Thanks to a land reclamation project on a set of rocks and reefs in the middle of the sea, M. Taylor Fravel’s research is much in demand these days. His research isn’t about marine biology or civil engineering, however. Fravel’s analysis is sought out because the sea in question is the South China Sea and his expertise is in Chinese military strategy and security policy.
The volatile combination of China’s military buildup in the Spratly Islands and multiple, highly contested claims to the bits of land, including claims by U.S. allies, has Fravel consulting with top U.S. government officials.
The world's most complicated territory dispute
Fravel, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Political Science and a member of the Security Studies Program, has been studying China’s policy in the South China Sea for more than a decade, long before China began turning rocks and reefs into islands with airfields. The islands, and the valuable mineral, fishing, and shipping route rights that come with them, are claimed by China and also by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. "The Spratly Islands conflict is the world's most complicated territorial dispute," says Fravel. "There's no other dispute like this in the world."
The dispute gave rise to Fravel’s doctoral thesis at Stanford University. After reading about China's claims to the Spratly Islands, he decided to examine the occasions when China used force in its territorial disputes. Conventional wisdom held that China had few disputes and that it pursued its claims aggressively. But when he examined Chinese government documents, Fravel found that China has been involved in more than a few disputes — 23 since the Communist Party took power in 1949. China settled 17 of them peacefully, and in 15 of those the country compromised on the contested land. "It was a pattern of behavior that I didn't expect to find,” he says.
Fravel’s thesis became the first book-length systematic study of China's territorial conflicts: "Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China's Territorial Disputes" (Princeton University Press, 2008). "By looking at all of China's disputes and how they varied over time, you can actually bring some scientific rigor to bear on the study of Chinese foreign policy," he says.
The evolution of China's military strategy since 1949 is the topic of Fravel’s new book: "Active Defense: Explaining the Evolution of China's Military." The research focuses on when, why, and how China pursues major changes in its national military strategy. Fravel has identified nine changes in strategy, three of which were attempts at major overhauls. He’s also found that the People’s Liberation Army commonly behaves like a professional military despite being a heavily politicized creation of the Communist Party — but not during times of political instability.
Research on maritime relations and nuclear force posture
Looking ahead, Fravel is planning two research projects. The first is on managing tensions and minimizing the potential for escalation in maritime disputes like the Spratly Islands. The second is on re-examining the history of China’s nuclear weapons program. "The time is right to go back and revisit what we thought we knew about how the program worked and why, and then to also better understand what kind of nuclear force posture China might adopt in the future," he says.
Fravel joined the MIT faculty in 2004 after a year as a postdoc at Harvard’s John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. He was a fellow with the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program in 2006-2007. In 2010 he was appointed one of the first research associates with the National Asia Research Program. Landing at MIT gave Fravel the opportunity to apply rigorous academic analysis to some of the world’s thorniest security problems.
"It's the best place to do security studies in the country," he says. "This is one of the few places where you can merge security policy, political science, and international relations."