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  • Michael D. Swaine

Crisis Management and the Taiwan Situation: Chinese Views and Conflict Avoidance

Michael D. Swaine CLM Issue 76 June 2023
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As the United States and China continue to clash over the contentious Taiwan issue, the likelihood of serious diplomatic and military crises between Washington and Beijing is poised to grow in the years ahead. Tendencies to overreact on both sides, reinforced by their deepening mutual hostility and suspicion, could make a dangerous escalation more likely in a crisis. It is increasingly crucial for Washington and Beijing to possess more reliable and effective bilateral crisis management mechanisms and procedures that can help them avoid crises and prevent escalation when crises occur. Despite some progress over the years, the U.S.-China crisis management system remains largely fragile and insufficient. The existing limits and deficiencies stem from a broad array of factors in Chinese and American crisis management views, approaches, and practices that drive both sides to engage in less credible and often escalatory behavior before and during a crisis.

As many observers have stated, by far the most likely source of a serious political-military crisis between the United States and China resides in their differences over Taiwan. The Taiwan situation presents many conditions that might generate a major crisis. First, it involves very high stakes on both sides: for China, the nationalist legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) regime in preventing what is seen as the loss of Chinese territory and in supporting the “sacred” task of national reunification; for the United States, the credibility of U.S. security commitments to allies and partners and its general support for a democratic friend. Second, the defense of such stakes would inevitably involve the use of military instruments to convey high levels of resolve and to deter unacceptable actions, thus posing a high level of danger.[1] Third, trust on both sides in the other’s commitment to long-standing, stabilizing understandings regarding Taiwan (that is, the U.S. One China Policy and China’s support for peaceful unification as a priority) is deteriorating in the context of overall worsening bilateral relations.[2] Fourth, Taiwan’s democratic government and populace are increasingly moving away from support for any type of “One China” solution to the relationship with China and closer to the United States, arguably lowering the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the problem—assuming that Beijing maintains a rigid stance toward Taipei and fails to take actions that are attractive to Taiwan. Fifth, the United States and China have already been involved in several major political-military crises (and one severe military conflict, the Korean War) since the establishment of the PRC in 1949.[3] All this suggests that it is imperative for Washington and Beijing to adopt views and put in place mechanisms to maximize the likelihood that any possible crisis between them regarding Taiwan will be managed effectively.[4] Unfortunately, no substantive movement toward the acquisition of effective Sino-American crisis management capabilities is occurring, although both governments have endorsed the need for crisis management dialogues, have established some crisis management procedures between the two militaries, and have held Track One military-to-military crisis communication dialogues.[5] But such crisis management policies and dialogues do not effectively address (much less correct where needed) the broad array of factors that might undermine Chinese and American behavior before and during a political-military crisis. These include not only negative crisis-related images, perceptions, and biases of leaders and elites but also the role of domestic politics and public opinion, decision-making structures and processes, receipt and processing of intelligence and information, leadership personalities and biases, historical experiences, and the larger international environment. Given length limitations, this article focuses on the crisis management views and actions of the Chinese leadership and senior Chinese experts and advisors with regard to a possible future Taiwan crisis. The first section summarizes and examines the Chinese elite approach to crisis management, specifically concerning the current Taiwan situation. The second section takes a look at U.S. perspectives and assessments regarding Chinese crisis management views and behavior. The Chinese Elite Approach to Crisis Management In analyzing Chinese approaches to managing a severe political-military crisis with Taiwan, it is important to distinguish between theory and practice and between authoritative and non-authoritative sources. The following analysis is sensitive to such distinctions. While some Chinese views and behavior regarding crisis management are fairly consistent across different types of sources, there is also a considerable level of variation that makes it challenging to draw hard and fast conclusions across the board. One should be particularly cautious about applying the historical record of Chinese crisis behavior during the Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping eras to present-day Chinese thinking and behavior. The same is true for using insights on Chinese crisis behavior based solely on crisis simulations or dialogues. That said, the following analysis suggests that there are nonetheless certain definite, largely reliable features of the Chinese approach that are likely to influence a future Taiwan crisis. At the very least, some of the analysis provides hypotheses, if not hard facts, on Chinese crisis management thinking and behavior that should be examined more closely. 1. Definitions and Concepts Many Chinese and Western analysts have suggested that the Chinese term for crisis (weiji) (危机) consists of the characters for danger and opportunity, thus supposedly conveying a strong Chinese desire to turn a dangerous crisis situation into an opportunity for advantage. In fact, the character “ji” is more accurately translated as “a decisive turning point” when developments begin to go awry, thus suggesting a far less threatening meaning.[6] Moreover, discussions with many Chinese scholars, officials, and military officers over the years indicate that China’s leaders today view crises as disruptive events that interfere with their domestic and international agendas, containing few elements of opportunity. Consequently, China now attaches more importance to avoiding and/or resolving crises early on. In fact, crisis prevention is a particularly important theme in discussions with Chinese analysts and former officials, as discussed below. Many Chinese non-authoritative sources recognize the widely accepted fact that decision-makers face a two-sided dilemma in any political-military crisis: on the one hand, how to signal commitment and resolve without provoking unwanted escalation or conflict, and, on the other hand, how to signal accommodation or conciliation without conveying weakness or capitulation, and thus inviting aggression.[7] In addition, in discussing such a crisis dilemma, some Chinese military and civilian scholars also endorse a Western-derived set of guidelines or precepts for successful crisis management:[8]

  • Maintain direct channels of communication and send signals that are clear, specific, and, if necessary, detailed.

  • Focus on limited objectives and employ limited means on behalf of such objectives; avoid extreme pressure, ultimatums, or threats to the adversary’s core values.

  • Preserve military flexibility, escalate slowly, and do not escalate beyond the level the other side reaches first.[9]

  • Do not limit your bargaining options or put your adversary in a political-military position from which it will be very difficult to back down: avoid “ideological” or “principled” lock-in positions that encourage “zero-sum” approaches to a crisis, and do not confuse moral or principled positions with conflicts of interest.

  • Exercise self-restraint, and do not always respond to provocative moves.

  • Divide large, integrated, hard-to-resolve disputes into smaller, more manageable issues, thereby facilitating the building of trust and engaging in trade-offs.

  • Think ahead about the unintended consequences of one’s actions.

At the same time, while acknowledging such dilemmas and guidelines, some Chinese analysts also stress that Chinese leaders face a particularly acute challenge in managing crises that involve high stakes, such as Taiwan. They argue that, in the event of such a crisis, Beijing will be less willing and able to compromise or make concessions, i.e., focusing more on signaling resolve (discussed further below) than accommodating the United States. Some Chinese analysts even argue that many, if not most, of the above cautionary crisis management guidelines would largely give way under such conditions, albeit not to the extent that an adversary’s core interests are threatened.[10] 2. Elite (and Public) Perceptions, Concepts, and Beliefs[11] In this realm, several features seem prominent in non-authoritative sources, and some are even suggested indirectly in authoritative sources. The first and foremost is a set of Chinese beliefs and political values that could increase risk-taking and lower flexibility in a Taiwan crisis, thus undermining the above crisis management guidelines. For example, Chinese elites, and probably much of the public, have a strong self-image of their country as

… an aspiring yet nonaggressive great power, increasingly confident yet also acutely sensitive to domestic and external challenges to its stability and status …. [with] a strong memory of the nation’s supposed historical victimization and manipulation at the hands of stronger powers.[12]

These views make Beijing highly sensitive to Washington’s actions toward China, which are often viewed as the behavior of a bullying and manipulative hegemon designed to intimidate, humiliate, or test the Chinese leadership. In other words, these beliefs can exaggerate the tendency to view Washington’s crisis behavior as malign, thus undermining trust and possibly causing Beijing to overreact to U.S. crisis moves.[13] Given the general view of Washington as a bullying hegemon, many Chinese see the United States using the Taiwan issue as a “card” intended to keep China divided, distracted, under pressure, and constrained. Some Chinese even believe that Washington is capable of precipitating or manipulating a Taiwan crisis to achieve such ends.[14] Closely tied to the need to show firm resolve, Chinese leaders also display a strong impulse to view the triggering issue in a sovereignty-related crisis like Taiwan “… as a clear matter of principle (i.e., of right and wrong, fairness or unfairness, or just versus unjust behavior).”[15] This increases the chance of China viewing a Taiwan crisis in rigid “zero-sum” terms, involving the defense of moral principles against unjust acts. Such an attitude can create a “commitment trap” that limits flexibility and prevents concessions or trade-offs during a crisis.[16] It can also lower the threshold for any use of force, which Beijing may consider a necessary form of deterrence against morally unjustified U.S. behavior. Some PLA military operational concepts reinforce many of the above troubling Chinese views relevant to crisis management, including the notion that: 1) cultivating uncertainty in an opponent is beneficial to deterrence; 2) unexpected, escalatory leaps (including limited demonstrations of force) might be necessary to undermine the other side’s deterrence power; and 3) cyberattacks might be very valuable early in a crisis or conflict.[17] If accepted by civilian leaders, these concepts might further undermine self-restraint and drive escalation in a Taiwan crisis. Indeed, they are all inconsistent with the belief, suggested by the above guidelines, that clear signaling, limited goals, and a highly restrained stance toward using force are all essential to effective crisis management. Adding to the above beliefs, some Chinese analysts think that, despite its bullying nature, Washington might be less committed and hence more deterrable than China during a Taiwan crisis. This is due to a notion in some Chinese quarters that the United States is more constrained than China by a fear of casualties, prolonged conflict, and economic costs, and it has less at stake than China in such a crisis given the Chinese association of the Taiwan issue with nationalist legitimacy and ultimately the stability of the PRC regime, as noted above.[18] Such Chinese views of the United States might lead decision-makers to opt for dangerous shows of resolve during a crisis over Taiwan, possibly including a direct threat to employ force against U.S. military assets, on the assumption that Washington will be the first to blink. Fortunately, not all Chinese beliefs and concepts undermine the kind of effective crisis management guidelines noted above. As indicated, many Chinese analysts recognize the value of such guidelines. Some have even expressed the desire to incorporate a discussion of them into Track One crisis communication dialogues between Washington and Beijing.[19] Equally significant, many of the above crisis management guidelines are also contained in a Chinese maxim that is often employed to describe how Chinese leaders will handle a serious political-military crisis. Developed by Mao Zedong during the Chinese civil war, it states that China should use force or coercion “on just grounds, to our advantage, and with restraint” (youli/[有理], youli/[有利], youjie/[有节]).[20] Although developed during wartime, Chinese leaders apparently believe that observance of this maxim will minimize risks and unwanted escalation during a crisis short of war and will contribute to its successful resolution. It implies the need for:

… the prior attainment of local superiority, strong control over one’s armed forces (marked by very clear rules of engagement and the coordination of military with political-diplomatic moves), efforts to seize and maintain the initiative (at times using tactical surprise and deception), a sense of “knowing when to stop” (regarding both political and military actions), the use of pauses and “tit-for-tat” moves, and clear and appropriate signaling, including demonstrations of a low intent to escalate in a major way (e.g., through the absence of obvious alerts or large-scale mobilizations). In most instances, the provision of a “way out” for both sides … [is] also emphasized.[21]

Reinforcing the above generally positive views regarding crisis management, some Chinese analysts insist that in the current reform era, “… Chinese leaders are increasingly attentive to international law and international mechanisms in evaluating crises (or near-crises) and in assessing their response.”[22] In other words, as one Chinese participant in a crisis management conference stated, “while moral principles and values still matter greatly, they neither exist in isolation nor automatically outweigh other considerations.”[23] Additionally, in private conversations with this author, Chinese analysts, including some PLA officers, have discounted the above PLA operational concepts as guidelines for senior civilian Chinese leaders to employ during a crisis. That said, Chinese participants in crisis management dialogues confirm that rapid escalation and the use of force to convey resolve might ultimately occur if vital national interests (such as regime survival or loss of sovereign territory) are involved, other non-coercive approaches are exhausted, or the Chinese government faces “extreme provocation.” In other words, in the view of many Chinese observers today, escalatory behavior is characterized as a possible “last resort,” forced upon the Chinese leadership in extremis when the stakes are very high. Chinese dialogue participants have asserted that, under such circumstances, China might fire the first shot in a crisis. As one Chinese military scholar stated: “… we may fire the first shot if, for example, Taiwan is bent on going independent.”[24] 3. Elite Behavior in the Historical Record and the Current Environment The preceding sets of sometimes contradictory Chinese elite (and in some cases public) beliefs influencing crisis management are often reflected in the historical record of Chinese behavior during actual political-military crises. Some Western scholars argue that Chinese leaders have shown offensive and aggressive approaches to crises throughout most of Chinese history, emphasizing the need to seize the initiative, often through a preemptive attack.”[25] Historically, in a severe high-stakes crisis, Chinese leaders have indeed been “…willing to support sudden, rapid, and asymmetrical escalations of force … even, at times, against a superior opponent.”[26] This suggests that a stronger military power should not assume its capabilities will always deter China. Moreover, in past political-military crises,

… Chinese leaders have been prepared to go to significant lengths to avoid the appearance of being weak and “giving in to great power pressures,” especially regarding high-stakes disputes involving Chinese territorial sovereignty such as the Taiwan issue.[27]

This can add to the inclination of Chinese leaders to show greater levels of resolve and to resist accommodation during a Taiwan crisis with the United States. Some observers argue that “… present-day Chinese leaders are just as likely to engage in provocative crisis behavior as Mao and Deng did because they are more susceptible to growing popular nationalistic pressure and less able to recover from charges that they failed to exhibit sufficient resolve in a crisis, particularly if the adversary is viewed as a superior ‘bullying’ power.”[28] For example, according to one Chinese scholar, during the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crisis, “… China’s leaders were determined to employ military means to make a ‘powerful response’ to what they viewed as a ‘diplomatic provocation’ by Washington, in order to force the United States to ‘really realize the seriousness of the issue’ and to deter ‘Taiwan separatists.’”[29] On the other hand, in Track 1.5 dialogues, “… some Chinese observers have also insisted that … rapid, asymmetrical crisis escalation was more typical of the Mao and Deng eras, reflecting their more ‘militant’ style, perhaps less risk-averse behavior, and total dominance over the decision-making process.”[30] They assert that,

… while today’s leaders must arguably pay greater attention to nationalist sentiments among the public and can still employ uncompromising language, their weaker political power (compared with Mao and Deng), more consensus-based decision-making structure, and need to maintain a peaceful and stable external environment for China’s development goals strongly orient them toward caution in managing crises, particularly regarding the use of force.[31]

In fact, according to one leading Chinese expert on Sino-U.S. relations, in recent crises or near-crises, the Chinese government has employed elements of the above-outlined “youli youli youjie” maxim as a rationale for compromise by the PRC government.[32] All in all, although Chinese leaders undoubtedly feel the need to signal resolve when the stakes are high (as in the case of Taiwan), their behavior during crises, such as the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crisis, the 2001 EP-3 incident, and their overall approach to relations with Washington, suggests that the Chinese decision-making process has not been dominated by aggressive, risk-taking hardliners. This observation arguably still holds true, even under Xi Jinping today, despite his increased willingness to take assertive actions in favor of Chinese territorial sovereignty claims, with regard to Taiwan in particular. Although linking Taiwan’s unification with China with the broader task of achieving national rejuvenation by 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC), Xi has made no explicit pledge to “resolve” the Taiwan issue by that date as a firm deadline.[33] Even though Xi wishes to see real progress toward unification occur during his term in office, there are no indications that he desires to create a crisis over Taiwan by leveling ultimatums, much less attacking the island outright. In fact, he has stressed the Chinese priority for peaceful unification as much if not more than his immediate predecessors.[34] While he has certainly increased China’s military signaling since entering office, it has been mainly in response to perceived provocations by Taiwan or the United States, and he has avoided any major escalations, such as efforts to challenge U.S. or Taiwan warships or to undertake kinetic attacks.[35] His strategy seems to be to steadily increase China’s military and economic leverage vis-à-vis both Taipei and Washington while deepening contacts with any Taiwan leader who espouses some version of a One China view toward Taiwan-China relations.[36] 4. Signaling and Other Problems As indicated above, signaling has been a major problem in past Sino-U.S. crises (and in many bilateral crisis simulations), despite the presence of a crisis communication link between Washington and Beijing. Indeed, all of the problems listed above—such as continued or enhanced levels of distrust; an image of the United States as an arrogant, aggressive power; the casting of issues in moral, principled terms; the need to communicate strong resolve and avoid conveying weakness; a likely desire to cultivate uncertainty in the mind of one’s opponent; and a failure to be deterred—serve to undermine clear Chinese signaling in a crisis, especially with the United States. Many examples of such problematic signaling have occurred during both historical crises and crisis management dialogues and simulations. These have especially included misinterpretations of signals involving military movements, alerts and preparations, or an absence of reassuring signals from either side. Signaling problems have also resulted from the unclear or inconsistent use of various types of media, misinterpreted signals of support for allies or partners such as Taiwan, and faulty assumptions about the other side’s level of coordination and intent during a crisis.[37] In addition to these features of signaling, China’s increasingly complex and fragmented decision-making process and stove-piped civilian and military intelligence structure have slowed reaction time and distorted both the Chinese assessment of information and clear signaling in past Sino-U.S. crises.[38] Finally, public opinion and leadership politics have also significantly influenced the content of signals, especially in recent years. Furthermore, difficulties in identifying and deciphering signals from the other side have at times resulted in a dangerous reliance on preexisting assumptions or so-called “mirror imaging.”[39] U.S. Views and Reactions There is both good news and bad news regarding the conclusions that American analysts and officials draw from China’s approach to crisis management. On the bright side, Americans can take some solace from the fact that some Chinese officials and scholars recognize the above-mentioned two-sided dilemma confronting any serious crisis as well as the logic and the value of the Western crisis management guidelines listed above. Indeed, participants in crisis management dialogues have frequently stressed the importance of many such factors in Chinese thinking today, at least among scholars looking at the problem. Whether such views extend to the highest reaches of the Chinese leadership is unclear. But some of the officials and analysts who agree with the above crisis management guidelines do have access to the senior leadership and are likely conveying such concepts to them. Furthermore, as noted above, the “youli” maxim has similarities to the guidelines (e.g., concerning the use and signaling of limited means and objectives in a crisis, including a stress on incremental, tit-for-tat escalation and the provision of “pauses” and a “way out” when threatening or employing force) and seems to be very widespread, suggesting that Chinese leaders are aware of it. The maxim has been used in past Sino-U.S. crises to justify compromises that do not violate core Chinese principles. In addition, although Chinese leaders during the reform era have sometimes engaged in provocative rhetoric during various crises, they have also often exercised caution and restraint during actual crises with the United States, generally avoiding sudden, escalatory actions. Post-Deng leaders have also been reducing the influence of abstract moral principles by placing increasing emphasis on international law and mechanisms. This likely reflects a strong desire to avoid a direct conflict with the United States and to prevent a crisis from incurring major economic damage to China, given the country’s deep and extensive involvement in the global economic order. Indeed, in many crisis simulations, Chinese (and American) participants often demonstrate a strong desire to de-escalate a crisis as quickly as possible. One should also note the following regarding nuclear weapons, i.e.,

… there is little evidence that elites in either country today view their nuclear arsenal as a safeguard against attacks and hence a license to escalate dramatically in a crisis. To the contrary, the existence of considerable uncertainties regarding each side’s nuclear-use doctrine and the vulnerability of Chinese strategic assets to a U.S. conventional attack suggest that the threshold between conventional and nuclear-weapon use might be less clear than some might think. This reality would induce enormous caution in any leadership.[40]

On the negative side, many American observers are no doubt deeply troubled by many of the above-mentioned Chinese actions, decision-making structures, and beliefs and assumptions (especially regarding Taiwan) that might increase the chance of a serious political-military crisis and reduce the ability of the two sides to manage such a crisis. To recap, these include:

  • An expectation of overall Chinese inflexibility in managing a Taiwan crisis, given the high value of the issue to the Chinese as a core interest and its connection to deeply engrained historical memories, supposedly moral principles, and nationalist beliefs.

  • The notion held by some Chinese that Beijing would enjoy an advantage in a so-called “balance of fervor” or commitment to defend its interests in a Taiwan crisis, thus producing a greater willingness to display high levels of resolve in the expectation that the United States would back down.

  • A possible Chinese misperception that the “hegemonic” United States might seek to “win” a Taiwan crisis and gain a decisive advantage over Beijing in overall Sino-American strategic competition by decisively defeating the Chinese military and degrading China’s overall military capabilities.

  • The fact that, despite China’s apparent recognition of the value of incremental escalation and other elements of the “youli” maxim, Chinese leaders, at least during the Mao era, have engaged in sudden, rapid, asymmetrical escalations to convey superior resolve and to seize the initiative.[41]

  • An increasingly complex and fragmented decision-making process and a stove-piped intelligence structure, which could slow down Chinese reaction time and distort both the assessment of information and clear signaling in a crisis.

These actual and presumed features of Chinese crisis behavior greatly counterbalance the more positive features noted, thus no doubt undermining U.S. confidence that a serious crisis over Taiwan will be handled effectively. Moreover, such negative features are accentuated by various similarly negative features of American crisis behavior. These include:

  • A tendency to view some past political-military crises in highly ideological, zero-sum terms.

  • An equally strong need to convey resolve during a Taiwan crisis to reinforce U.S. credibility and mollify domestic political calls for more forceful pushback against China, and to disabuse the Chinese side of the notion that the United States is in decline or is less committed to the issue.[42]

  • A historical tendency in past Sino-U.S. crises to use or threaten to use high levels of military force, including, in the 1950s, threatening the use of nuclear weapons.

These factors might lead to preemptive, rapid, and decisive U.S. military moves or signals, and they might also cause the United States to fall into a commitment trap. These negative aspects are further reinforced by the contextual factors mentioned in the Introduction, especially the severe lack of trust between the two nations today and the adverse impact of political developments on Taiwan. Conclusion The above analysis suggests that, despite the presence of several factors militating in favor of effective crisis management, many features of the Chinese approach, as well as U.S. concerns and likely reactions, suggest that a future severe crisis over Taiwan will likely prove extremely difficult to manage, confirming the largely pessimistic assessment presented in the Introduction. Chinese analysts and leaders undoubtedly understand the serious dangers that a high-stakes Taiwan crisis would present. However, many Chinese elite (and some public) assumptions, images, and beliefs, as well as structural aspects associated with the crisis decision-making process, etc., will serve to undermine efforts to exercise restraint, send clear but limited signals of resolve or accommodation, divide up issues and make trade-offs, accept short-term losses, and offer credible and realistic off-ramps during a crisis. American fears regarding such likely Chinese attitudes and behavior, as well as U.S. beliefs and U.S. behavior, might in turn precipitate poor U.S. crisis management practices in the form of over-reactions of various types. All of this strongly indicates that Washington and Beijing must engage in much deeper discussions aimed at reducing misperceptions and strengthening mechanisms relevant to crisis management. About the Contributor Michael D. Swaine, Senior Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute (QI). He comes to the QI from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he worked for nearly twenty years as Senior Fellow specializing in Chinese defense and foreign policy, U.S.-China relations, and East Asian international relations. Swaine previously served as Senior Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation. He has authored or edited more than a dozen books and monographs, including America’s Challenge: Engaging a Rising China in the Twenty-First Century (Carnegie Endowment, 2011), and Conflict and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region: A Strategic Net Assessment (with Nicholas Eberstadt et al.; 2015) and many journal articles and book chapters. The author is indebted to Jiaxiu Han and James Park for their assistance in the preparation of this article.


[1] In fact, although the Taiwan issue is at root political (involving an unresolved dispute over sovereignty and the political status of Taiwan), during past Taiwan crises both sides have relied heavily on military signaling and understandings to defend their respective interests. This has been evident during past serious Sino-American crises over Taiwan in the 1950s and the 1990s and has been seen in more recent, lesser mini-crises over Taiwan, e.g., over former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in 2022. [2] Michael D. Swaine, “Ending the Destructive Sino-U.S. Interaction Over Taiwan: A Call for Mutual Reassurance,” Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, October 2022.; Michael D. Swaine, “The Worrisome Erosion of the One China Policy,” The National Interest, February 27, 2023.; Paul Heer, “How Word Games Became War Games in the Taiwan Strait,” The National Interest, September 1, 2022.; Jude Blanchette and Ryan Hass, “The Taiwan Long Game: Why the Best Solution Is No Solution,” Foreign Affairs, December 20, 2022.; Task Force on U.S.-China Policy, “Policy Brief: Avoiding War Over Taiwan,” U.S. San Diego 21st Century China Center, October 2022.[3] Michael D. Swaine, Zhang Tuosheng, and Danielle F. S. Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises: Case Studies and Analysis (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006). [4] Effective management occurs when a crisis ends without any actual armed conflict and without increasing the chances of a future crisis or conflict or of placing either side at a long-lasting disadvantage in their larger relationship. [5] “Active Denial, A Roadmap to a More Effective, Stabilizing, and Sustainable U.S. Defense Strategy in Asia,” Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, June 2022.[6] “Chinese Word for ‘Crisis,’” Wikipedia.; “‘Crisis’ Does NOT Equal ‘Danger’ Plus ‘Opportunity,’ Pinyin. [7] Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises. [8] 胡平,《国际冲突分析与危机管理研究》(Beijing: 军事谊文出版社, 1993). See also 于巧华,《军事危机论》(Beijing: 国防大学出版社, 2008); 李效东 et al., 《朝鲜半岛危机管理研究》(Beijing: 军事科学出版社, 2010), 100; and 赵子聿 and 贤峰礼, 《国家安全危机决策》(Beijing: 时事出版社, 2006), pp. 361–62; 夏立平. “美国关于危机管理的理论与实践: 以中美关系为例,” 《美国研究》, 17, no. 2 (2003). [9] Although an incremental approach to escalation is generally vastly superior to escalatory leaps, a mechanistic reliance on proportional tit-for-tat escalation may also prove to be dangerous. It might lock each side into uncompromising actions that simply feed into escalation without producing caution or any willingness to back down or to accommodate the other side. Michael D. Swaine, “The Worsening Taiwan Imbroglio: An Urgent Need for Effective Crisis Management,” Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, November 2022. [10] 王辑思 and徐辉,“中美危机行为比较分析,” 《 美国研究》, no. 2 (2005).; 王勇 and陈森林,《国家安全危机管理研究》(Beijing: 国防大学出版社, 2011). [11] Many of the following summations of elite perceptions derive from scholarly conceptual analysis or are inferences drawn from many years of contacts with Chinese officials, leaders, and military officers. [12] Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises, p. 12. [13] The Chinese tendency to denigrate the U.S., or any adversary, is reinforced by the apparent belief that China is an exceptionally peaceful country. Studies show that the more one believes in one’s exceptionalism, the more one is likely to denigrate the values of others. See Alastair Iain Johnston and Mingming Shen, eds., “Perception and Misperception in American and Chinese Views of the Other,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2015. [14] Personal discussions with Chinese interlocutors; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Wang Yi Elaborates on China's Position on the Taiwan Question at a Press Conference for Chinese and Foreign Media,” August 6, 2022.; Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises. [15] Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises, p. 12. [16] A commitment trap occurs when a government takes a stance that in some way creates a level of commitment from which it is virtually impossible to retreat, often for domestic political or reputational reasons. [17] Alastair Iain Johnston, “The Evolution of Interstate Security Crisis: Management Theory and Practice in China,” Naval War College Review, 69, no. 1 (Winter 2016), pp. 28–71. PLA strategists often stress the importance of keeping an enemy uncertain (e.g., via psyops, low levels of transparency, and deception) and creating “inexorable momentum” (zaoshi [造勢]), or the inevitability of a coercive Chinese response in a crisis to show that China cannot be deterred. The PLA characterizes this as “counter-deterrence” (fanweishe [反威慑]). [18] Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises; this author’s personal records. As one Chinese participant in a 2004 crisis management dialogue put it: “The Taiwan problem concerns precisely China’s core interests, while it concerns merely the U.S.’s vital interests.” [19] Discussions with Chinese interlocutors; Tuosheng Zhang, “Strengthening Crisis Management Is the Top Priority in Current China-U.S. and China-Japan Security Relations,” China International Strategy Review, December 31, 2021. [20] Johnston, “The Evolution of Interstate Security Crisis,” p. 11. [21] Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises, p. 29. Many of these features are illustrated in the case studies presented in this source as well as in other studies of Chinese crisis behavior. [22] Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises, ch. 4. [23] Ibid., p. 13. [24] Unpublished manuscript on findings of crisis management dialogues between U.S. and Chinese interlocutors. For more studies on China’s use of escalation and crisis management, see 范佳睿 and 翟崑, "底线之上的博弈: 1964–1966年越战升级过程中的中美危机管理" 《战略决策研究》, 8, no. 1 (2017). [25] See Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995); Alastair Iain Johnston, “Cultural Realism and Strategy in Maoist China,” in The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics, ed. Peter J. Katzenstein (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), pp. 216–70. [26] Unpublished manuscript on findings of crisis management dialogues between U.S. and Chinese interlocutors. [27] Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises, p. 12. [28] Michael D. Swaine, “Sino-American Crisis Management and the U.S.-Japan Alliance: Challenges and Implications,” in The Japan-U.S. Alliance and China-Taiwan Relations, ed. Akikazu Hashimoto, Mike Mochizuki, and Kurayoshi Takara (Washington, DC: George Washington University Sigur Center for Asian Studies, 2007), p. 88. [29] Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises, p. 27. [30] Swaine, “Sino-American Crisis Management and the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” p. 88. [31] Unpublished manuscript on findings of crisis management dialogues between U.S. and Chinese interlocutors, p. 26. [32] Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises, p. 30 and ftn. 100. Wang Jisi has written that Beijing followed the basic pattern of “youli, youli, youjie” during the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crisis, the Belgrade bombing crisis, and the EP-3 crisis. See 王辑思and徐辉,“中美危机行为比较分析.”; Also see Zhang Tuosheng’s discussion of the EP-3 incident in Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises, ch. 12. [33] Xi Jinping, "Speech at a Ceremony Marking the Centenary of the Communist Party of China." Official translation of speech delivered in Beijing, July 1, 2021. [34] In his major 2019 speech on Taiwan, Xi used the phrase “peaceful unification” 18 times. In comparison, Xi’s predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao mentioned the same phrase 17 times and 13 times, respectively, in their Taiwan speeches. Xi Jinping, "Working Together to Realize Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation and Advance China’s Peaceful Reunification." Transcript of Speech delivered in Beijing, January 2, 2019.; Jiang Zemin, "Continue to Promote the Reunification of the Motherland." Backgrounder to Speech Delivered in Beijing, January 30, 1995.; “Hu Jintao's Speech on Taiwan Draws Positive Comments.” Summary of Speech Delivered on December 31, 2008. [35] The military signaling examples also demonstrate Xi’s consistency: Chinese deterrence in response to Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and Speaker McCarthy’s meeting with Tsai contained both statements and exercises. However, it is noticeable that in response to the arguably less provocative McCarthy meeting, China slightly softened the intensity of both methods. Rory Daniels, “A New Cut of the Cloth: Exploring Beijing’s Tailored Response to Tsai-McCarthy Meeting,” 9DashLine, April 24, 2023.; Charlie Campbell, “China Plays Long Game With Softer Response to Taiwan President Visiting U.S.,” Time, April 6, 2023. [36] Xi Jinping, "Working Together to Realize Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.” [37] Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises; unpublished manuscript on findings of crisis management dialogues between U.S. and Chinese interlocutors. [38] Swaine, Zhang, and Cohen, Managing Sino-American Crises, pp. 48–57. [39] Ibid., pp. 37–48; Mark Burles and Abram N. Shulsky, “Patterns in China’s Use of Force: Evidence from History and Doctrinal Writings,” RAND Corporation, 2000.; Allen Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence: India and Indochina (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975). [40] Michael D. Swaine, “Sino-American Crisis Management and the U.S.-Japan Alliance: Challenges and Implications,” in The Japan-U.S. Alliance and China-Taiwan Relations, ed. Akikazu Hashimoto, Mike Mochizuki, and Kurayoshi Takara (Washington, DC: George Washington University Sigur Center for Asian Studies, 2007 , p.96 [41] This fear is arguably accentuated for some U.S. observers (despite the above-mentioned absence of any clear desire to create a crisis over Taiwan) by the concern that Xi Jinping is less consensus-oriented than his immediate predecessors and more inclined to resort to aggressive behavior to defend his image as a decisive, nationalist proponent of China’s rights, especially in a crisis over Taiwan. [42] Swaine, “Sino-American Crisis Management and the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” pp. 90–91.

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