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UPenn political science professor discusses China’s approach to military conflicts

Fiona Cunningham, assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, visited campus Tuesday to present her research on China’s strategy in limited war.

Cunningham’s research lies at the intersection of technology and conflict, especially in China. She traveled to Beijing to conduct fieldwork from 2015 to 2017 as a joint Ph.D. research fellow at Renmin University of China. Cunningham received her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018.

The focus of Cunningham’s forthcoming book is how China copes with the “limited war dilemma.” According to Cunningham, limited war is a dilemma that all nuclear-armed nations face when they want to use their military power to meet their political goals without triggering a catastrophic nuclear conflict.

Historically, most states have pursued one of two paths to cope with this dilemma: using conventional military weapons to engage in a conflict or relying on threats of nuclear war. 

Both strategies are attempts by the states to gain “coercive leverage” over their adversary, she said. Coercive leverage is the the cost that a state can threaten to impose on its adversaries as a way of influencing their decision-making, Cunningham said. 

China, however, rejected both of these approaches, a move that confused scholars and policymakers, Cunningham said.

“In particular, they’ve been puzzled by the fact that China has maintained a policy that it will not use its nuclear weapons unless it suffered a nuclear attack, despite the fact that it couldn’t field war-winning conventional capabilities, which is a very unusual combination of policy choices,” she said.

Instead, China has developed “information-age technologies” to gain coercive leverage. These technologies include offensive cyber capabilities that could temporarily disable an adversary’s critical infrastructure and anti-satellite weapons that threaten an adversary’s satellites and possibly cast shards and hazardous debris into space. Cunningham also grouped precision conventional missiles under this term.

“What animates me in this book project is why China has made this decision to pursue these novel, unproven military capabilities to gain coercive leverage rather than following suit with other nuclear-armed countries,” Cunningham said.

In response to the discrepancy between China and other nuclear-armed countries, Cunningham presented a new theory: the strategic substitution approach.

Cunningham hypothesized that “China’s search for coercive leverage was constrained to substitutes for war-winning conventional military capabilities and nuclear threats.” Specifically, China relied on information-age technologies as substitutes.

To test her hypothesis, Cunningham conducted comparative case studies of China’s information-age weapons decision-making. 

For a political conflict to qualify for a case study, China must be facing some sort of “leverage deficit.”

“Leverage deficit basically refers to a situation in which a state’s … existing military capabilities are inadequate to prevail in the kind of war and against the kind of adversary it is most likely to face,” Cunningham said.

Within situations where China was facing a leverage deficit, Cunningham identified whether or not the state pursued information-age technologies. She reviewed hundreds of original Chinese language documents, mostly military documents, that she gathered during her fieldwork.

During the lecture, Cunningham discussed one particular case study — the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis from 1995 to 1996.

This crisis was the effect of a series of missile tests by China in the waters surrounding Taiwan, including the Taiwan Strait. The missiles were allegedly intended to intimidate then Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui.

Cunningham found specific indications that China was moving away from conventional capabilities and threats of nuclear war and turning toward information-age technologies after this crisis. Specifically, a Chinese-language “Military Building Plan Outline” describes their intent to develop precision conventional missiles. 

However, the effectiveness of these information-age technologies has yet to be determined.

“From my judgments, I think there’s still significant uncertainty about whether these information weapons can actually deliver on the promise that China’s leaders saw in them as a way of gaining coercive leverage in this kind of strategic substitution capacity,” Cunningham said.

She suggested that precision conventional missiles have been the most successful at creating problems for China’s adversaries.

“But at the same time, all of these information age capabilities have probably created greater risks of inadvertent nuclear escalation than China’s decision makers appreciated at the time that they made decisions to pursue them in the early 2000s,” she added.

Much of the effect of the strategic substitution approach remains to be tested. Given the recent tension between Taiwan and China as a result of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Cunningham suggested that there might be more instances of this approach by China in the future.

You can contact Katie Muchnick at kmuchnic@nd.edu

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