In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Chinese National Security Decisionmaking under Stress
  • Herman F. Finley (bio)
Andrew Scobell and Larry M. Wortzel, editors. Chinese National Security Decisionmaking under Stress. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2005. v, 253 pp. Paperback, free (, ISBN 1–58487–206–3.

This short edited volume is the result of a conference held at the U.S. Army War College in September 2004. After a lead overview chapter, chapter 2 includes three highly useful sections: a framework for thinking about crisis management, an application of that framework to China’s particular conditions, and a series of twenty questions needing answers for the study of Chinese crisis management to move forward. The main body of the book is chapters 3–7, in which various authors provide case studies of the Tiananmen crisis, the 2002–2003 SARS event, events in the Taiwan Strait between 1995 and 2004, the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the EP-3 collision, and Chinese decision making in the face of three Iraqi wars involving Chinese interests. The final chapter draws out similarities and differences among the case studies in hopes of illuminating how China might approach future crises.

Not a book to be referred to in the heat of crisis, this book is a good “read ahead” for anyone whose position as a policy maker or decision maker might cause him or her, in some future crisis, to become engaged with Chinese government officials. It is also commended to those in a position to provide analysis and advice to such decision makers. It also serves as a good introductory read into thinking about crisis management. Finally, the book clearly highlights specific areas for further research needed to reduce the great void in knowledge surrounding our understanding of Chinese decision making in general and crisis decision making specifically.

Overall, this book leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling about Chinese crisis management. Given sufficient time, the Chinese decision making structure seems to be very adept at thinking through stressful circumstances and developing appropriate responses to further Chinese interests. Faced with unforeseen situations and critical time pressures, however, the Chinese system has a much harder time. While fully capable of compromise as a tool to further interests, Chinese decision makers often react initially to international events in moralist terms (e.g., fairness, rightness), which tend strongly toward locking them into a “winlose” battle over principles. Furthermore, Michael Swaine paints Chinese decision makers as leaning toward a mind-set that sees measured escalation as more prone to loss of control than dramatic escalation and that favors “strong, coercive actions in the initial phases of a crisis” (p. 11). Swaine also points out a number of areas in which U.S. and Chinese officials work off of different understandings [End Page 213] of the motivations and actions of the other side, suggesting a strong possibility of miscommunication between the two. Finally, there is an overall sense in the book that Chinese decision makers often suffer from difficulties in getting good information about the unfolding crisis and getting that information spread appropriately across government decision circles.


Chapter 2, by Michael Swaine, is particularly useful. He lays out a framework for analyzing crisis management behavior and then provides his understanding of how China fits that model. His framework, with a brief overview of the Chinese crisis management system seen through that framework, is as follows:

  1. 1. “Subjective View/Beliefs of Leaders and the Public.” A collective history of a “Century of Shame” predisposes Chinese leaders to view crises in moralistic terms and to desire not to be viewed as weak (and therefore vulnerable to further victimization). At the same time, that history makes it hard for the Chinese not to view their adversary as other than aggressive, even evil. Chinese leaders believe that the best way to deter an adversary and to defuse a crisis is by taking an initial, very strong position (even putting key assets at risk) and clearly stating their position while at the same time carefully concealing real capabilities to enable strategic surprise should deterrence fail.

  2. 2. “Domestic Environment (politics and society).” While Chinese leaders...