Deterrence Theory and Chinese Behavior

By Abram N. Shulsky | Go to book overview
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The PRC has at best a mixed record with respecst to deterrence attempts in its nearly 50-year history. Although it is hard at times to determine what should count as a deterrence attempt (and, on occasion, it is difficult to know what should count as success), the Chinese have not in general been very successful in deterring actions they regarded as inimical to their interests.

However, it should be noted from the outset that, in most cases, China was trying to deter either a stronger country (the United States or the Soviet Union) or a country closely allied to such a power. The only clear exception to this was the unsuccessful Chinese attempt to deter incursions into disputed border areas by the militarily weaker Indians in the fall of 1962. Even in this instance, however, China was at the time suffering from the consequences of the economically disastrous “Great Leap Forward.”

The more important question is, however, whether the PRC leadership understood itself as engaging in deterrence in the sense in which U.S. analysts and practitioners understand the term. As will appear from many of these examples, Chinese military postures and actions have often been structured to favor achieving surprise (and the psychological shock it can produce) rather than enhancing the effectiveness of deterrence.1 The Chinese concept of deterrence, if one may be spoken of, seems to depend more on the cumulative effect of past actions than on specific threats about the future: By using military force to “teach a lesson” to an adversary, one makes it

See Burles and Shulsky (2000) for a discussion of this point.


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