China's Policy in Border Disputes (i)

A few months ago Professor Fravel of MIT published a rather thorough study examining how China (since 1949, PRC) has handled its border disputes, and also some insight into forecasting its future behavior in border disputes, in a view to also shedding light to how states handle border disputes in general.

Foreign Affairs had a short book reviews in its April issue.

The publisher (Princeton Univeristy Press) has provided the introductory section for a free preview.

Prof Fravel has adopted a methodology which begins his analysis by defining the issues related to Taiwan and even HK/Macau as border disputes, which PRC has already put itself into a position that they are of a fundamentally different nature. Nevertheless, it appears Prof Fravel, beginning with a white sheet, has reached a conclusion which would be consistent with the alternative approach.

Boston.com has an interview (see below) with the author (by Harvard Crimson/Boston Globe), providing some insights into the Taiwan issue (which I largely agree). In particular, Prof Fravel discussed his view on the likelihood of a war related to territory (Taiwan is perhaps the only likely source as we all know), and dispelled the myth that China may launch a "diversionary war" (and perhaps diversionary wars in general in the world!). Prof Fravel believes, to the contrary, China is likely to make concession when there is internal pressure!

I have yet to acquire a copy of the book. But there are enough materials from PUP's introductory section which I hope to comment on in the next post.

Fig (click to enlarge): The border demarcated in 1960s with DPRK, shows the concession China yielded to North Korea, essentially giving up almost all the islands along Yalu River. (source)


A talk with M. Taylor Fravel

An MIT scholar asks: What would make China use its army?

By Samuel P. Jacobs
August 10, 2008

AS THE WORLD'S attention focuses on China's first-ever Olympics, the country is staging a glossy, upbeat show of hospitality. But behind that surface of prosperity and welcome, China's government remains a secretive regime immensely preoccupied with its own security. Leaders worry about the country's vast borders and restive minority populations, threatened by resistance from groups in the western province of Xinjiang, by calls for Tibetan autonomy, and the persistent diplomatic standoff with Taiwan.

(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
In his new book, M. Taylor Fravel offers an intriguing argument about the relationship between instability within China and stability in the rest of the world.
The instrument for enforcing all this is China's military, the largest in the world - 2.3 million people - and one of a handful with the capacity to launch nuclear weapons. How, and when, China uses its military power is a serious concern in Asia and beyond, and one that will endure long after the Olympic torch has exited Beijing.

M. Taylor Fravel, a member of MIT's political science department and security studies program, has made a career of studying how, and when, China uses force. The 37-year-old professor, who spent two years of high school living in Taiwan, has combed through newly available documents from China's military academies and strategic thinkers. He has also examined nearly two dozen territorial disputes between China and its neighbors over the last six decades.

In a book to be published next month by Princeton University Press, "Strong Borders, Secure Nation," Fravel explains how China uses its military to protect the security of the ruling party, preserve the country's territorial integrity, police a 14,000-mile border that touches 14 countries, and keep Taiwan in check. He also offers an intriguing argument about the relationship between instability within China and stability in the rest of the world.

Ideas spoke with Fravel by phone and in his Cambridge office.

IDEAS: The focus of your upcoming book and much of your scholarship on China is on territorial disputes. Why study them?

FRAVEL: States have fought over territory more than any other issue. . . . The real question that is on many people's minds with respect to China is whether China will become a country that is highly likely to use force in resolving its international disputes. Territorial disputes provide one way to answer that question.

IDEAS: So how likely is China to use force?

FRAVEL: If you look at all of China's territorial disputes, you see that it's not especially prone to use force in these conflicts. One can tentatively infer from that that China is not necessarily highly prone to use force over other issues.

IDEAS: What would provoke China?

FRAVEL: The one specific issue - this is not terribly surprising at all - where China would use force under certain circumstances would be over Taiwan.

IDEAS: What would a Chinese attack on Taiwan look like?

FRAVEL: It depends on the political goal that China is trying to achieve. . . . The scenarios that are commonly discussed are a circle blockade of the island, which would be more of an effort to coerce Taiwan without engaging in direct armed combat. Another scenario is what is referred to as a decapitation strike, an effort to remove three-fourths of the leadership of Taiwan. A third scenario would be an amphibious assault on the island. However, many people view that as unlikely because amphibious assaults are hard to execute successfully. It would require probably more capability than China has.

(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
In his new book, M. Taylor Fravel offers an intriguing argument about the relationship between instability within China and stability in the rest of the world.
However force might be used across the Taiwan Strait, two points should be made. The first is that the use of force would be linked to some political goal, most likely preventing the island from completing what the mainland believes are important steps for the island to achieve political independence. . . . Second, if China were to use force across the Taiwan Strait, it would most likely try to limit conflict with United States.

IDEAS: What would the American response be like?

FRAVEL: If China used force across the Taiwan Strait? It would be a major crisis. . . . I don't think it would be a question of if the US would respond; the question would be how.

IDEAS: You challenge the accepted theory that China might launch a war to divert the attention of its population.

FRAVEL: The "diversionary war" argument posits that when leaders face threats to their political power at home, they are more likely to initiate or escalate a crisis abroad to divert attention of a dissatisfied public and rally society around the flag. What I found . . . is that when faced with ethnic unrest or legitimacy crises, the Chinese government has been more likely to cooperate in its territorial disputes in exchange for assistance in a domestic political problem that it faces.

A recent example of this would be China's efforts to compromise with neighbors in Central Asia in the 1990s over a range of disputed territories at precisely the time when Xinjiang, the Chinese autonomous region adjacent to the Central Asian republics, was experiencing a high degree of ethnic unrest. . . . China, I argue, traded concessions in the territorial disputes for assistance in improving border security, cracking down on dissident groups that were operating in areas neighboring China.

IDEAS: Are there examples of these "diversionary wars" from other countries?

FRAVEL: The paradigmatic case that many scholars cite is Argentina's decision to invade the Falkland Islands in 1982. . . . According to one theory, Argentina invades the Falklands to distract its dissatisfied population from internal difficulties and unite the country around a nationalist goal of unifying the islands.

IDEAS: What do your findings suggest for US policy toward China?

FRAVEL: China is not as prone to what we might call muscle-flexing as the increasing prominence of nationalism and patriotism might suggest.

IDEAS: What are some other American misperceptions about China?

FRAVEL: The challenge of governing China from the leadership perspective should not be underestimated. You've got approximately one-fifth of the world's population in an area roughly the size of the United States with perhaps as much cultural diversity as Western and Eastern Europe combined. . . . Just keeping the state together, much less growing at a rapid clip, such that you don't have a major episode of civil unrest or ethnic unrest, is a daunting political and administrative undertaking.

IDEAS: So the busier the Chinese are taking care of their affairs within the country, the less we have to worry about them?

FRAVEL: I'm not sure I would quite say that. If the majority of American attention looks at China's potential in the world, I would say that the majority of the leadership's attention in China is focused internally.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a senior at Harvard College and associate managing editor of The Harvard Crimson.


Unknown said...

Excellent post! I need to find this book and read it now.

Unknown said...

To dear Fravel : ask your neighbor that his wall must be six inces inside as it belongs to him as fravel has a well built body he will accept only couple of inche showing his generosity. Fravel diplomatic relation are easy to understand.