Princeton University in the fall



Using Diplomacy to Shape China’s Behavior: Coercion, Bargaining and Persuasion in U.S.-China Relations, 1971-2003


My dissertation seeks to answer the following question: how can a state shape its counterpart’s behavior through diplomacy, if the latter believes its core interests, such as its fundamental principles or national aspirations, are at stake?  My project is motivated by the observation that many of the most challenging conflicts in international relations involve principled disagreements as opposed to conflicts over resources. For instance, China’s struggle to exert control over Taiwan and areas of the East and South China Seas are rooted not only in material calculations, but a decades long narrative of the need to “reunify” the Chinese nation that has been promoted by Beijing.

As wide-ranging studies in psychology have shown, such principled and emotionally-charged conflicts are difficult to resolve because of the human tendency to shun bargaining in conflicts that involve one’s fundamental beliefs and ideals. In my project I set out to see if this is indeed the case by identifying a range of diplomatic tools, from military coercion to diplomatic persuasion, and mapping out how these tools should perform according to a standard rational model and a model that takes into account the psychological and domestic constraints state leaders face. In my empirical chapters, I employ process-tracing to see which of these causal processes most accurately capture reality. I examine eight bilateral negotiations between the United States and China that involve the latter’s core interests. Cases from the Cold War period include the Nixon administration’s negotiations with Mao Zedong during talks to open relations from 1971-1972, the Carter administration’s negotiations with Deng Xiaoping over the normalization of relations from 1977-1978, and the Reagan administration’s negotiations with Beijing over arms sales to Taiwan in 1981. From the post-Cold War period I examine the Clinton administration’s use of economic sanctions over Chinese human rights issues, and its use of coercive diplomacy during the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1996. I also examine the George W. Bush administration’s negotiations with China on how to handle the North Korean nuclear crisis that launched the Six Party Talks in 2003.

Through the analysis of thousands of declassified Chinese and American documents, and interviews with former government officials, I find that threatening crippling sanctions or offering lucrative rewards are less likely to sway leaders than quiet words of advice. State leaders tend to stand firm in the face of economic sanctions and material rewards, exhibiting both psychological aversion to bargaining over their state’s fundamental beliefs and ideals, as well as concerns about domestic audience costs. In contrast, I find that diplomatic persuasion, when employed judiciously, can induce the leaders of a target state to reevaluate and recalibrate their policies.

In my concluding chapter I discuss the generalizability of my findings. I argue Beijing’s behavior as exhibited in my case studies is not unique, and that all states will respond in a similar manner in negotiations that involve their core interests. I provide evidence for this claim by presenting several case studies that look at China’s use of coercion, bargaining and persuasion towards three states: The United States, South Korea and Taiwan. I find the leaders of these states with varying histories, cultures, size and power, largely behaved in the same way Chinese leaders did when they believed their states’ fundamental beliefs and ideals were endangered.

My research speaks to the larger debates on diplomacy in the field of International Relations by “bringing the target state back in.” While many recent studies in the International Relations literature have exclusively focused on how states can credibly send threats and communicate resolve to a target state, my research makes the case that it is just as important, if not more important, to understand how state leaders on the receiving end will react to these incoming signals given their psychological and domestic constraints. I challenge the common assumption in both IR literature and in the policy world that simply increasing the magnitude or the credibility of threats or rewards are effective means to shaping a target’s behavior. I also shed light on the understudied tool of persuasion by distinguishing it from other forms of diplomacy, and advancing a model of bilateral persuasion.



“How to Persuade China to Squeeze North Korea’s Lifeline,” FOREIGN Policy, FEbruary 27, 2017, LINK


…The only way to push Pyongyang to give up what it sees as a vital tool for survival is to squeeze the only other thing keeping the Kim regime alive — its economic lifeline through China. The million-dollar question is how to get Beijing on board with such a task. As North Korea’s only patron and trade partner of consequence, China has long resisted fully cracking down on Pyongyang, fearing its neighbor’s collapse will bring immediate instability along its border and harm its long-term strategic interests with the loss of a buffer state and the rise of a unified Korean Peninsula under a pro-U.S. government. The Trump administration’s most urgent task, therefore, is to persuade Chinese President Xi Jinping that Beijing’s short- and long-term strategic interests are better served by swiftly cracking down on North Korea’s economic activities to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

And getting China on board with such a plan will not be achieved by poking it in the eye, like Trump initially tried with the “One China” policy debacle, or by complaining that the Chinese are not doing enough. Rather, the Trump administration must open Beijing’s eyes to the ways the North Korean status quo, even if it doesn’t threaten China directly, is already jeopardizing its regional interests…

“History Shows Beijing Won’t Budge an Inch on Taiwan,” FOREIGN POLICY, January 3, 2017, LINK


Much has been made of President-elect Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and his statement in a recent interview that he does not understand “why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things,” Some have criticized Trump for unnecessarily shaking up a delicate understanding on Taiwan that has underpinned decades of U.S.- China relations.

Others have expressed a range of cautious optimism for Taiwan’s sake, to outright praise for Trump for refusing to “kowtow” to the Chinese. And some, including the student leaders of the 2014 Sunflower Movement that began in opposition to a Beijing-pushed trade deal, have decried the use of Taiwan as a “tool to score political points.” But the real issue is this: Trump’s gambit won’t work, because Beijing doesn’t believe it owes Washington anything for recognizing Taiwan as a part of China.

Trump is not the first president to try to use Taiwan as leverage with Beijing…

…Nixon and Reagan attempted their bargains when China was both weaker in the global arena and less vulnerable to domestic criticism. Today, the PRC is a global power that is recognized by the vast majority of states as the official government of China, many of which see Beijing as a critical trade partner they cannot afford to antagonize. At the same time, Chinese leaders are much more vulnerable at home due to the rise of officially encouraged nationalism, a slowing economy, and mounting societal grievances. As a result, Chinese leaders know they cannot afford to look weak in front of their own citizens. All of this makes Taiwan a genuine red-line issue that cannot be manipulated to elicit Chinese cooperation in other areas… 
…Taiwan understandably desires deeper ties with the United States and greater diplomatic space in the international arena. And there are ways in which the United States can help Taiwan, a friend and fellow democracy, on such efforts. But as history tells us, destabilizing the long-standing agreement with Beijing on the One China policy is certainly not one of them.


Lost Illusions: How Beijing Failed to Woo Seoul,” Foreign Affairs, September 30, 2016, LINK

This article traces how China lost its influence in South Korea, beginning with a promising start in 2013 with Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye’s active bilateral courtship, and ending with the current fallout over South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD. I argue Beijing ultimately lost its opportunity to woo Seoul because it never bothered to explain to South Koreans why heeding Chinese demands would benefit Korean interests.

My article makes the broader point that China’s economic clout does not readily translate into strategic influence in the region, even with countries like South Korea that depend heavily on the Chinese market and actually seek China’s friendship. I argue that unless Chinese leaders abandon their Sino-centric approach to diplomacy and persuade their neighbors on why their regional vision, whatever that may be, is beneficial for everyone, Beijing will find itself increasingly isolated and ineffective in the region.


“Correspondence: Grand Bargain or Bad Idea? U.S. Relations with China and Taiwan,” International Security, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Spring 2016), LINK

In this piece I explain why territorial accommodation is not a viable option for mitigating conflict between the U.S. and China, as advocated by Charles Glaser in the Spring 2015 issue of International Security. Glaser suggests the U.S. should strike a “grand bargain” by ending its commitment to Taiwan in exchange for Beijing’s promise to peacefully resolve its maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. I argue that such a bargain is not only unwise and damaging for a number reasons, but is effectively unattainable because Beijing does not believe it owes the U.S. anything for ending “interference” in its “internal affairs.” As I detail using archival materials, President Nixon attempted a very similar bargain over 40 years ago when he met with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai during his historic trip to Beijing, hoping to trade U.S. troop withdrawals from Taiwan in exchange for Chinese cooperation in what was then the United States’ biggest policy challenge—the Vietnam War. Although China was much weaker and vulnerable during this time, Beijing refused to bargain over Taiwan. China today is much more confidant and ambitious than the China Nixon visited, and is unlikely to agree to such a grand bargain. I conclude by discussing why engaging China and shaping its rise is a better strategy that has the benefits, but not the costs, associated with territorial accommodation.  


“Why There Won’t be an Occupy Beijing,” The Diplomat, October 21, 2014, LINK


In 1986, three years before the tragic Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989, Chinese youth demonstrated for the very reason we saw many Hong Kong students take to the streets in recent weeks: the promise and then retraction of electoral reform. Given the deep history of student activism in China, can we expect to see mainland Chinese students protesting for political change any time soon? Probably not, because promises have to be made to be broken. Since 1989, Beijing has effectively closed off debate in the political realm and has refrained from extending promises of democratic reform to its mainland audience…

Despite the fact that Beijing tends to blame “outside forces” for stirring up “trouble,” when one looks back in history, it is often Chinese leaders who have initiated debate and activism by opening political space from above. Whether it was Mao’s call to let a hundred flowers bloom, Deng’s electoral reforms, or Beijing’s promise of free elections to Hong Kong, the Chinese people, in turn, have enthusiastically responded. The boundaries set and promises made by the central government matter, and they remain strictly limited in mainland China today. So while we see students actively leading efforts for political reform just outside of the mainland’s borders, we can expect those on the inside to remain still for the foreseeable future.


 “Chinese Student Protests: Explaining the Student Movements of the 1980s and the Lack of Protests Since 1989,” The Berkeley Undergraduate Journal, Vol. 21: No. 2, Article 3 (2008), LINK

Chinese students today are growing up in era that is significantly different from that of their predecessors. Today’s youth have been characterized by the media as pragmatic, materialistic, and uninterested in politics. In light of such developments, one may wonder if the days of pro-democracy student protests are over in China. Have students become too uninterested in politics and satisfied with their economic situations to spearhead protests like their predecessors? What factors initiated student protests in the past, and why have they not occurred since 1989? Through extensive interviews with Chinese college students throughout mainland China, the author finds that current students are, in fact, not too different from their protesting predecessors. Both groups are pragmatic, materialistic, and largely uninterested in politics, and harbor similar political grievances. The lack of protests since 1989, therefore, cannot be explained by a decline in political interest or the absence of political grievances. Instead, three necessary conditions seem to precede student protests in China: A political opening by the government that “awakens” students and prompts them to air their grievances; the presence of progressive elites who lead students at such times; and the outbreak of some salient event that gathers masses and serves as a catalyzing force for protests. This paper asserts that the lack of protests since 1989 is not a consequence of changing student attitudes or situations, but due to the tightening of the political arena since 1989.



“Persuasion in Diplomacy: Theory and Empirical Evidence from U.S.-China Relations,” Under Review.

This paper examines the understudied topic of persuasion in diplomacy. Despite its importance and frequent use in bilateral diplomacy, persuasion is often overlooked relative to other more overt forms of diplomacy, such as military coercion and economic sanctions. In this paper I define persuasion and distinguish it from other diplomatic tools. Drawing on findings from psychology, neuroscience and managements studies, I advance a theory of persuasion that stipulates the necessary components for successful persuasion. I argue two critical elements for successful persuasion include (1) the expression of empathy, (i.e. the demonstration of an accurate understanding of a target state’s concerns), and (2) the provision of advice that is framed to address and affirm the target state’s interests. In the empirical section, I present two case studies from the United States’ negotiations with China that demonstrate both failed and successful cases of persuasive diplomacy. In order to demonstrate the power of persuasion, I examine cases that involve some of the toughest issues in the United States and China’s bilateral relationship: The U.S.-Japan alliance and its implications for China’s security, and China’s determination for eventual reunification with Taiwan. The first case examines President Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s success in persuading Chinese leaders to view the U.S.-Japan alliance in a favorable light. The second case examines the initial failure and then success of the Carter administration to persuade Beijing to accept a precondition on Taiwan for the normalization of bilateral relations. My cases demonstrate that when used judiciously, persuasion can work in high-stakes negotiations that involve matters of national security. This finding suggests persuasion is indeed a potent diplomatic tool.


“National Images and Foreign Policy: Examining the Impact of Images in U.S.-China Relations during the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidency,” working paper.

How do leaders evaluate the intentions of and craft foreign policies towards other states? In this paper I demonstrate that national images, or a set of beliefs about a target state, serve as a lens through which decision makers interpret a state’s actions, and choose appropriate policy responses to the state. While images are often initially created and promoted by leaders for strategic and political reasons, they are resilient once formed, reinforced by decision makers’ cognitive and motivated biases. As a result, images may continue to shape policy even after the original strategic and political settings have changed, preventing the impartial consideration of fresh policy options until there is a change in administration. In this paper I examine the relationship between the PRC and the United States, from the founding of the former to the beginning of rapprochement, with a focus on the Johnson administration. I find that despite changes in the strategic setting and calls for a reexamination of China policy from China specialists within the government, Johnson and his top deputies remained firmly influenced by a hostile image of China and committed to a policy of containment up to the last days of the administration.


In Pursuit of Influence: The Sino-U.S. Competition for Leadership in East Asia

This project examines the Sino-U.S. competition for leadership in East Asia from the Cold War to the contemporary period. While the two powers have made headlines in recent years with initiatives such as Washington’s “rebalance to Asia” and Beijing’s proposal for an “Asia for Asians,” the competition for influence stems back to the beginning of the Cold War. In this project I discuss the various strategies China and the U.S. have employed to foster behavioral allegiance and favorable perceptions among secondary states in the region. In addition, while existing theories of international relations generally suggest that states will either balance or bandwagon with major powers, they do not adequately address how and why secondary states will gravitate towards one pole or another. This project will fill that gap by delineating metrics secondary states use to evaluate great powers, and explain which strategies are most successful and why, using archival resources, interviews with political elites, and public opinion surveys.