The abrupt end of the Chinese Civil War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 12)

Yesterday touched off the next unit of the course, which begins with two big events: a drastic reduction in the number of great powers and, our focus in this lecture, the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. For all its shocking length–Paine argues convincingly that the war effectively started in 1911–the war seems to end somewhat abruptly (if not, from a military standpoint, prematurely) in 1949, with

  1. cascading defections of KMT (and KMT-loyal units) to the Communist armies
  2. a rapid shift in public opinion against the KMT
  3. Chiang’s hasty retreat to Taiwan,

all of them occurring well before the prospect of final military defeat loomed too large–which, given our understanding of how most civil wars end, is genuinely puzzling. Why, after seeing off Japan in 1945, and with massive armies still in the field, did the KMT not continue the fight but, in essence, resign from the war? And why was it not just the leadership, but also the soldiery and the citizenry making similar yet largely independent decisions?

Paine’s analysis (Chapter 8) treats these events somewhat separately, as I noted in the first run of this lecture a few years ago, they all seem consistent with a common root cause (I’ve edited the quote a little to clean up the language, btw):

…the key to understanding each of these events is (a) the conversion of the Communists into a conventional military force and (b) the related string of rapid and sizable battlefield victories. This revealed some important information about the likely outcome of a fight to the finish, which for the Nationalists would be long, horrifically costly, and likely not victorious.

As a result, we saw (a) more of the public being willing to side with the Communists, as individuals were more confident that others would be doing the same thing; (b) armies and their generals thinking along similar lines, hoping to preserve their authority and forces intact; and (c), finally, the Nationalist leadership realizing that cutting their losses and retreating to the relative safety of Taiwan was optimal.

In the end, we’ve got a story about battlefield outcomes revealing information that, in the case of the Nationalist retreat, straightforwardly encourage an end to the fighting, but this is pretty conventional (see, inter aliaherehere, and here). What I found interesting was the apparent second-order effects of the same information–that is, raised estimates of the likelihood of ultimate Communist victory–on the public and the military. In both cases, it seems there were those who could be swayed to defect, but only if they weren’t the only ones to do so, and once such a clear public signal emerged of the relative strengths of the belligerents in the civil war, we saw large and massive–even unexpected, from some perspectives–defections that contributed to the rapid collapse Nationalist resistance and the end of the war.

So the same event, as it happens, is at the root of all three of these mostly independent decisions: the loud-and-clear signal that, while the KMT could hold out for quite some time, it was by 1949 unlikely to be able to win at the end of that endeavor. This leads to rapid attempts to cut one’s losses, just as we would expect based on an informational account of how wars end; if you can guess the outcome and you can secure something similar by giving up the fight, we’d expect you to give up the fight.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that wars ending this way—rapidly and while resistance is still feasible—aren’t unprecedented. Paine attributes some of these decisions to cultural features specific to Chinese history, and while that might be a descriptively accurate rendering of how people and soldiers framed and discussed their decisions, the underlying story we told in lecture shows that the outcome isn’t quite so exotic. In fact, two examples of similar events, particularly for the armies in the field, spring to mind: the rapid German collapse in 1918, despite its territory never being conquered, and the evaporation of Iranian willingness to continue the war against Iraq in 1988.

When information from the battlefield both travels widely and portends bad things about the future, leaders, armies, and civilians can all make rather abrupt decisions to withdraw from a war, and it seems like we saw just such a process play out in the final act of a war that produced the politics of the Taiwan Strait as we know it today: two governments, never formally reconciled to the end of a disastrous civil war, divided by a narrow stretch of ocean, and on opposite sides of the current round of great power competition.

Exam Day in War and Peace in East Asia

Today is our first exam, so while I’m not lecturing on any new material, it’s worth looking back and seeing just where we’ve been so far in the course. We started with two pretty big questions—what is the international system, and (twice) why does war occur?—designed to put in place some simple analytical tools and ways of understanding the sequence of wars, both international and civil, that we’d encounter in subsequent weeks. We linked the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War to information problems, in the form of disagreements about each side’s ability to force the other out of Korea, while commitment problems sat at the core of the stories for the Russo-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War, the Second-Sino Japanese War, the entry of the United States into the Pacific War, and the end of World War II in Asia. It’s easy, though, to lose one of the main themes of the course, in that breakneck run through 50 years of war: the persistent, sometimes hidden and often overt, hand of great power politics in ostensibly local conflicts.

We’ve seen Japan rise to and fall from great power status over the course of the semester so far, but that narrative was only partially about its displacement of China in Korea and Manchuria, because Japan was also concerned with the eastward creep of Russian (then Soviet Russian) influence in those same areas. A group of European great powers both proved more willing to extend credit to Russia and limited Japanese gains in the Russo-Japanese War, which likely went some way towards convincing Japan that depending on the goodwill of other great powers was less attractive than establishing autarky and setting its own terms for its place in the international system. That gambit ultimately failed, and when we last left the overarching narrative of the course, the regional constellation of power had been radically altered. The European imperial powers are exhausted by the war in their own region. China is victorious but shattered, sliding back into civil war, a nascent great power whose trajectory is stalled by a fight over which faction will guide China back to prominence. The Soviet Union, bloodied and battered, has nonetheless gained a massive buffer zone in Central and Eastern Europe, and its army—as it proved in Manchuria—is a fearsome fighting machine. Finally, the United States, as the only great power to see no sustained combat on (or above) its home territory, has emerged from the war controlling an unprecedented proportion of global wealth and a monopoly on an unprecedented weapon: the nuclear bomb.

Now firmly entrenched in both Europe and East Asia, the United States and the Soviet Union will see their rivalry play out over issues as diverse as the outcome of the Chinese civil war, the bloody end of the French empire in Indochina, and the governance of the Korean peninsula—which, as we’ll see in a few weeks, called up the specter of another world war a bare five years after the Second one ended. However, we’ll see conflicts erupt over the same issues we saw before this radical change in the regional power structure, because the basics of the international system remain in place: territorial units governed by states, which live in a world of de jure anarchy and de facto hierarchy. So, states disagree over the placement of borders, who governs territories within those borders, and their relative places in the hierarchy, and sometimes those disagreements are resolved violently. We’ll pick up Thursday with the end of one such conflict: the Chinese Civil War.

The Long Chinese Civil War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 7)

Today’s lecture starts with S.C.M. Paine’s account of what she calls the Long Chinese Civil War, a nearly unbroken span of large-scale civil conflict that followed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and lasted virtually uninterrupted through Japan’s invasion of China proper in 1937 and the Second World War until the Communists’ final victory in 1949. Grounding the narrative of the Second World War in China—which was Japan’s main theater through nearly the whole period—challenges many other national narratives of the conflict (American, Soviet, Japanese, and Chinese Communist, in particular). It really is a great book, but as noted in a previous blog post on the topic of the civil war, I think that it misattributes the causes of the war’s length and severity to the extreme aims of the participants (particularly the KMT and the CCP), when something more fundamental—the very nature of civil wars—can actually explain all three phenomena: the extremity of aims, the severity of fighting, and the length of the war.

To see why, it’s actually important to broaden the narrative, to look at other civil wars and other ideological conflicts (both in East Asia and elsewhere) in a broader theoretical perspective, as I did in Fall 2013:

Today we…[used] the logic of commitment problems to understand a few salient things about the Long Chinese Civil War that touched off after the Revolution of 1911: specifically, its length and the extremity of each side’s war aims.

It’s often tempting to explain the former with the latter—the reading for today did just that—but the upshot of lecture was that something more fundamental can drive both: the fact that, to settle a civil war, one side must lay down its arms. Governments, after all, typically need to exercise a monopoly on the use of organized violence; and a settlement that leaves a rival military power intact is hardly a settlement. Given that civil wars end with a reestablishment of that monopoly, laying down arms for power-sharing or reintegration is an invitation for the newly minted government to go back on its promises, because it represents a basic shift in power that, as the now-exclusively armed side, it can’t resist the temptation to use. In other words, saying “C’mon, folks. Just lay down your arms and I’ll give you what you want” isn’t sufficient to secure an agreement.

What’s the result? Well, first, both sides will be driven to seek not settlement (power-sharing, etc.) but the whole of the pie—control of the government—because anything short of that is an agreement that won’t stick. Second, that means both sides fight on until military victory, leading to wars that would be longer if the same two belligerents could credibly commit to sharing power. Note, however, that it’s not a clash of ideologies driving this; it’s canny political actors who are choosing their goals and aims as they see fit (far more realistic, to my mind, than ideological automatons), given the strategic environment and constraints in which they and their opponents find themselves.

Can we tell a story about leaders being hamstrung to follow international or external ideological programs by domestic pressure, leading to extreme demands? Sure. But it’s worth noting that we can explain both extreme aims and long, destructive civil wars without reference to ideological clashes; rather, the commitment problem might explain why extreme political programs become so attractive during civil wars.

Lastly, it’s also hard to disentangle the length of the civil war from China’s increasingly problematic relations with Japan, which after seizing control of Manchuria in 1931, had been steadily expanding its presence and influence ever farther south…prompting calls from the Chinese public to fight Japan as opposed to fellow Chinese (i.e., Mao and the Communists), which forced Chiang into an impossible dilemma: solving the Japanese problem would make him domestically vulnerable, but defeating the Communists (precipitously close to collapse after the Long March and the Northern Expedition) meant yielding more and more of Chinese sovereignty to Japan. No matter his choice, Chiang would have been vilified here—and we’ll talk about the consequences of this dilemma on Thursday.

The end of the Chinese Civil War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 12)

After a brief blogging break (giving a talk, then giving an exam), Part II of the course got started today, where we set the stage for the rest of the narrative by examining the end of the Chinese Civil War.

In what was (sadly, if you ask me) be the last reading by Paine for the course (Chapter 8), we were treated to the puzzle of why the war ended when and how it did—that is, while the Nationalists could still muster substantial fighting forces and with a rapid Nationalist retreat to Taiwan. Paine identifies, yet explains separately, three events that are part of the puzzle:

  1. Increasing defections of army units to the Communist side
  2. A public rapidly shifting its support to the Communists
  3. A hasty retreat to Taiwan before total military defeat

The task in class today was to see whether we couldn’t explain all three of these things with the same moving parts—and with fewer than Paine does. For the most part, I think we succeeded, because the key to understanding each of these events is, I think, the conversion of the Communists into a conventional military force and the related string of rapid and sizable battlefield victories. This, we concluded, revealed some important information about the likely outcome of a fight to the finish—in particular, that the Nationalist prospects in such a fight would be none too great.

As a result, we saw (a) more of the public being willing to side with the Communists, as individuals were more confident that others would be doing the same thing; (b) military units and their generals thinking along similar lines, hoping to preserve their authority and forces intact; and (c), finally, the Nationalist leadership realizing that cutting their losses and retreating to the relative safety of Taiwan was optimal.

In the end, we’ve got a story about battlefield outcomes revealing information that, in the case of the Nationalist retreat straightforwardly encourage an end to the fighting, but this is pretty conventional (see, inter aliahere, here, and here). What I found interesting was the apparent second-order effects of the same information—that is, raised estimates of the likelihood of ultimate communist victory—on the public and the military. In both cases, it seems there were those who could be swayed to defect, but only if they weren’t the only one to do so, and once such a clear public signal emerged of the relative strengths of the belligerents in the civil war, we saw large and massive—even unexpected, from some perspectives—defections that contributed to the rapid collapse Nationalist resistance and the end of the war.

I wonder if any other work has looked at these second order effects…

Chiang Kai-Shek’s Two-Enemy Problem (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 8)

Continuing last week’s focus on the Long Chinese Civil War, today’s lecture spent some time exploring the dilemma facing Chiang Kai-Shek as he tried to manage two simultaneous but very different threats: a civil war against Communists at home and a potential international war against Imperial Japan. Fighting one would leave his Nationalist government exposed to the other, and to make matters worse, each enemy had to be fought in two different ways, given its organization: the Communists still a guerrilla force at this point and Japan a modern army in the field.

Plenty of ink’s been spilled over the consequences of Chiang’s plan to eliminate the Communists first before trying to eject Japanese forces from the Asian mainland—a plan he was pretty much compelled to abandon after the Xi’an Incident—but there’s a more general point to be made here about leaders, political survival, and war. I’ve seen it argued that Chiang made a mistake here, but from whose perspective? If we look at his own interests—which, since he was a politician, we’re going to assume involved staying in power—then his decision, albeit chosen from a menu made up exclusively of bad options, was a sensible one.

How so? Well, Chiang knew that, if he fought the Japanese, domestic power would shift pretty significantly against him and in favor of the Communists, who (a) weren’t a regular military force and therefore wouldn’t be terribly useful against Japan and (b) would undoubtedly use the time to regroup, reconstitute, and refocus their efforts on defeating the Nationalists. He also, frankly, didn’t expect to defeat Japan in the mid 1930s, either. Yet while fighting Japan would’ve been a ticket to losing office, cutting a deal with the international enemy would at least keep domestic power tilted (however precariously) in his favor—which would help him stay in office. As a result, Chiang consistently turned down chances to resist the expansion of Japanese influence into northern China, choosing the path that gave him the best chance of holding on to political power. Is that so strange? I don’t think so.

So while leaders are often eager to fight international opponents when they can use the conflict to shift domestic power in their favor (see this also), they should also be pretty eager to avoid conflict when it would shift domestic power against them—even to the extent of trading territory for political survival (I’ve got a paper on this, but it’s under review, so not linking to it just yet). Chiang’s case is also an interesting one, because when he was denied the choice of trading territory for survival after Xi’an (that is, when an exogenous shock forced the game off its equilibrium path), his fears came true: the war weakened his position relative to the Communists who would ultimately force Chiang and the Nationalists to Taiwan by 1949.

War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 7

Today we dipped back a little deeper into theory, using the logic of commitment problems to understand a few salient things about the Long Chinese Civil War that touched off after the Revolution of 1911: specifically, its length and the extremity of each side’s war aims.

It’s often tempting to explain the former with the latter—the reading for today did just that—but the upshot of lecture was that something more fundamental can drive both: the fact that, to settle a civil war, one side must lay down its arms. Governments, after all, typically need to exercise a monopoly on the use of organized violence; and a settlement that leaves a rival military power intact is hardly a settlement. Given that civil wars end with a reestablishment of that monopoly, laying down arms for power-sharing or reintegration is an invitation for the newly minted government to go back on its promises, because it represents a basic shift in power that, as the now-exclusively armed side, it can’t resist the temptation to use. In other words, saying “C’mon, folks. Just lay down your arms and I’ll give you what you want” isn’t sufficient to secure an agreement.

What’s the result? Well, first, both sides will be driven to seek not settlement (power-sharing, etc.) but the whole of the pie—control of the government—because anything short of that is an agreement that won’t stick. Second, that means both sides fight on until military victory, leading to wars that would be longer if the same two belligerents could credibly commit to sharing power. Note, however, that it’s not a clash of ideologies driving this; it’s canny political actors who are choosing their goals and aims as they see fit (far more realistic, to my mind, than ideological automatons), given the strategic environment and constraints in which they and their opponents find themselves.

Can we tell a story about leaders being hamstrung to follow international or external ideological programs by domestic pressure, leading to extreme demands? Sure. But it’s worth noting that we can explain both extreme aims and long, destructive civil wars without reference to ideological clashes; rather, the commitment problem might explain why extreme political programs become so attractive during civil wars.

War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 5

Today was one of those days where a gamble really pays off. I assigned a chapter of S.C.M. Paine’s The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, hoping that it would give the class some clues as to why the two main belligerents couldn’t reach a deal over the governance of Korea and avert what turned out to be a pretty significant war. As it happened, we were treated to a textbook story about mutual optimism leading to inconsistent expectations about the likely outcome of the war, rooted in what were essentially different theories of how wars are won: the Qing expected numbers to carry the day, while Japan was willing to bet on its qualitatively superior Westernized forces.

As it happened, war quickly laid bare whose forces were superior, as Japan decimated the Chinese navy and was making quick work of its military forces on the Liaodong Peninsula when China ultimately sued for peace. So it’s a great story for our understanding of war—especially war termination—and asymmetric information, but what I found most fascinating was the account of the debate within Japan about just how far to press the advantage once they had the Qing on the ropes: fearing foreign intervention, especially the Russians and Germans, elements of the Japanese elite wanted to limit their aims in order to guarantee they could keep what they got. So they moderated their aims a bit, and while they still took off a little to much, being forced by the Russians, Germans, and French (the Triple Intervention) to cede the Liaodong Peninsula back to China (who subsequently leased it to the Russians), it was a pretty clear example of the dynamic Suzanne Werner analyzed here: where states that don’t intervene in a war can still have a profound affect on its aims and its course.

So we built on the basic informational account of war by tracing (a) how battlefield outcomes affect war aims and (b) how the shadow of outside intervention can affect war outcomes, even when that intervention may not materialize.

Pedagogically, not a bad day at all.