Don’t Be Distracted by Alarmism Over a Diversionary War

Governments that face significant domestic problems can ill afford gambling on war.

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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.

Read the rest of the article at Eunomia

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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