Fewer Checks, More Balancing: How Xi Jinping’s Consolidation of Power Changes the Risk of War

The recent consolidation of power by Chinese President XI Jinping has sparked a wave of concern in the West. For several decades, prominent commentators and policymakers have argued that China’s economic expansion would plant the seeds for political liberalization. As the argument went, a more representative and prosperous China would then become a member, of rather than seek to overthrow, the rules-based global order. Other observers, however, never lost sight of the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime. Talk of wholesale democratization and liberalization in a country with pervasive domestic surveillance and little tolerance for political dissent was illusory. Furthermore, despite the social turmoil and economic stress caused by its rapid economic modernization, China is in fact rising, a success that buttresses the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since modern China has always been led by a highly authoritarian regime, is the shift from consensus-based decision making by Party elites to a more personalist style of rule merely a distinction without a difference? Does the consolidation of power under President Xi matter, particularly to issues of war and peace?

18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, 11 November 2012 (Wikimedia)

I argue that it fundamentally does. The long-running political science research program into the causal mechanisms behind why states fight wars has largely grouped non-democracies into a residual group of authoritarian regimes.[1] This aggregation hides important variations within authoritarian regime types. Differences in legitimacy, leader selection, and constraints on decision making among authoritarian regimes result in as great of a variation between them as when contrasted with democracies. Of these various subcategories of autocracies, regimes based on civilian elite consensus are far less likely to initiate wars when compared to states led by a single, dominant strongman. As the People’s Republic of China discards the system of elite checks and balances that marked its politics for the last three decades and returns to a more personalist style of rule, the risk of a miscalculated war increases.

As the People’s Republic of China discards the system of elite checks and balances that marked its politics for the last three decades and returns to a more personalist style of rule, the risk of a miscalculated war increases.

Often, authoritarian leaders seek to consolidate power through the elimination of rivals and personalization of rule. This pattern is a common feature of long-tenured dictatorships, such as Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and Mao Zedong, all of whom successfully pushed aside competing personalities and ideologies. Even hereditary autocracies can follow this pattern: Kim Jong-Un’s consolidation of power in North Korea following the death of his father also follows this familiar template.

Consolidation can be risky.[2] Most aspiring dictators begin their rise as first among equals, and only by dramatic moves against their inner circle do they become unquestioned authoritarian rulers. These moves are risky in three ways.[3] First, sensing the impending danger of being purged, elites within the regime may move to preempt and depose the leader. Second, removing elites with specific power bases may alienate these groups, undermining the aspiring autocrat’s support from that community. Finally, a stream of palace intrigue may weaken the entire regime, both materially and in the eyes of rival domestic groups or state competitors. While seemingly inevitable in hindsight when only considering a selection of well-known, absolute autocrats, consolidation of power usually ends badly for an aspiring dictator.[4]

Even when consolidated under the leadership of an unquestioned dictator, rule may be erratic and bellicose. Members of the government may withhold or downplay information that contradicts a leader’s beliefs, preemptively limiting the potential for compromise even if the dictator would otherwise choose to negotiate.[5] Without a mechanism to remove a dictator after a calamitous miscalculation, the regime is forced to suffer through repeated policy failures, as Iraq did following Saddam’s misjudged military adventures against Iran and Kuwait. As a dictator ages, they often remains suspicious of competitors and refrains from grooming or naming a competent successor, leading to chaos after their incapacitation or death. Finally, absent checks on power, decisions that are made on a whim become the law of the land, without consideration of long-term consequences.[6]

The risks of consolidation and the pitfalls of overly centralized authority act as strong incentives for authoritarian regimes to adopt institutional checks on their power. In the wake of Stalin’s death, Lavrentiy Beria sought to establish himself as a similarly singular strongman. Aware of the excesses of Stalin’s rule and the risks of continued personalist leadership, a coalition of rivals led by Nikita Khrushchev and Marshal Georgy Zhukov deposed Beria and established a more constrained, corporate system of rule that relied on checks and balances between elites. This system, in turn, pushed out Khrushchev after his gamble that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and moderated Soviet behavior in the later decades of the Cold War.[7]

Chairman Mao Zedong announcing the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949. (Wikimedia)

In the wake of the excesses of Mao Zedong’s long rule, the Chinese Communist Party developed a series of measures to constrain the personal power of the regime’s head. These reforms, led by Deng Xiaoping, sought to preclude the “over-concentration of Party power in individuals and the development of arbitrary individual rule and the personality cult in the Party,” as Milan Svolik points out in his insightful work on the politics of authoritarian rule. These measures included both formal prohibitions on serving in multiple positions within the party hierarchy, term limits, and mandatory retirement ages as well as informal, normative constraints on behavior that sought to promote consensual decision making and preclude a consolidation of power in the hands of one man.

While the distinctions between autocratic regimes matter for a range of reasons, the link between personalist dictatorships and war is particularly important. How and why these regimes differ from both democracies and autocracies grounded in elite consensus is central to understanding the geostrategic implications of President Xi’s consolidation of power.

The observation that democracies rarely, if ever, fight wars against each other has been described as “as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations.”[8] While this pacific relationship has been well established, the causal mechanisms behind the inter-democratic peace are less precisely understood. Some posit that the peace is a result of the tendency for citizens of one democracy to view the intentions of the citizens of a fellow democracy as benign, which deescalates tensions.[9] Others argue that reading a potential adversary’s media and listening to their political opposition creates room for negotiations and compromise.[10] Skeptics of the democratic peace theory instead point to economic linkages, shared membership in hierarchical alliance structures such as NATO, and the possibility of a shared peace setting the conditions for democracy, rather than the other way around.[11-13]

Another line of arguments claim that democracies make better decisions and make more credible commitments during a crisis.[14-15] Since elected leaders will be punished at the ballot box, the argument goes, they will only choose to fight winnable wars. Furthermore, since their domestic electorate will punish a leader for bluffing, threats by a democracy are viewed as more credible, and therefore are taken more seriously, than those communicated by an authoritarian regime. This element of credibility is particularly important among those that argue that war is an extension of politics, a process of bellicose bargaining and revealing information about an opponent’s will and power.[16]

These mechanisms of superior decision-making and higher credibility are not exclusive to democracies. When contrasted with a singular mass of autocratic regimes, democracies appear extraordinarily peaceful. When differentiated between absolute dictators, military regimes, and autocratic party-based systems with strong internal checks on power, however, the latter are by far the most cautious and deliberate when deciding whether to go to war.[17] These autocratic machines, political scientist Jessica Weeks argues, are predisposed to soberly weigh the risks and payoffs of any major policy decision, to include going to war. No one person is viewed as irreplaceable, and the mechanisms to remove a rash or incompetent leader while not threatening the regime’s position both serve as a deterrent to excessive ambition and a way to move past an unpopular or failed policy.[18]

Autocratic regimes led by civilian party machines are also less susceptible to the powerful effects of cognitive bias and bounded rationality that constrain other autocratic regime types. Political leaders, like all humans, are predisposed to draw heavily on vivid prior experiences. Those with military service, but without direct combat experience, are more likely to initiate a militarized conflict than either veterans of war or leaders without any military experience at all.[19] Leaders instinctively draw on historical analogies when framing a crisis, and emotions such as fear and risk acceptance play a central role in the cognitive mechanisms behind deterrence.[20-21] While military juntas share many of the elements of a civilian machine, the generals that make up the regime are professionally predisposed and indoctrinated to use force, even when unwise to do so.[22] These natural limits on human decision making are best overcome in an autocracy when it is based on a consensual, civilian, machine-based system, epitomized by the People’s Republic of China prior to Xi Jinping’s recent concentration of power.

Xi Jinping (Dale De La Rey/Reuters)

Taken together, President Xi’s centralization of power, elimination of rivals, and promotion of the trappings of personalist rule are moving the Chinese Communist Party regime towards a political system that, in its generic form, is particularly prone to initiating war. Wars, however, are the result of specific interactions of leaders and states, rather than the product of statistical probabilities.[23] Viewed in the specific context of an economically interdependent China, a potential shift in the regional balance of power, and a rapidly modernizing People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the risk of war due to the shift from consensual towards personalist rule is substantial.

Economic interdependence has long been argued as having a pacifying effect on otherwise adversarial states.[24] While historically military conquest often resulted in the seizure and exploitation of valuable natural resources, modern economies driven by capital resources are far more mobile and difficult to forcibly extract. Trade is a far more beneficial and reliable means of obtaining resources than fighting over them. This does not mean that war between economically interdependent states is impossible, but rather that it is far less likely. The most commonly cited failure of this capitalist peace, the First World War, is an exception that helps prove the rule—several previous crises between the great European powers in the years prior to 1914 were resolved peacefully, largely because of the economic costs of going to war with highly interdependent trading partners.[25-26] China’s recent decades of growth have been largely export-driven and it is dependent on imported raw materials and energy, making the potential economic costs of war steep.

Guards in Tienanmen Square (AP)

Militaries in personalist autocracies are often seen more as a threat to the regime than as protection against rival states. For this reason, dictators take steps to coup-proof their armies through measures such as the creation of redundant units and organizations, promoting loyalty over competence, and punishing officers that demonstrate natural initiative. This results in a weakened force that is less than the sum of its parts, and partially explains why these regimes frequently fail to win the wars they so often instigate. The recent modernization of the People's Liberation Army, however, distinguishes it from the more inept, generic dictator’s army.[27] By purging corrupt officers, investing heavily in military hardware, and reorganizing the armed forces for joint and expeditionary warfare, the CCP has dramatically increased the warfighting capabilities of the PLA. Furthermore, the ingrained political subordination of the PLA to the CCP limits the need for more extensive, and debilitating coup-proofing. In short, China under the concentrated rule of President Xi is not likely to face the military limitations that hamper armies in other personalist dictatorships, unless long-term coup proofing measures are enacted.

Militaries in personalist autocracies are often seen more as a threat to the regime than as protection against rival states.

In summary, President Xi’s consolidation of power matters in strategic calculations of war and peace. Far from being a distinction without a difference, as China pessimists who long discounted hopes of liberalization of reform may consider it, the shift from a consensus-based system of rule to a personalist one increases the risk of war substantially. While the simplified ideal types considered by political scientists are abstractions that cannot predict specific decisions and events, this shift will likely have a fundamental impact on how, when, and if China chooses uses force in the future.

Stephan Pikner is a U.S. Army officer studying at Georgetown University as part of the Army Strategic Planning and Policy Program. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping stands by national flags at the Schloss Bellevue presidential residency in Berlin on March 28, 2014. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images) 


[1] Jameson Lee Ungerer, “Assessing the Progress of the Democratic Peace Research Program: Assessing the Progress of the Democratic Peace Research Program,” International Studies Review 14, no. 1 (2012): 1–31

[2] Carles Boix and Milan W. Svolik, “The Foundations of Limited Authoritarian Government: Institutions, Commitment, and Power-Sharing in Dictatorships,” The Journal of Politics 75, no. 2 (2013): 300–316.

[3] Milan W. Svolik, “Power Sharing and Leadership Dynamics in Authoritarian Regimes,” American Journal of Political Science 53, no. 2 (2009): 477–494.

[4] Milan W Svolik, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

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[7] Svolik (2009): 480

[8] Jack S. Levy, “Domestic Politics and War,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 4 (1988): 653-673; quote from p. 662.

[9] Michael Mousseau, “Democracy and Compromise in Militarized Interstate Conflicts, 1816-1992,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 42, no. 2 (1998): 210–230.

[10] Kenneth A. Schultz, “Do Democratic Institutions Constrain or Inform? Contrasting Two Institutional Perspectives on Democracy and War,” International Organization 53, no. 02 (1999): 233–266.

[11] Erik Gartzke, “The Capitalist Peace,” American Journal of Political Science 51, no. 1 (2007): 166–191.

[12] Patrick J. McDonald, “Great Powers, Hierarchy, and Endogenous Regimes: Rethinking the Domestic Causes of Peace,” International Organization 69, no. 03 (2015): 557–588.

[13] William R. Thompson, “Democracy and Peace: Putting the Cart before the Horse?,” International Organization 50, no. 1 (1996): 141–174.

[14] Erik Gartzke, “The Capitalist Peace,” American Journal of Political Science 51, no. 1 (2007): 166–191.

[15] James D. Fearon, “Domestic Political Audiences and the Escalation of International Disputes.,” American Political Science Review 88, no. 03 (1994): 577–592..

[16] Dan Reiter, “Exploring the Bargaining Model of War,” Perspectives on Politics 1, no. 1 (2003): 27–43.

[17] Jessica L. Weeks, “Strongmen and Straw Men: Authoritarian Regimes and the Initiation of International Conflict,” American Political Science Review 106, no. 02 (2012): 326–347.

[18] Jessica L. P Weeks, Dictators at War and Peace (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014): 135-136.

[19] Michael C. Horowitz and Allan C. Starn, “How Prior Military Experience Influences the Future Militarized Behavior of Leaders,” International Organization 68, no. 3 (2014): 527–559.

[20] Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992): 8-12.

[21] Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, “Rational Deterrence Theory: I Think, Therefore I Deter,” World Politics 41, no. 02 (1989): 208–224.

[22] Weeks (2014): 82-83.

[23] Erik Gartzke, “War Is in the Error Term,” International Organization 53, no. 3 (1999): 567–587.

[24] Norman Angell, The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power to National Advantage (London: William Heinemann, 1909): 28-30.

[25] Gartzke (2007)

[26] Erik Gartzke and Yonatan Lupu, “Trading on Preconceptions: Why World War I Was Not a Failure of Economic Interdependence,”International Security 36, No. 4 (2012): 115-150.

[27] Caitlin Talmadge, The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015): 17-23.