Throughout history, embattled governments have often resorted to external distractions to tap into a restive population’s nationalist sentiment and thereby release, or redirect, pressures that otherwise could have been turned against those in power. Authoritarian regimes in particular, which deny their citizens the right to punish the authorities through retributive democracy — that is, elections — have used this device to ensure their survival during periods of domestic upheaval or financial crisis. Would the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose legitimacy is so contingent on social stability and economic growth, go down the same path if it felt that its hold on power were threatened by domestic instability?
Building on the premise that the many contradictions that are inherent to the extraordinarily complex Chinese experiment, and rampant corruption that undermines stability, will eventually catch up with the CCP, we can legitimately ask how, and where, Beijing could manufacture external crises with opponents against whom nationalist fervor, a major characteristic of contemporary China, can be channeled. In past decades, the CCP has on several occasions tapped into public outrage to distract a disgruntled population, often by encouraging (and when necessary containing) protests against external opponents, namely Japan and the United States.
While serving as a convenient outlet, domestic protests, even when they turned violent (e.g., attacks on Japanese manufacturers), were about as far as the CCP would allow. This self-imposed restraint, which was prevalent during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, was a function both of China’s focus on building its economy (contingent on stable relations with its neighbors) and perceived military weakness. Since then, China has established itself as the world’s second-largest economy and now deploys, thanks to more than a decade of double-digit defense budget growth, a first-rate modern military.
Those impressive achievements have, however, fueled Chinese nationalism, which has increasingly approached the dangerous zone of hubris. For many, China is now a rightful regional hegemon demanding respect, which if denied can — and should — be met with threats, if not the application of force. While it might be tempting to attribute China’s recent assertiveness in the South and East China Seas to the emergence of Xi Jinping, Xi alone cannot make all the decisions; nationalism is a component that cannot be dissociated from this new phase in Chinese expressions of its power. As then-Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi is said to have told his counterparts at a tense regional forum in Hanoi in 2010, “There is one basic difference among us. China is a big state and you are smaller countries.”
This newfound assertiveness within its backyard thus makes it more feasible that, in times of serious trouble at home, the Chinese leadership could seek to deflect potentially destabilizing anger by exploiting some external distraction. Doing so is always a calculated risk, and sometimes the gambit fails, as Slobodan Milosevic learned the hard way when he tapped into the furies of nationalism to appease mounting public discontent with his bungled economic policies. For an external distraction to achieve its objective (that is, taking attention away from domestic issues by redirecting anger at an outside actor), it must not result in failure or military defeat. In other words, except for the most extreme circumstances, such as the imminent collapse of a regime, the decision to externalize a domestic crisis is a rational one: adventurism must be certain to achieve success, which in turn will translate into political gains for the embattled regime. Risk-taking is therefore proportional to the seriousness of the destabilizing forces within. Rule No. 1 for External Distractions: The greater the domestic instability, the more risks a regime will be willing to take, given that the scope and, above all, the symbolism of the victory in an external scenario must also be greater.
With this in mind, we can then ask which external distraction scenarios would Beijing be the most likely to turn to should domestic disturbances compel it to do so. That is not to say that anything like this will happen anytime soon. It is nevertheless not unreasonable to imagine such a possibility. The intensifying crackdown on critics of the CCP, the detention of lawyers, journalists and activists, unrest in Xinjiang, random acts of terrorism, accrued censorship — all point to growing instability. What follows is a very succinct (and by no means exhaustive) list of disputes, in descending order of likelihood, which Beijing could use for external distraction.
1. South China Sea
The South China Sea, an area where China is embroiled in several territorial disputes with smaller claimants, is ripe for exploitation as an external distraction. Nationalist sentiment, along with the sense that the entire body of water is part of China’s indivisible territory and therefore a “core interest,” are sufficient enough to foster a will to fight should some “incident,” timed to counter unrest back home, force China to react. Barring a U.S. intervention, which for the time being seems unlikely, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has both the numerical and qualitative advantage against any would be opponent or combination thereof. The Philippines and Vietnam, two countries which have skirmished with China in recent years, are the likeliest candidates for external distractions, as the costs of a brief conflict would be low and the likelihood of military success fairly high. For a quick popularity boost and low-risk distraction, these opponents would best serve Beijing’s interests.
2. Jammu and Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh
Although Beijing claims that it is ready for a settlement of its longstanding territorial disputes with India, the areas remain ripe for the re-ignition of conflict. New Delhi accuses China of occupying 38,000 square kilometers in Jammu and Kashmir, and Beijing lays claim to more than 90,000 square kilometers of territory inside the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. A few factors militate against the suitability of those territories for an external distraction, chief among them the difficult access in winter, and the strength of the Indian military, which would pose a greater risk to PLA troops than those of Vietnam or the Philippines in the previous scenario. Nevertheless, memories of China’s routing of the Indian military in the Sino-Indian War of 1962 could embolden Beijing. Though challenging, the PLA would be expected to prevail in a limited conflict with Indian forces, and China would have taken on a greater regional power than Vietnam or the Philippines, with everything that this entails in terms of political benefits back home.
3. East China Sea and Japan
Sparking a war with Japan, presumably over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islets, would represent a major escalation on Beijing’s part. Assuming that rational actors are in control in Beijing, a decision to begin hostilities with the modern and skilled Japan Self-Defense Forces would only be made if domestic instability were serious enough. Still, high resentment of the Japanese stemming from Japanese aggression before and during World War II and the competitive nature of the bilateral relationship make Japan the perfect candidate for an external distraction. More than any other conflict, hostilities with Japan would rally ordinary Chinese to the flag and tap into hatred that the leadership knows it could exploit if necessary. Although the chances of prevailing would be much smaller than in the South China Sea or Indian scenarios (especially if the U.S. became involved), the dividends of victory against Japan — anything from teaching Tokyo a lesson to redressing historical injustices — could be such as to become a major factor in appeasing major domestic unrest in China. Unless the CCP were on the brink of collapse, it is unlikely that the leadership in Beijing would escalate tensions with Japan beyond the disputed islets. In other words, military action probably would not extend to other parts of Japan’s territory, unless, of course, the conflict widened. Containing the conflict by limiting it to the Senkaku/Diaoyus would therefore be part of Beijing’s strategy.
The “reunification” of Taiwan remains a so-called “core interest” of China and a major component of the CCP’s legitimacy with the public. Despite rapprochement in recent years, a substantial component of the PLA remains committed to a Taiwan contingency. Although the risks of war in the Taiwan Strait are low at the moment, China never shelved its plans to annex the island by force if necessary, and has vowed to do so should Taipei seek to unilaterally change the status quo by declaring de jure independence. Under Xi, Beijing has also signaled that while it is willing to be patient with Taiwanese and would prefer to use financial incentives to gradually consolidate its grip on Taiwan, it does not intend to be patient forever. In other words, foot-dragging on Taiwan’s part, or the election of a political party that is less amenable to rapprochement than the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), could prompt Beijing to choose a more aggressive course of action. Serious unrest on the island could also provide Beijing with the “justification” it needs to involve the PLA, which would be deployed to “protect” Taiwanese “compatriots.” Given that definitions of progress on “reunification” are very much Beijing’s to decide, any incident could theoretically warrant the use of force against Taiwan, especially if major domestic unrest compelled the CCP to seek an external distraction. Militating against such a decision is the fact that anything short of a full invasion of the island would probably forever kill any chance of “peaceful unification” with Taiwan, as the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis demonstrated. A limited military campaign against Taiwan is therefore probably not a good option for an external distraction, as the backlash against aggression would undo years of calibrated Taiwan policy and destroy hopes of unification, which would greatly discredit the CCP with the Chinese public, not to mention the PLA. A full invasion of Taiwan would then provide greater chances of success, at least if we measure success by its impact on public opinion amid serious unrest in China. However, the growing power imbalance in the Taiwan Strait notwithstanding, invading the island would be an extraordinarily difficult — and costly — task; talk of a “quick, clear war” remains just that, and pacifying the island would be a formidable challenge. Should the conflict drag on, as it most certainly would, whatever advantage the CCP may have accumulated by tapping into nationalist sentiment could dwindle and further contribute to resentment against the party. Consequently, unless the CCP were on the brink of collapse, Taiwan would be an extremely poor candidate for external distraction, worse even than Japan, where the chances of success in a limited campaign are higher.
5. United States
The last, and least likely, candidate for external distraction would be for the PLA to turn its sights on U.S. forces in the Pacific. For obvious reasons, such a course of action would be a last resort, a last-ditch effort to prevent the complete collapse of the CCP due to domestic factors. The chances of prevailing in a direct military confrontation with U.S. forces in the region would be next to nil. A decision to attack the U.S. would qualify as irrational, a departure from the realm of calculations that would buttress decisions in any of the alternative scenarios discussed above. Still there are examples of countries that embarked on what, in hindsight, can only be described as suicidal adventures by attacking a much more powerful enemy. Japan demonstrated that this is possible during World War II. A likelier source of conflict between the PLA and U.S. forces would be indirect, such as U.S. involvement in limited hostilities between China and any of the countries mentioned above (with Japan and Taiwan as the likeliest). As the PLA is configured not to take on the U.S. military directly but rather asymmetrically, China would increase its chances of scoring domestic points by playing to its strengths — by inflicting damage on U.S. forces with its anti-access/area-denial, or A2/AD. Sinking an aircraft carrier on its way to the East China Sea or towards the Taiwan Strait, for example, could do wonders in terms of public opinion and provide temporary cover for an embattled CCP. Ultimately, however, the costs of taking on the U.S. military, added to the extremely low likelihood that Chinese troops could secure the kind of victory that would be necessary to rescue the CCP from internal strife, mean that the U.S. is an especially bad candidate for external distraction.
Facing serious domestic instability that does not immediately threaten to topple the CCP, Beijing’s likeliest candidates for succor in external distraction would be Options 1 and 2; much more substantial unrest would probably make Option 3 the most appealing. Given the costs and low chances of success, Options 4 and 5 are extremely poor choices.