Is China an Exception to the Commercial Peace?

Contrary the conventional wisdom that commerce brings peace, China seems to be engaging in more militarized disputes with its neighbors and trade partners despite deepening economic integration. How does economic interdependence change a state’s propensity to wield economic and military power in foreign affairs? My dissertation explains the relationship between trade interdependence and Chinese uses of coercion in foreign policy. My research challenges an important corollary of the commercial peace literature: the idea that trade is positively associated with peace because as states become more economically interdependent, they substitute economic instruments for military force in their international disputes. I find that when states trade more, they are more likely to use military instruments rather than economic sanctions in disputes. This is because commercial linkages can tie the hands of governments from using economic coercion because of increased stakes while incentivizing brinksmanship using military coercion because of the surprisingly limited effects militarized disputes have on commerce. Viewed through this lens, the Chinese experience is not an exception to commercial peace theory, rather it enriches our current understanding by showing trade can create stability at high levels of conflict but still degrade stability at lower levels of violence.


Zhang, Jiakun J., Seungmin J. Kuk, and Deborah Seligsohn, “From Tiananmen to Outsourcing: How Rising Import Competition Influenced Congressional Behavior Towards China.” Journal of Contemporary China (2017).

Gartzke, Erik, Shannon Carcelli, Andres Gannon, and Jiakun J. Zhang, “Signaling in Foreign Policy” in Oxford Encyclopedia of Foreign Policy Analysis, ed. Cameron Thies (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Gartzke, Erik and Jiakun J. Zhang, “Trade and War” in Oxford Handbook on the Politics of Trade, ed. Lisa Martin (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Working Papers

"The Partisan Divide in U.S. Congressional Communications after the China Shock" (with John Seungmin Kuk and Deborah Seligsohn)

Donald Trump has upended decades of Republican orthodoxy on free trade by threatening to impose a 45% tariff on Chinese exports. Our paper suggests that the economic dislocations caused by Chinese import competition may have laid the groundwork for this policy shift. In this paper, we examine the partisan difference in legislator communication strategies on China and trade related issues. Prior research has found that local Chinese import shocks increase legislator support for protectionist roll-call votes on trade (Hall and Feigenbaum 2015) as well as bills hostile to China (Kuk, Seligsohn, and Zhang 2016). We find that, even though Chinese imports impacted both Republican and Democratic incumbent districts, Republican politicians engage in significantly more protectionist and anti-China rhetoric and policy proposals. Using press release data from members of Congress, we show that among districts that were more exposed to Chinese imports Republicans are likely to blame China as the problem. But there is no difference when they discuss trade issues in general. To understand why Republican legislators are more likely to engage in China blaming effort, we use public opinion survey data to examine the difference in public opinion on free trade and China. We found that while Republicans are only slightly more opposed to free trade than Democrats in general, Republicans are much more likely to hold an unfavorable opinion of China. The result implies that blaming China for poor economic conditions is a more effective communication strategy because constituents are more likely to respond to a country-specific message than a more general message on trade. The Trump campaign has merely taken a proven tactic at the district level to the national and world stage.

"Tying the Invisible Hand of Peace: Why Trading States Still Choose to Fight"

The commercial peace literature identifies a universal pattern that commerce reduces conflict but a growing literature finds that the pattern of war and peace differ across world regions. This paper argues that the relationship between trade and conflict is spurious due to regional differences in entry into the Correlates of War (COW) state-membership data. The empirical analysis of the commercial peace literature relies on COW data (1948-2000). Yet the resolution of the WWII and the subsequent Cold War created very different patterns of trade and conflict in different parts of the world. In Europe, WWII settled borders and the Marshall Plan stimulated intraregional trade, but in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the end of WWII marked the collapse of colonial empires and ushered in a wave of new territorial disputes. Meanwhile, decolonization brought into power governments that were often hostile towards the commercial interests of its former colonial master, dampening trade and investment. But, as a product of Cold War rivalries, U.S. aid and investment catalyzed trade in Asia despite the lack of security integration. As a result, regions with high trade (Europe) in the COW data don't experience militarized disputes as often as regions that have disputed territories (Middle East, Africa), which have low trade. Asia is a mixed case with high territorial disputes as well as high trade and investment. The commercial peace finding is spurious because the mode of state-entry in the COW dataset means that some states are ‘born’ with territorial disputes and an increased risk of militarized conflicts and reduced trade compared to others.

“Information Infrastructure: Sources of Restraint in Cyberspace, Outer Space, and the U.S.-China Security Relationship” (with Jon R. Lindsay)

Chinese cyber espionage campaigns and anti-satellite weapons tests have raised the prospect of the end of uncontested U.S. military primacy in the Western Pacific. There is little history of destructive space or cyber warfare to guide assessment of these threats, and analogies to more traditional modes of armed conflict are misleading given the global scope and dual use nature of satellite systems and computer networks. Theory becomes vital in the absence of precedent. Complexity itself is oft assumed to give space and cyber warfare a highly asymmetric, offense-dominant, and systemically destabilizing character. However, a major strain of thought in international relations highlights the pacifying effects of complex interdependence. By developing the notion of information infrastructure, we are able to argue that the same properties of orbital and terrestrial information systems that offer war-fighting advantages change the political incentives for pursuing war in the first place as well as the tactics available should a conflict arise. Our theory predicts a high probability of low intensity confrontations in cyber and space -- what we call 'cheating on the margins' -- as interdependent information infrastructures become more interdependent, and a lower the probability of a ‘cyber pearl harbor.’

"Does China's Anti-Monopoly Law Discriminate Against Foreign Firms?" (with Yingjie Jessica Fan)

Since China’s anti-monopoly law (AML) came into effect in 2008, foreign companies have alleged that they are being disproportionately targeted by enforcement authorities. Yet Chinese regulators have denied anti-foreign bias and insist that all are equal before the law. This paper represents the first effort to systematically study AML enforcement patterns using a new dataset of AML cases. We collected data on some 1832 cases from the three anti-monopoly law enforcement agencies (MOFCOM, NDRC, and SAIC), of which 61% involved at least one foreign firm. We examine whether the imposition of fines and conditionalities disproportionately target foreign firms, controlling for firm size and industry. It draws a distinction between instrumental (whether the timing of investigations and nationality of firms correspond to diplomatic disputes) and structural (whether investigations correspond to strategic emerging industries and concentration of state-owned enterprises) anti-foreign bias in AML enforcement. In doing so, the paper attempts to inject evidence into a debate over how Washington or Beijing should respond to growing dissatisfaction among many foreign businesses in China.