China's Assertive Behavior—Part Four: The Role of the Military in Foreign Crises

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Op-Ed China Leadership Monitor
Although the People's Liberation Army exerts relatively little influence over Chinese decision-making, it plays a somewhat larger role during crises, when senior leaders often rely on the military for intelligence and implementation.
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The previous essay in this series on China‘s assertive behavior examined the general role of the Chinese military in the PRC foreign policy process, focusing on leadership and organizational issues. This China Leadership Monitor (CLM) essay builds directly on that essay by focusing in particular on the military‘s role in leadership decision making and lower-level implementation with regard to political-military crises with foreign powers.

As one would expect, the same caveats apply in this instance as with the previous CLM, except even more so. That is, very little detailed, reliable information exists regarding crisis decision making in general and the military‘s role in particular, especially concerning the informal and high-level dimensions of the decision making process. Much of the information presented herein is thus derived from interviews with both civilian and military Chinese scholars and analysts conducted by the author and other analysts—especially Bonnie Glaser and Iain Johnston—and from the existing literature on past political-military crises. The latter includes some of the findings to date of an ongoing collaborative project on crisis management issues in which the author is involved.

Hence, many of the observations herein are tentative and certainly subject to future clarification and correction. Nonetheless, enough is known about certain aspects of the role of the PLA in foreign political-military crises to draw an overall picture of the decision process, and to identify significant gaps or gray areas in our knowledge.

This essay covers seven areas of relevance to the military‘s role in crisis decision making.

  • The Main Participants
  • The High-level Deliberation and Decision Process
  • Senior Advisory and Management Groups
  • Lower-Level Advisory and Management Groups
  • Intelligence and Information Flows
  • Pre-existing Plans
  • Research Institutes
  • Unplanned or Uncontrolled Behavior

Within each area, the more general features of the crisis decision making structure and process often provide the larger context and background for our assessment of the military‘s role and presence. Some of this analysis is drawn from the analysis of the military‘s role in foreign policy presented in CLM 36. And, as with that essay, this study will also conclude with a summary and overall assessment.

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