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Don't Be Distracted by Alarmism Over a Diversionary War
Governments that face significant domestic problems can ill afford gambling on war.
M. Taylor Fravel contends that the Chinese government isn’t likely to lash out militarily to distract from its domestic problems:
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.
The record shows that the Chinese government hasn’t started diversionary wars despite having had many opportunities to do so. For that matter, the Chinese communist government has rarely initiated large-scale hostilities for any reason in more than seventy years. While it is possible that this could change in the future, it’s not something you would assume to be the most likely course of action.
The idea that China might start a diversionary war is certainly convenient for China hawks now that Chinese economic growth is slowing. Then again, China hawks are nothing if not flexible when it comes to predicting future Chinese government behavior. When the Chinese economy was growing at a fast clip, they warned of impending aggression. Now that it is slowing down, many of them also warn of impending aggression. It’s almost as if they reached their conclusions about what they think the Chinese government is going to do first and then worked backwards.
Diversionary wars can happen, but they are not terribly common. It would be extremely unlikely for any government to initiate a major conflict because it wants to distract its people from domestic problems. For one thing, a major conflict would almost certainly exacerbate their country’s economic and social problems by putting the country under intense strain. Unless the war is a minor campaign against a much weaker state, there is no reason to assume that the war will be either quick or successful. In most cases, it is unlikely that starting a war would benefit the leadership or the regime. Even a successful minor war might not be very useful for the leadership because the stakes are so insignificant.
If the war goes badly, it could lead to much deeper discontent and opposition to the regime. As Fravel says, diversionary wars 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.” Many governments gamble by starting a war when they feel confident and secure in their position. That gamble may be the result of poor judgment and based on bad information, but it is one that leaders tend to make when they assume they are acting from a position of strength.
Initiating a conflict is always a huge risk, and it frequently fails to pay off for the leader and government that started it. The cost of war is always higher than expected, and the rewards are few and in many cases there are no rewards at all. Given all that, a government would have to be exceptionally foolish to think that it could fix its domestic difficulties by starting a war.
While it seems superficially plausible that a leader can unite a divided and unhappy people by picking a fight with another state, the strains of a major war can break apart a state if there are already deep internal problems. Governments that face significant domestic problems can ill afford gambling on war. When they plunge into a major war anyway, that decision can be fatal.
Fravel notes that the Chinese government has usually responded to internal unrest and economic shocks by becoming less confrontational in its international relations:
Contrary to diversionary logic, they have often engaged in conciliatory and cooperative behavior abroad when faced with significant unrest at home.
If that pattern holds today, that suggests that this could be a good time to reduce U.S.-Chinese tensions when the Chinese government might be more inclined to cooperate. Instead of lashing out like a wounded animal, as China hawks imagine, the Chinese government might be more open to accommodation and compromise in order to focus on their internal problems. There is no good reason to assume that the Chinese government is going to lash out on its own, and the U.S. shouldn’t be goading them into doing so.