The myth of Chinese diversionary war

The myth of Chinese diversionary war

Domestic turmoil won't make Beijing launch an attack—but will make it more likely to react to external threats, writes Taylor Fravel for Foreign Affairs. Fravel is the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT Security Studies Program.

September 15, 2023 | Foreign Affairs | M Taylor Fravel
Chinese soldiers guarding the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 2022
M Taylor Fravel
September 15, 2023
Foreign Affairs

As the growth of China’s economy slows, politicians in the West are increasingly concerned that Beijing will lash out to deflect domestic attention from its internal problems. In August 2023, for example, US president Joe Biden described China’s economic difficulties as a “ticking time bomb,” suggesting that China’s woes might propel its leaders to “do bad things.”

Scholars and analysts have reached similar conclusions. Richard Haass, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has argued that in response to China’s economic slowdown, Beijing could embrace “even more aggressive nationalism” as a basis for legitimacy and accelerate efforts to unify Taiwan with China. Scholars Michael Beckley and Hal Brands have offered a similar analysis, suggesting that China will likely pursue expansion in response to slowing growth, “making nationalism a crutch for a wounded regime.” Indeed, concerns about China using aggression as a diversionary tactic are perennial. In 2015, Robert Blackwill, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Kurt Campbell, a co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, assessed that Chinese President Xi Jinping may “even seek to escalate territorial disputes against Japan or South China Sea claimants as a way of redirecting domestic attention away from the economic situation.”

Such predictions draw on the idea of “diversionary wars,” conflicts primarily fought to defend the parochial interests of leaders who seek to stay in power. According to the theory, citizens often rally around the flag and increase their support for their government in times of conflict with external powers. Knowing this, political leaders who believe they are losing popular support and fear ouster might start a war either to distract the population from domestic problems and increase social cohesion or to appear more competent as a successful commander in chief, thus strengthening their hold on power.

Yet Chinese leaders have rarely, if ever, started a conflict purely as a diversion, even during moments of domestic crisis. That is, in part, because the Chinese state has more control over public opinion and society, including protests, than do other governments. When the Chinese economy falters, the danger is not diversionary war. It is that China’s leaders will feel weak and become more sensitive to external challenges, potentially lashing out to show strength and deter other countries from taking advantage of their insecurity.

Plenty of opportunity

Since 1949, China has frequently suffered from significant ethnic and political unrest and economic shocks. But virtually no leaders have started crises or wars to distract the Chinese public—even when they should have been quite likely to do so according to the logic of diversionary war.

In 1958, Mao Zedong created an economic disaster when he sought to rapidly industrialize the country during the Great Leap Forward. Tens of millions of Chinese people starved to death while the economy collapsed. Around the same time, revolts rocked the Tibetan areas of China and the Dalai Lama fled to India. Yet despite such upheaval, Chinese leaders did not initiate conflict to divert attention and increase unity but instead stabilized relations with neighboring countries. In 1960, Beijing signed mutual nonaggression treaties with several neighbors and a defense pact with North Korea. From 1960 to 1963, China settled some of its disputed boundaries in treaties with six states, compromising over contested land. It even offered a “package deal,” or swap of territorial claims, to India in April 1960 to resolve their territorial dispute. Although China attacked India in 1962 over the disputed border, diversionary motives played no role in Beijing’s decision-making. China merely wanted to show India its resolve and deter future challenges on the border in a time of internal weakness.

Starting in the mid 1960s, China once again suffered significant unrest during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the economic contraction it created, potentially motivating Chinese leaders to find ways to distract the public from the unfolding chaos. In 1965, China did dispatch troops to help North Vietnam fight the United States (with troop levels peaking in 1967), but its support for Hanoi began in 1950, far predating China’s domestic unrest. China’s leaders increased their support for Hanoi as a reaction to U.S. escalation in the Vietnam War and as a way to compete with the Soviet Union for clout among socialist states.

In 1969, China ambushed Soviet forces on the disputed island known as Zhenbao in China and as Damansky in Russia—perhaps the only crisis in modern Chinese history that could count as a diversionary conflict. Some scholars, such as the Chinese Communist Party historian Danhui Li, contend that Mao authorized the ambush to unite the party and end the radical phase of the Cultural Revolution at the Ninth Party Congress in April 1969. But if Mao wanted to divert attention and increase unity through heightened tensions with a foreign adversary, he would have acted a year or two earlier, such as in 1967, when he ordered the military to quell unrest in many provinces. Instead, the growing threat from the Soviet Union probably motivated Mao to attack the island. The Soviet Union had doubled its troops on China’s northern border, the two countries were skirmishing along the Amur and Ussuri Rivers, and in 1968 Moscow intervened in Czechoslovakia, declaring that it had the right to intervene in the internal affairs of other socialist states, a statement with chilling implications for China.

Chinese leaders could have used a diversion in 1989 during the Tiananmen demonstrations, which coincided with a significant slowdown in economic growth. Yet Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, used violence against Chinese citizens, not against foreign powers. Moreover, after the government violently suppressed protesters, China adopted a conciliatory posture abroad to help stabilize the party and society at home. In international affairs, Deng called for China to be “calm, calm, and more calm,” which meant avoiding external conflict—the opposite of diversion. From 1990 to 1992, China normalized relations with many countries from which it had become estranged during the Cold War, including Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam. China also signed compromise boundary agreements to settle territorial disputes with Laos, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union—again, the opposite of what diversionary logic would predict.

China’s 2015 stock market crash might have been another ideal moment for diversionary action. From June 2015 to February 2016, the Shanghai index dropped by almost 45 percent, creating discontent among retail investors seeking to ride the market’s rise before the bubble burst. Yet China did not initiate a violent crisis in response to these economic shocks but focused internally on stabilizing equity markets and capital flows.

Lashing out?

China’s behavior presents a conundrum. Its leaders have encountered strong domestic incentives to engage in diversionary crises or wars but almost never do so. Contrary to diversionary logic, they have often engaged in conciliatory and cooperative behavior abroad when faced with significant unrest at home. The answer lies in China’s Leninist institutions, which penetrate society, and the government’s strong control over its population. The party also shapes public opinion by controlling information through censorship, news directives for the media, and propaganda. All else equal, China is less vulnerable to domestic unrest, especially after 1989, than other authoritarian states.

The government is adept at selectively permitting protests that do not target the party. In the early years of the twenty-first century, local protests over economic issues such as land use steadily grew. A permissive approach toward these kinds of protests likely helped the central government identify poor governance in the provinces. Anti-foreign protests, although infrequent, usually receive tacit permission from the government but seldom last for long.

China’s increasingly sophisticated social surveillance network helps the government stamp out threats to the party. In November 2022, widespread protests erupted in China over the government’s “zero COVID” policy. Although the protests were remarkable, they were also short-lived, lasting only a few days, because police could use cellphone location data to identify and detain participants. Even if discontent with the party grows, China has many tools to quell domestic unrest before the government ever feels compelled to resort to a diversionary conflict.

China’s lack of diversionary behavior also highlights a flaw in the logic of waging a diversionary war. According to such a rationale, leaders looking to boost their popular support should start a conflict with a stronger adversary—because prevailing over a worthy opponent highlights a leader’s acumen—or over a nationalist issue that the public cares greatly about. Yet both are dangerous gambits because if leaders initiate a diversionary crisis or war that fails to produce the desired results, they risk expediting the collapse of their government.

In other words, it is difficult for a leader to find a target that carries minimal risk but can also boost popular support. China could easily start and win a conflict with the Philippines over the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, where Manila beached a naval vessel in the late 1990s to underscore Philippine sovereignty over the reef. Yet the Chinese public would likely be unimpressed—they would expect China to defeat a much weaker state. And although the Chinese public views Taiwan as a much more salient issue, a conflict over the island would be costly, and the result uncertain. The worst outcome for any Chinese leader would be to try to take the island but fail, which induces caution.

Deterrence, not diversion

Even if diversion as a tactic is rare—and perhaps unlikely in the future—domestic unrest in China can create incentives to use force for other reasons. Chinese analysts often refer to the idea of “internal troubles, external aggression” (neiyou waihuan) to describe the “century of national humiliation,” a period that began in the mid-nineteenth century when the Qing dynasty’s decline and internal turmoil allowed foreign powers to seize land through “unequal treaties” and establish spheres of influence in the country. Later Chinese leaders have often feared that other countries would similarly seek to profit from China’s weakness, so the government has become sensitive to perceived external challenges or threats in periods of domestic duress. Historically, Chinese leaders have used force in such moments as a way to signal resolve to China’s adversaries, not to divert the public’s attention or increase social cohesion.

In October 1962, for example, China attacked India during the calamity of the Great Leap Forward after India had increased its military presence along the contested border, including in areas across from Tibet where the Chinese government had just suppressed a revolt. According to a senior Chinese general at the time, India strengthened its presence on the border because it saw China as “weak and easily bullied” amid famine, revolt, and tensions with the United States and the Soviet Union. Mao’s goal was not to divert the public’s attention but to stabilize the border by destroying the new Indian positions and correct any perception that China was weak.

China reacted similarly in September 2012, when Japan purchased three of the disputed islands in the group known as the Diaoyu in China and as the Senkaku in Japan. China likened the purchase to “an atomic bomb dropped on China,” launched regular maritime patrols within the territorial seas of the islands to challenge Tokyo’s control, greenlit anti-Japan protests in numerous cities, and froze high-level relations with Japan for several years. At the time, the party was preparing for a contentious, once-in-a-decade transfer of power at the upcoming 18th Party Congress. From Beijing’s perspective, Japan’s move on the islands appeared to be designed to exploit this instability in the highest levels of the leadership, which warranted a tough reaction.

If China’s economic woes get worse, its leaders will probably become more sensitive to perceived external challenges, especially on issues such as Taiwan. Increased pressure on China could easily backfire and motivate Beijing to become more aggressive in order to demonstrate its resolve to other states despite its internal difficulties. In times of domestic unrest, China may lash out, but that reflects the logic of deterrence, not diversion.