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Leif-Eric Easley, "The Art of Missiles: Chinese Strategic Thought and PRC Show of Force to Taiwan," in King-Yuh Chang, ed., The 1996 Strait Crisis: Decisions, Lessons and Prospects, (Taipei: FICS, 2006), pp. 47-70.


Beijing sent a strong signal to Taipei and Washington with missile tests and large-scale military exercises that reached their height in March 1996.  PRC missile deployments opposite Taiwan have steadily increased since, although Beijing is yet to repeat such a serious display of force.  Why and when does Beijing resort to missile diplomacy?  Existing explanations largely decontextualize Beijing’s strategy from its cultural and historic traditions.  This chapter considers missile diplomacy through the lens of traditional Chinese strategic thought to better understand Beijing’s contemporary show of force and overall strategy toward Taiwan.  Application of Sun Tzu’s Art of War suggests Beijing is guided by three principles deeply rooted in its strategic tradition: attention to relative capabilities, operational flexibility, and reserving the initiative.  The PRC decision calculus for displaying force is clearly influenced by its assessment of relative capabilities.  But because of operational flexibility, China need not respond more aggressively as it becomes relatively stronger.  Furthermore, due to the importance placed on maintaining the initiative, PRC shows of force need not be preceded by improvements in relative capabilities.  Thus, Beijing’s strategy behind missile diplomacy may be more sophisticated than simply engaging in deterrence and demonstrating resolve, requiring carefully calculated responses by Taiwan and the United States.