Author: Taylor Fravel

Active Defense now available

My new book on China’s military strategy, Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949, is now available, published by Princeton University Press.

The book offers the first systematic study of the military strategies adopted by the People’s Republic of China since 1949. Overall, the PLA has formulated nine military strategies, three of them which constituted major changes in strategy and sparked the transformation of the PLA’s doctrine, force structure, and training.

Read more about the book here.

Major Changes in China’s Military Strategy

I recently published an article in International Security on China’s military strategy, entitled “Shifts in Warfare and Party Unity: Explaining China’s Changes in Military Strategy.”

The article contains three main points:

  1. China has adopted nine military strategies since 1949, or what the PLA calls “strategic guidelines.”
  2. The strategies adopted in 1956, 1980 and 1993 represented major changes in the PLA’s approach military strategy, requiring significant organizational change.
  3. China has pursued major changes in its military strategy in response to shifts in warfare in the international system, but only when the CCP is united and delegated responsibility for military affairs to the PLA’s senior officers.

The article is a teaser for a much longer book on the subject, Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949, which will be published in early 2019.

Read the article here.

Why India did “Win” the Standoff with China

In response to the disengagement of Chinese and Indian forces announced on August 28th, I wrote a short essay for War on the Rocks.

Specifically, I argue that it is misguided to view the disengagement is a “win” for India and a “loss” for China. Moreover, due to unique factors, Doklam does not provide a model for countering China’s coercion elsewhere

Moreover, due to unique factors, Doklam does not provide a model for countering China’s coercion elsewhere.

Read the piece here.

Danger at Dolam

I wrote the following op-ed, “Danger at Dolam,” for the Indian Express, on July 18, 2017


The standoff between Indian and Chinese forces on the Dolam Plateau is entering its fourth week. India and China have both miscalculated, with potentially dire consequences. China clearly did not appreciate the sensitivity that India attaches to any Chinese presence on the Jampheri Ridge south of the plateau and the implications for the security of the Siliguri Corridor that connects eastern India with the rest of the country. A decade ago, for example, Indian soldiers training the Royal Bhutanese Army in Bhutan challenged a Chinese foot patrol that was discovered along the ridge.

China clearly did not appreciate the sensitivity that India attaches to any Chinese presence on the Jampheri Ridge south of the plateau and the implications for the security of the Siliguri Corridor that connects eastern India with the rest of the country. A decade ago, for example, Indian soldiers training the Royal Bhutanese Army in Bhutan challenged a Chinese foot patrol that was discovered along the ridge.

India, however, clearly did not appreciate the degree to which China believes it has already established a presence on the plateau, which forms part of China’s dispute with Bhutan in this area. In either the 1980s or early 2000s, China built a dirt road from the Chumbi Valley in Tibet to Shenche La that Bhutan views as the border with China, and then onto the Dolam Plateau. In fact, this road terminates perhaps just 100 metres from the Indian outpost at Doka La, near the site of the current standoff. Probably at the end of the 2000s, China enhanced or regraded the road and added the “turning point” where Chinese vehicles turn around to return to the Chumbi Valley. The road is likely used only in the summer months to facilitate patrols in the area (including surveying Indian presence at Doka La).

For India, any Chinese presence on the Dolam plateau is worrying. And any extension of the road toward the Jampheri Ridge would constitute a real change to the status quo. Yet for China, India’s actions are also unprecedented. As former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran wrote a few weeks ago, “This is the first time that Indian forces have engaged China from the soil of a third country.” Specifically, the Indian Army moved forces beyond the international border to pre-empt Chinese efforts to start extending the road toward the Jampheri Ridge.

Unfortunately, the 1890 convention delimiting the border between Tibet and Sikkim may worsen the situation. The convention contains a contradiction that allows each side to claim it supports its own position. Article 1 states that the border begins at Mount Gimpochi, roughly 3 km south of the Chinese road and the western point of the Jampheri Ridge. Article 1 also states that the boundary will follow the watershed. Unfortunately, however, Mount Gimpochi is not the start of the watershed, and the convention did not explain how to square this circle. Sometime between 1907 and 1913, Britain published a map of the area showing the border starting at Batang La, 6 km north of Mount Gimpochi, effectively changing the terms of the convention.

Unsurprisingly, India and China have chosen the starting point of their border in the region that maximises their interest. But this also creates a conflict between the black letter of 1890 convention, which Britain and China ratified, and the main principle of delimitation. Moreover, these divergent interpretations bear a disturbing resemblance to the dispute over the Thag La ridge and Dhola post in the eastern sector of the China-India border dispute, the proximate spark for the 1962 war.

In the eastern sector, India maintained that the China-India border was delimited by the McMahon Line from the 1914 Simla Convention. McMahon’s line generally followed the watershed between present-day India and China. Unfortunately, for the last 25 km or so, the line did not follow the watershed but was drawn south of the Thag La Ridge. The post at Dhola that the Indian Army established in June 1962 lies in the area between the watershed to the north and the McMahon Line to the south. China challenged the Indian post as being located in undisputed Chinese territory. The gradual of escalation of tensions over Dhola played a key role in Mao Zedong’s final decision to launch a wider war on October 22, 1962.

To be sure, the analogy to the present is imperfect. Overall, India-China relations are stable, including on the border. Neither side has deployed large numbers of forces nearby on Dolam. Unlike Dhola, where China dominated the high ground, the local geography favours India, which can easily deploy forces already in Sikkim. China must rely on the single road in the area that climbs more than 1,400 meters from the Chumbi Valley to the Dolam Plateau.

Despite the imperfections of the analogy, it highlights the danger of the present situation. China believes the black letter of the 1890 convention not only supports its presence on the Dolam Plateau but also its right to extend roads in the area south to Gimpochi. India believes the border lies to the north at Batang La, which justifies its challenge of China beyond its borders on the Dolam Plateau. But this is based on the principle contained in the convention and what appears to be Britain’s subsequent map.
The longer the standoff lasts, the more easily these positions will harden. For example, given the unprecedented Indian presence in territory disputed by China and Bhutan, China may conclude that it needs to strengthen its physical position on the Dolam Plateau. Beijing could build more permanent structures a kilometre or two behind the “turning point” at Doka La. That is, China may use the Indian challenge to justify further steps to consolidate its presence on Dolam. India would then be faced with accepting a larger, more permanent Chinese presence or escalating further to stop it. The most realistic outcome would be

The most realistic outcome would be restoration of the situation before June. This would mean the return of Indian troops to Indian territory and the withdrawal of Chinese construction crews from the area. India may demand or hope that China will vacate the Dolam Plateau, but China is unlikely to leave an area where it believes it had already maintained a presence for decades. The danger inherent in the current stand-off demands a quick resolution.

Threading the Needle: The South China Sea Disputes and U.S.-China Relations

In a chapter in a recently published edited volume, Strategic Adjustment and the Rise of China, I examine how the United States and China have managed the South China Sea disputes in their relations with each other.

First, actions by the United States and China have often created incentives for the other state to push back, creating negative spirals.

Second, China and the United States have enhanced their positions in the South China Sea.

Third, actions taken by both sides have helped to shield the broader relationship from tensions and competition in the dispute.

Read the chapter here.

The Certainty of Uncertainty in U.S.-China Relations

I wrote the following essay, “The Certainty of Uncertainty: U.S.-China Relations in 2017,” for an ISSF Policy Roundtable on “U.S.-China Relations and the Trump Administration.”  Other contributors include Dingding Chen, Mira Rapp-Hooper, Essay by Joseph Siracusa, Toshi Yoshihara and Zhu Feng.


The Certainty of Uncertainty: U.S.-China Relations in 2017

It is probably impossible to predict how U.S.-China relations will unfold under the Trump administration. Almost one hundred days into the new presidency, the national security apparatus remains largely unstaffed, apart from the secretaries of state and defense along with a handful of officials in the National Security Council. The administration has been unable to conduct policy reviews of many issues, especially the overall approach to Asia, including China. Even if such a review had been conducted, the administration lacks the middle-level managers to execute a region-wide policy.

The issues over which a crisis between the United States and China could erupt are easy enough to identify. The most immediate and pressing concern is North Korea and the acceleration of its of nuclear and missile programs. The other issues all involve disputes featuring Chinese sovereignty or territorial claims. In the East China Sea, China disputes the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, which Japan also claims. Although the United States does not acknowledge Japan’s sovereignty over these rocks, it does recognize them as territories under the administration of Japan and thus covered by Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty. A crisis between China and Japan over the Senkakus would almost certainly trigger the treaty and involve the United States.

Across the Taiwan Strait, the election of Tsai Ying-wen as President of Taiwan has renewed concerns on the mainland about the island’s drift toward independence, challenging national unification and one of Beijing’s explicit core interests. Taiwan is not a formal ally of the United States, but Washington is closely involved in its defense through the commitments in the Taiwan Relations Act. A crisis across the Strait would quite likely result in the involvement of the United States

In the South China Sea, China disputes two archipelagos, the Paracels and Spratlys, with several other states. Vietnam challenges China’s claim over the Paracels; Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei challenge its claim over the Spratlys. China also claims maritime jurisdiction and historic rights over much of the waters in the South China Sea (presumably, though not explicitly, enclosed by the ‘nine-dashed’ line that appears on most Chinese maps). Only one of the other claimants to the Spratlys, the Philippines, is a treaty ally, but the United States has identified a vital interest in freedom of navigation through these waters.

These issues alone are cause for concern. But they are unfolding against a dramatic change in the balance of power created by the rise of China. China is not only the second largest economy in the world, but it is also the dominant economy in the region, more than twice the size of Japan, whom it surpassed in 2010. The changing balance of power elevates the stakes in the potential conflicts described above. For the United States and many in the region, China’s assertiveness over Taiwan or in its sovereignty disputes is viewed as a litmus test for how China as a dominant power might behave. For China, however, resistance in what it views as long-standing historical disputes reflects a rejection of its rise. China is more able than ever to defend its interests in these disputes, a situation which triggers broader concerns about order in the region – a volatile mix.

Enter President Donald Trump. During the transition, Trump appeared willing to challenge China more forcefully on many of these issues. When he spoke over the telephone with President Tsai, he questioned whether his administration would abide by the ‘One China’ policy, which has served as the framework for diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic for more than forty years. Following criticism of his phone call, he doubled-down, questioning explicitly whether the policy was worth continuing. Likewise, he scolded China over the South China Sea. All of this before inauguration.

Since then, Trump has appeared to moderate his stance. In a phone call with President Xi Jinping on early February, Trump indicated he would support the ‘One China” policy. “At the request of President Xi,” he was reported to have “agreed…to honor our ‘One China’ policy.”[4] In the South China Sea, the United States has maintained an active naval presence, but has not yet conducted any Freedom of Navigation Operations to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims. In Beijing in March, Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, even repeated a phrase associated with China’s desire to build a “new type great power relationship” that is seen as a Chinese effort to gain U.S. acquiesce on its core interests, especially Taiwan.[5]

After the summit at the Mar-a-Largo golf club in Florida, many pundits must have been surprised. Trump did not offer a ‘grand bargain’ to Xi, and Xi did not bring a treasure chest of pledged investments. Instead, in their dinner and then working lunch, the two leaders agreed to create a new framework for issue-specific dialogues to replace the unwieldy Security & Economic Dialogue. This was another positive development, reflecting the start of an effort to build a working relationship for the many issues that the two sides need to address. The need to take action on North Korea may have also overshadowed Trump’s desire to press China on specific issues, especially trade, given the prevailing view that only Beijing has sufficient leverage over Pyongyang to compel it to abandon or at least freeze its nuclear and missile programs.

All along, China has been remarkably restrained. To be sure, Trump’s election was unexpected in Beijing. China had forged few ties with the campaign and finally found a channel through Jared Kushner, which paved the way for the February phone call and April summit. Observing Trump’s more general impetuousness, Beijing likely concluded that maintaining stability in the bilateral relationship was paramount. Trump would not be given a reason to lash out at Beijing. More generally, with the 19th Party Congress convening sometime in the fall of 2017 to select new members of the leading bodies of the Chinese Communist Party, the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee, Beijing prizes stability above all else, at home and abroad.

So far, so good. Yet can this nascent trajectory of cooperation last? Trump has shown that talk is cheap. China has little reason to rely on his word alone and will watch U.S. actions with great care. As quickly as Trump reversed many of his positions on China during the campaign, he may switch back. Because it is an election year in China, the leadership in Beijing is extra sensitive to perceived threats from abroad and will view them as an effort to exploit China’s desire for stability. Trump could easily pose such a threat to China, unraveling the progress that has been achieved since the inauguration. And many opportunities for a crisis to occur are present.

China’s Changing Approach to Military Strategy

In a recently published edited volume, China’s Evolving Military Strategy, I examine how Chinese thinking about military strategy is changing by comparing the 2013 edition of The Science of Military Strategy to the 2001 edition.

I reach two general conclusions:

  1. The 2013 edition represents an evolution of China’s approach to thinking about military strategy. It does not contain a description of a revolutionary new approach to China’s military strategy.  Instead, it examines changes in China’s security environment through traditional concepts that have underpinned the PLA’s approach to strategy, such as “active defense,” by modifying or adjusting these ideas based on new circumstances.
  2. China’s new and expanding interests overseas, along with worldwide advances in military technology and the posture of potential adversaries, are expanding the battlespace in which the PLA will need to operate and increasing the importance of greater strategic depth.  Much of the book can be interpreted as examining how the PLA should respond to these new conditions based on its traditional approach to strategy.

A preprint is available here.

China and Escalation over the Senkaku Islands

In a recent article for a new journal, Global Summitry, I examine China’s behavior in the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands.

Before 2010, China adopted a low-key approach to the dispute. After 2010, however, China chose to escalate the dispute, first in response to Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing vessel in September 2010 and then in response to the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the islands in September 2012.

I make three points in the article:

  1. China escalated because Japan’s actions challenged China’s relatively weak position in the dispute.
  2. By escalating, China could counter Japanese actions and strengthen its position in the dispute.
  3. Since late 2013, the dispute appears to have stabilized. China’s patrols within twelve nautical miles of the islands have strengthened China’s position in the dispute, while Japan has refrained from developing the islands.

Read the article here.

Xi, Trump, and One China

Yesterday, I joined the conversation at ChinaFile, following President Trump’s phone call with Xi Jinping and Trump’s commitment to the “one China” policy:

In his phone call with Xi, Trump stated he agreed “to honor our ‘one China’ policy.” During the transition before his inauguration, Trump conducted an unprecedented phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, and created uncertainty about whether his administration would continue with the “one China” policy, which has served as the foundation of U.S.-China relations. In an interview with Fox, he said “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘one China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things.”

The initial response to the call has been to declare Xi the “winner” and Trump the “loser,” based on Trump’s reversal. The New York Times declared that Trump’s move “gives China an upper hand.” Yet diplomacy is not a boxing match. The rush to keep score is premature for several reasons.

First, Trump only referred to the policy. In all the available readouts of the call, no mention exists of Trump repeating the components of the one China policy, which include the three communiqués (1972, 1979, 1982), the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, and the 1982 “six assurances” given to Taiwan. Although a helpful affirmation of the foundation of U.S.-China relations, Trump’s general reference to the one China policy left him room to interpret it broadly.

Second, with Tsai’s election as Taiwan’s President, Beijing has pressed her to affirm the “1992 consensus” about one China. Her reluctance to do so means Beijing is growing ever more suspicious of her intentions regarding independence. In this context, if Trump decides to significantly alter U.S. relations with Taiwan, even if he does so while remaining under the umbrella of a one China policy, tensions in U.S.-China relations will likely increase significantly.

Third, talk is cheap. Trump is an unconventional president, with a transactional orientation and impulse. He may change his mind, or offer a new interpretation. China will also push to cement his pledge in the call in other meetings and joint statements between U.S. and Chinese officials. Trump may decide to push back.

Finally, beyond the call, how will the two sides address the key issues in the region and the relationship that require their engagement? In addition to Taiwan, these include the DPRK’s nuclear program, maritime claims in the South China Sea, and bilateral trade, to name a few. The call was a positive development, but the key question is whether Xi and Trump can work together. Keeping score of “winners” and “losers,” and who has the upper hand, misses the bigger picture altogether.