activities in cyberspace and its modernizing nuclear arsenal, these chapters analyze how and why the PRC makes certain decisions in these domains. Shuxian Luo of the University of Hawaii, Mānoa, and Jagannath Panda of the Institute for Security and Development Policy evaluate the drivers behind China’s decisions to escalate the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff with the Philippines and the border dispute with India at the Line of Actual Control, respectively. Adam Segal, of the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy at the U.S. Department of State, explores Beijing’s approach to crisis management and response in the emerging domain of cyberspace. Phillip Saunders of the U.S. National Defense University and David Logan of Tufts University assess the potential interactions between the PLA’s expanding nuclear arsenal and increasingly sophisticated suite of non-nuclear strategic capabilities and consider the implications for crisis management.
Luo examines the PRC’s decision to escalate the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff and the role of the PLA in shaping the decision during the incident. She argues that China’s crisis decisions in the South China Sea disputes should be understood as the result of Beijing weighing and making a tradeoff between anticipated domestic and international costs. The potential for a domestic backlash creates an incentive for escalation, whereas the potential for international pushback and reputational damage creates pressure on Beijing to de-escalate. Luo finds that the Scarborough Shoal standoff represents a case in which perceived low international costs and surging domestic costs led China to opt for escalation. She concludes that although China has demonstrated a growing level of assertiveness when handling maritime disputes in the South China Sea, its management of these disputes is shaped by competing expectations and costs generated by multiple audiences that include, but are not limited to, the PLA. Moreover, Luo finds that during a crisis such as the Scarborough Shoal standoff, the PLA is not necessarily as openly vocal as other hawkish actors in the PRC’s maritime affairs system, but it can shape the broader context in its push to harden the Chinese approach toward sovereignty disputes. To the extent that China strives to credibly signal its resolve while maintaining an image of nonbelligerency among its smaller neighbors, stakeholders in the region still have the leverage to shape the country’s crisis behavior in the South China Sea by tipping its cost-benefit calculation toward the international end.
Panda examines Beijing’s decision-making process regarding the border conflict with India and considers the outlook for the bilateral relationship. He argues that the boundary dispute is a significant factor in Xi’s decision-making calculus because it is critical to the PRC’s regional posturing. Panda finds that early on in Xi’s tenure Beijing’s decision-making regarding the boundary dispute was shaped by the goal of cultivating cooperation with India to encourage its participation in the Belt and Road Initiative as well as to hedge against the United States’ regional strategy. Nevertheless, this goal has largely been overshadowed by the PRC’s perception of India and the boundary dispute through the lens of the historically complicated Tibet issue. Panda further argues that most of China’s policies toward India have been influenced by mistrust of the U.S.-India partnership and the belief that New Delhi’s foreign policy choices vis-à-vis China are influenced by the United States. In other words, the PRC may see the disputed border issue through a broader strategic framework not centered exclusively on India but rather encompassing the larger geopolitical dynamics at play. Panda suggests that more recently the conflict in Ukraine has led to China pointing to India’s posture of independence to emphasize the importance of the two countries strengthening cooperation based on mutual interests rather than weakening each other or letting border disputes dominate bilateral ties. Ultimately, he finds that Beijing appears to be increasing its efforts to encourage tactical cooperation with New Delhi in the economic and multilateral spheres while simultaneously employing intimidation tactics to deter India from coalescing with the U.S.-led security architecture.
Segal defines three types of cyber crisis that pose risks to China and assesses the tools that Chinese policymakers have developed to manage such crises. First, like all modern states, the PRC must defend, detect, contain, and respond to a domestic cyberattack that could have widespread destructive or disruptive effects on its economy and society. Second, it must prepare and respond to a potential diplomatic and foreign policy crisis created by reactions to Chinese cyberoperations that fall below the threshold for the use of force or armed attack. Third, during any border or maritime crisis, cyberoperations will be conducted to collect intelligence and possibly to signal, coerce, and deter adversaries. Segal argues that Chinese policymakers will need to manage the use of cyber tools during any military or diplomatic crisis and ensure that they do not inadvertently lead to escalation or loss of control. He finds that China has been developing institutions, regulations, and processes that should improve its ability to manage these three types of crisis. Yet, while China has many new tools for the management of a domestic cyber crisis, the effectiveness of the system during a national cyber crisis remains unknown. Further, the worsening of the Sino-U.S. relationship makes the management of a political crisis provoked by Chinese cyber industrial espionage significantly more difficult to control. China can be expected to conduct cyber intelligence operations during a crisis and may use more disruptive or destructive attacks for signaling, coercion, or deterrence. Segal cautions that the nature of cyberspace and Chinese approaches to it complicate signaling and heighten the risk that cyberoperations could cross a threshold, exacerbate a crisis, and possibly provoke a kinetic response.
In the volume’s concluding chapter, Saunders and Logan assess the potential drivers for the PRC’s nuclear expansion and modernization, examine Chinese views of nuclear weapons and their utility in peacetime and crises, and explore the role of non-nuclear strategic capabilities. They find that China is presently undergoing the most significant nuclear weapons expansion in its history, which appears to be driven by the perceived need to maintain a secure second-strike capability and bolster the country’s great-power status. With a larger and more secure nuclear deterrent, the PRC will likely be less susceptible to U.S. nuclear threats and intimidation and more willing to initiate conventional conflict due to the perceived reduced risk of nuclear escalation. As a result, Saunders and Logan caution that deterring conflict will therefore be more influenced by the conventional balance of power at the local level. To this end, China may use its expanded nuclear arsenal to bolster its prestige, challenge U.S. extended deterrence commitments, and dissuade U.S. intervention in a crisis or conflict. Furthermore, China’s growing space and cyber capabilities, which are viewed as more usable weapons in a conflict, may interact with its nuclear capabilities in ways that heighten the risk of escalation. If U.S. decision-makers conclude that maintaining nuclear superiority is both valuable and achievable, then the United States might forgo strategic nuclear arms control in pursuit of a quantitative advantage. However, if U.S. policymakers conclude that China’s quest for a robust second-strike capability cannot be stopped and that mutual assured destruction would maintain strategic stability, then the United States should work to manage nuclear competition with China instead of attempting to offset its buildup. In either case, given that China’s nuclear buildup lowers the escalation risk of conventional military conflict and increases the importance of the local conventional balance, the United States may need to invest more in regional conventional forces. U.S. recognition of mutual nuclear vulnerability with China might decrease the risks of nuclear escalation in a crisis or conventional conflict as well as the incentives for a nuclear arms race.
The eight chapters collected in this volume from the 2022 PLA Conference provide a comprehensive picture of how the PRC undertakes the process of decision-making in both peacetime and crisis. The first two chapters reveal Beijing’s confidence in its ability to control escalation of a crisis to advance its objectives and change the status quo in its favor. The next two chapters then offer a methodological analysis of how the PRC’s decision-making procedures and structures have evolved under Xi Jinping and of how the PLA is conceptualizing the role of next-generation technologies in command and control and military decision-making. The remaining four chapters provide case studies and domain analysis. The case studies of the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff and the Sino-Indian border dispute illuminate the drivers and implications of the PRC’s decision-making in crisis scenarios. The final two chapters consider the potential impact of decision-making in the cyber domain and the PRC’s ongoing nuclear modernization and expansion on the country’s future crisis behavior. As a whole, the volume reveals important shifts in the PRC’s approach to crisis decision-making through considering a combination of doctrinal guidance, evolving institutional mechanisms and control structures, technological innovation, and real-world case studies. The contributors have shared valuable insights, and their findings will inform ongoing and future studies of the PLA and PRC foreign policy writ large.
NBR is grateful for its sponsors and partners at the China Strategic Focus Group at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the Department of Foreign Languages at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Without their support, the research published in this volume would not have been possible. Conference discussants, panel chairs, attendees, and keynote speakers, as well as NBR staff, including Alison Szalwinski, Audrey Mossberger, Rachel Bernstein, and Daniel Schoolenberg, also deserve special thanks and acknowledgment for their contributions to the 2022 conference and accompanying volume.
Roy D. Kamphausen is President of the National Bureau of Asian Research.
Jeremy Rausch is a Project Manager with the Political and Security Affairs group at the National Bureau of Asian Research.
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