March 30, 2017

CNAS Releases New Report “War Control: Chinese Writings on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict”

As President Trump prepares to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Center for a New American Security Defense Strategies and Assessments Program has released a new report, “War Control: Chinese Writings on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict.” In the report, author Burgess Laird reviews People’s Liberation Army (PLA) writings on escalation of crises and conflicts that have appeared since 2008 and draws the following major conclusions:

  • Escalation of crises and conflicts (“war control”) emerges as a subject of major importance in recent authoritative writings of Chinese strategists.
  • Chinese strategists believe that crises and wars need to be controlled not out of a concern that they could escalate to a major war potentially involving nuclear weapons and catastrophic destruction, but primarily out of a concern that an uncontrolled local war could derail China’s economy and foster widespread domestic discontent.
  • Chinese strategists are under the ahistorical illusion that war can be controlled if only the correct processes and scientific principles are followed. They insist that advancements in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), command and control, and precision weapons, have further strengthened this ability. Laird argues that far from controlling crises and conflicts, such notions can foster a degree of overconfidence conducive to inadvertent escalation.
  • Almost a decade ago, a major study found the Chinese treatment of the substantive aspects of escalation to be “undertheorized” – a judgment that Laird concludes still applies, even though authoritative attention on the subject has grown in the intervening years.
  • Given the increasing possibility of Sino-U.S. military crises and confrontations, the relative consistency of Chinese writings on the subject of escalation is hardly one of mere academic interest.  Indeed, between nuclear weapons states, and thus between states in which every near and actual military crisis invariably plays out under the nuclear shadow, such consistency is a disquieting strategic concern.

The full report can be found here:

Please find the report’s introduction below:

In a chapter examining China’s thinking on escalation, the authors of a comprehensive 2008 RAND study of escalation management in the 21st century came to the stark, and since widely cited, conclusion that Chinese authoritative writings on escalation and escalation management through 2005 appeared “to be undertheorized and still under development.” The authors arrived at their judgment after examining three broad categories of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) writings in which they found only limited research devoted to analyzing the general issue of escalation in warfare and even less focused on the more specific issue of the effect of PLA doctrine on the risks of inadvertent or accidental escalation. They did note, however, that interest in these topics “appears to be growing” in the Chinese military and observed that more writings on escalation and escalation control “may appear in the coming years.” A 2006 analysis of Chinese concepts in escalation management conducted by Lonnie Henley, at the time the defense intelligence officer for East Asia and the Pacific in the Defense Intelligence Agency, arrived at similar conclusions, including the observation that Chinese military writers were still in the early stages of considering how to manage the unwanted escalation of a crisis or conflict and the prediction that further development of such concepts could be expected over the next decade.

The current understanding of Chinese thought on escalation of crises and conflicts among American scholars and practitioners alike has largely been based upon the RAND and Henley studies, together with a 2006 edited volume of American and Chinese case studies on the management of Sino-American crises. However, two studies authored by U.S. Sinologists that appeared in early 2016 are likely to revise and further refine current understanding. The first, a study on the evolution of Chinese crisis management theory authored by Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard, and the second, a study on recent Chinese military writings on escalation control co-authored by Alison Kaufman and David Hartnett of CNA are based on Chinese writings that have appeared since the middle of the first decade of the 2000s; as such, they constitute important if not overdue appraisals that promise to add to the U.S. appreciation of Chinese views on escalation.

Understanding how Chinese military strategists think about escalation has only taken on added importance, if not urgency, in the nine years that have elapsed since the RAND study. To wit, the possibility of military crises and confrontations with China has increased and continues to do so as Beijing’s ambitions, interests, and capabilities grow. Continued advancements in the capabilities of the PLA conventional and nuclear forces and in the associated doctrine and operating approaches that condition their use in crisis and conflict raise concerns about the possibility of unwanted escalation. PLA developments in capabilities and doctrine for the domains of space and cyberspace raise similarly pronounced and novel concerns as military operations in both of those domains present additional and not fully understood avenues of unwanted escalation. That a Sino-U.S. crisis, let alone conflict, would play out under the nuclear shadow should be lost on no one.

Questions of particular salience to U.S. strategists and decisionmakers include: How do recent Chinese military writings describe escalation and the processes and actions by which it might occur in crisis or in war? What do Chinese strategists say about escalation prevention and control, their importance, and the challenges of implementing them? What do PLA analysts say about crises and conflict between nuclear powers and the necessity of limited means in the pursuit of limited political and military objectives in the latter; in short, what do they say about the concept of limited war? In contrast to the Chinese military texts from the first five to eight years of this century, do the more recent writings reflect a greater understanding – do they even acknowledge – that actions taken to deter an adversary can lead inadvertently to escalation? What do PLA strategists say about thresholds and red lines, and about communications between parties in time of crisis and war? Finally, what do authoritative texts say about escalation risks and challenges associated with the new and rapidly changing operational domains of space and cyberspace? In short, how are Chinese strategists accounting for escalation and limited war in their authoritative writings post-2010? Do their arguments and concepts remain “undertheorized”?

Laird is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at or 202-457-9409.


  • Neal Urwitz

    Former Director of External Relations

    Neal Urwitz is the former Director of External Relations at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). In that capacity, Mr. Urwitz was responsible for the organization’s ...