Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Learning and Problem Representation in Foreign Policy Decision-Making: China's Decision to Enter the Korean War Revisited

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Learning and Problem Representation in Foreign Policy Decision-Making: China's Decision to Enter the Korean War Revisited

Article excerpt


This article attempts to study the role of learning and problem representation in Chinese foreign policy decision-making as illustrated by the case of the Chinese decision to enter the Korean War. Drawing on cognitive theories of learning and problem representation, the authors argue that, in the past three decades prior to the outbreak of the Korean War, Chinese communist leaders learned through trial-and-error experimentation and through success and failure and developed their image of the United States as the biggest imperialist enemy and that this enemy image led to their representation of the Korean War problem as the American aggression into China which seriously constrained the generation of alternatives among which the Chinese policy-makers could choose. This article concludes with several theoretical and policy implications.


On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops started a surprise attack against South Korea. This seemingly local dispute quickly developed into the biggest international conflict since the Second World War. The United States responded within twenty-four hours by rushing U.N. forces to South Korea and deploying the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait. As the Americans and their allies crossed the 38th Parallel and advanced deep into North Korea in early October, North Korean leader, Kim II Sung, asked China for help. On October 8, Mao ordered the organization of the Chinese People's Volunteers. These Chinese "volunteers" began moving across the YaIu River on October 14, pushing the Americans back with inferior weapons and no air support. After several rounds of attacks and counterattacks, the war ended in July 1953 with the restoration of the status quo in the Korean peninsula prior to the outbreak of the war.

The consequences of the Korean War are tremendous and far-reaching: it not only resulted in three and a half million military casualties and as many civilian casualties on both sides but also fixed political and economic patterns of the cold war in Asia and confirmed the divisions of Korea, China, and the Indochina peninsula into opposing ideological and military camps (West, 1989:80). On the Chinese side, the war brought the newly-born regime into direct confrontation with the world's greatest power at economic costs in terms of loss of life, delay in its economic rehabilitation, and missing a chance of national reunifi-cation (Pollack, 1989). On the American side, the war had "a regrettable impact on U.S. postwar diplomacy" and did severe damage "to U.S. prestige and influence in large parts of the Third World and even beyond" (Foot, 1991:430-431). For both sides, it deeply wounded the Sino-American relations that would take more than two decades to heal (West, 1989; Hao and Zhai, 1990).

Given the critical role that China played in this international conflict, it is certainly central to students of the Korean War to analyze why and how the Chinese leaders decided to intervene (Zhang, 1995; Lowe, 1997). For years the orthodox analysis of the Chinese involvement was a systemic one that viewed the world as tightly bipolar, hierarchical systems organized around Washington and Moscow (the "two camps") and the Chinese involvement as a sign of "international communist expansion" (Foot, 1991). Since the 1970s, the revisionists challenged this orthodoxy by stressing the calculated, rational nature of this decision. China's intervention was found to have been based on primarily security concerns (Whiting, 1960; Pollack, 1989; Hao and Zhai, 1990; Chen, 1999; Christenson, 1992). These studies, however, were criticized for their oversimplified understanding of Chinese foreign policy and lack of attention to the subtleties and complexities associated with the Chinese foreign policy decision-making process (e.g., ideology, national interest, political pressures, bureaucratic rivalries, perceptual distortions, etc.) (Goldstein, 1989).

In more recent studies, scholars (Hunt, 1992, 1996; Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue, 1993) contended the rational view of Chinese foreign policy-making by emphasizing the chaos, complexity, and contingency associated with China's decision to intervene in the Korean War. …

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