East Asia Workshop: Politics, Economy and Society

East Asia Workshop: 10/31, Wenyan Deng, “Threats from Within Assessing the Diversionary Escalation Theory”


East Asia Workshop: Politics, Economy and Society presents


“Threats from Within Assessing the Diversionary Escalation Theory”


Wenyan Deng

Data Manager

University of Chicago


4:30-6:00p.m., Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

Pick Lounge, 5828 South University Ave.

*Light refreshments will be provided*



The diversionary war theory suggests that leaders respond to domestic unrest by escalating tensions abroad. Past research suggests that territorial issues provide the easiest diversionary channel. Along these lines, China analysts such as Howard French have speculated that the country’s more escalatory maritime territorial behaviors in recent years are responses to its slowing economic growth. However, other scholars, such as M. Taylor Fravel, have contended that, historically, the PRC undertakes territorial escalation in response to changes in its relative claim power, rather than domestic crises. This article makes two contributions to this debate between a state-level and a domestic level theory of escalation. First, it analyzes the PRC’s maritime territorial and homeland disputes since 2002 and argues that, in the past two decades, the PRC has been more likely to use force when other claimants have become less aggressive. This observation in the PRC’s maritime territorial behavior contradicts Fravel’s state level, claim power-based escalation theory, which seems to apply more accurately to the PRC’s Cold War-era frontier disputes. Second, this paper offers a corrective mechanism to the traditional diversionary war theory, which posits that internal unrest and external aggression have a linear positive relationship. Instead, I argue that, at low levels of internal unrest, authoritarian states are also likely to increase territorial aggressiveness, because autocratic governments facing low internal unrest and enjoying strong control over their society are confident and likely to pursue external territorial goals more aggressively. Consistent with this mechanism’s predictions, the paper shows that, in both periods with very low and very high internal unrest, the PRC government has been more likely to escalate territorial tensions.

*To learn more about the workshop, please visit our workshop website: http://cas.uchicago.edu/workshops/eastasia/

*Subscribe or unsubscribe to the workshop mailing-list at: https://lists.uchicago.edu/web/info/east-asia

*Questions and concerns can be addressed to the student coordinator Haitong Xu (xuhaitong@uchciago.edu) and Yang Xiang (xiangalan@uchicago.edu)


Faculty sponsors:

Xi Song (Sociology), xisong@uchicago.edu

Dali Yang (Political Science), daliyang@uchicago.edu

Dingxin Zhao (Sociology), dzhao@uchicago.edu


The East Asia Workshop is sponsored by the Council on Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences. Persons with disabilities who believe they may need assistance please contact the student coordinator in advance.



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