This post is the fifth and last, for the time being, of a series looking for a methodology that would fulfill the challenging criteria demanded by our time, notably in terms of speed and resources. The previous post focused on how to build scenarios for war. This one will look at scenarios for situations qualified as non-violent crises, taking mainly as example the crisis between China and Japan in the East China Sea over the Diaoyu (China)/Senkaku (Japan) Islands.

War or crisis?

It is important, first, to note that the words used in political discourses to qualify a situation may create an element of confusion when we think about an issue such as crisis, conflict and war. Actors may have many reasons for using euphemisms rather than factual, descriptive words, but their aim is not analysis. If we must pay attention to the specific vocabulary actors employ and integrate this understanding in our analyses, we must not let it lead those very analyses.

Putin, discourse, war, scenarioFor example, Russian President Vladimir Putin in the latest annual Presidential Address to the Russian Federal Assembly (Dec 2013), when addressing Syria, used the word “war” only when emphasizing that “together with our partners, we managed to steer the course of events away from war” (!). In the remaining part of his speech on Syria, he utilized all possible words, save war: “extensive bloodshed“, “dramatic situation“,  “to avoid external military intervention in Syria’s affairs” (sic!), “conflict“,  the “Syrian crisis“, “without resorting to forceful actions“. As another example, I have heard people (an official, from a NATO country) adamantly refusing to consider that there was a war in Afghanistan (in 2008!). We also have the well-known case of the U.S. Clinton administration refusing to use the word genocide prior to the April 1994 Rwandan genocide (e.g. Rory Carroll, “US chose to ignore Rwandan genocide“, The Guardian, 31 March 2004).

We cannot allow the political and diplomatic language subtleties to determine our analysis by framing it, but we must use those as indications about the actors’ intentions and actions. In other words, if a situation is a war, then study it as such, not as a crisis, or a “difficult situation”; if we are in the case of a potential escalation towards genocide, then think about genocide, not “ethnic strife” or whatever other label can be invented. Later on, when delivering the scenarios and warnings, then – but only then – the best use of words will need to be considered to make sure our message is heard.

How are we to decide how to qualify our issue? How do we know if it is a war or a crisis? Use the definitions found in good dictionaries, including international relations and political science ones, in research projects, and identified in the literature review of good political science books on the topic. Try to find a definition that brings in as little ideology as possible, and remain aware that your definition will tend to impact how you will analyse your issue and that it will also be contested on many different grounds (see for example the excellent book by William O’Connolly “The Terms of Political Discourse“), thus be ready to explain why you chose this understanding.

The best typology to use to qualify a “conflict”, if one hesitates, is the one developed by the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, as detailed in its Conflict Barometer (see “terminology of intensity levels” p.108, Conflict Barometer 2011, to get both the previous terminology and the newly revised one):

Kosimo 2011

As examples, in the Conflict Barometer 2012 (the 2013 volume should be published during Spring 2014) “Iran vs. USA, EU” and “Japan – China (Senkaku/Diaoyu islands)” are considered as level 2, i.e. non-violent crisis. Syria (oppositions groups) is considered as level 5, i.e. war. Note that the 396 conflicts (all intensity levels) identified for 2012 and followed by the HIIK constitute an excellent first identification of problems that should be under watch, should our issue be conflicts. This, however, does not mean that new conflicts cannot emerge, thus that other areas should not be scanned.

Scenarios and non-violent crises

crisis, China, Diaoyu, Senkaku, scenariosWe have now defined our issue: non-violent crises, i.e. when tension is already perceptible and according to the HIIK “when one of the actors is threatened with violence”, but when violence has not (yet) taken place. Let us now see how we can use what we did in the last post on scenarios and war to facilitate scenario analysis for non-violent crises.

Which scenarios?

As for war, the basic logical dynamics that preside over the situation are pretty simple and can be depicted in the following diagram.

tension 2Tension may escalate, stabilize, or remain the same for a certain amount of time. In that case, one day or another, it will either escalate or stabilize and lead accordingly to increased or reduced tension. Each new level of tension reached may, in turn, escalate or stabilize. However, the higher the tension, the harder (and thus less likely) it is to obtain stabilization. If possible, it would be more than useful to introduce those dynamics into the initial mapping, where necessary.

After a while – a while representing a lapse of time varying according to situations and level of tension, where the previous scheme (escalation or stabilization) is continuously repeated – the non-violent crisis will evolve towards war (through the various stages described by the HIIK) or peace*, and we can then use the logic described for scenarios and war.

keen-sword-fleet2 scFor example, in the case of the East China Sea tension, what could be seen as a dispute until then evolved as a crisis over the Summer 2012 (see Timeline: the Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands dispute, SCMP, 17 Sept 2012). Note that the very way to present the timeline itself will often be part of contested elements, because being shown as the aggressor is meant to diminish support by other nations, at least considering our current international normative order, while displaying the quality of a victim, will, on the contrary generate help. This will be all the more important in the case of China and Japan, considering the role of history (see From the Diaoyu Islands with Warnings, H Lavoix,  Red (Team) Analysis).

escalation, crisis, scenarios, JapanSince then various escalating actions have taken place, which furthermore progressively involved the U.S. (see timeline focusing mainly on military events on Wikipedia, also The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands: tension between Japan and China in the East China Sea, UK House of Common, April 2013, pp. 5-7). Since then, we notably had the establishment of the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) “East China Sea” in November 2013 (see PRC document) and international reactions, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine on 26 December 2013 (e.g. BBC News, 26 Dec 2013) and international reactions, new Chinese fishing rules in the South China Sea effective 1 January 2014, showing furthermore linkages between disputes and territorial spread (BBC News, 10 January 2014), Japan’s plan to further nationalize 280 owner-unknown islands (see The Japan News, 9 Jan 2014 via Zerohedge, 8 January 2014 ), Chinese ships’ “intrusion” (as seen from the Japanese point of view) of territorial waters on 12 January 2013 Kyodo News Agency), Japan’s military drill by the Japanese Ground Self-Defense (JGSD) forces, dubbed “Island Defense” on 12 January 2013 (see RT, 13 January 2013).

For the sake of scenario-building, in the case of a non-violent crisis, we may thus build three main initial scenarios (or build scenarios around those three fundamental possibilities): the tension remains the same, escalation and stabilisation. Each will then lead to three (if one wants to consider also the non evolution of tension) or two sub-scenarios (escalation and stabilization). The difficulty will be to decide upon how many sub-scenarios one should write to give a proper picture of plausible futures without being boring. The ideal may be to make just one round of sub-scenarios, but each being written in a way that makes the reader/decision-maker aware of the dynamics at play. and that identifies enough possible escalating or stabilizing (according to case) actions. One of the final sub-scenarios should present, at least as titles, the various potential war scenarios (see previous post).

We may also choose to proceed by starting from possible actions made by the main actors and then articulating and describing them progressively according to their potential for escalation or stabilisation or absence of change in tension.

The approach towards non-violent crises should be equally valid for domestic and international crises.

Escalating and stabilizing actions

scenarios, crisis, AZIZ, China, Japan, warThe in-depth understanding of the situation, notably of the actors, achieved during the first part of the analysis is of crucial importance at this stage, because it will be through this understanding that we shall create the scenarios: we shall have to be able to imagine the potential actions of the actors and to estimate how each action and its results will be perceived by others as well as by the initiating actor. In the case of the East China Sea crisis, for a perspective on the Chinese side, see From the Diaoyus, that should be further detailed to consider, for example ,the People’s Liberation Army’s stakes etc.; Japan, the U.S. and all other actors should be analyzed similarly. The perceptions of the actors and the new actions they will trigger will determine if actions are escalating or stabilizing (for an example of various escalating and stabilizing phases in the case of a domestic crisis, see Protest movements, mobilisation, geo-temporal spread: some lessons from history (1) and (2) ).

Here the biases of the analyst may be a real danger, even more so than usual and thus the greatest caution should be exerted. The following diagram may be useful as a starting point to evaluate how the ideas, goals and actions of actors evolve (click to access larger image – in red actions that are essentially escalating). It underlines the crucial necessity to understand belief systems and the relative importance of some ideas within this system for a specific actor. It is indeed the flexibility or rather impossibility to abandon some beliefs that would tend to force an actor towards actions that are fundamentally escalating. This also shows that no analyst – indeed no one – should apply a value judgement (e.g. they are illogical, ridiculous, absurd, etc.) upon the actions of an actor without understanding first its ideational world, which does not mean accepting what they are doing or failing to act in response.

beliefs, actions, escalation, stabilisation, scenarios, crises


Featured image: In Narashino, Japan ,JGSDF 1st Airborne Brigade 2009 first drop manuver. 11-Jan-2009.J ASDF C-130&Paratroopers. Taken by Los688.PD-self By Los688 (Myown work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

*Note for those who inclined towards mathematics that we have here actually a Hidden Markov Model (HMM), as underlined by Bond et al. 2004 in a model using the six phases of conflicts of Bloomfield-Leiss (CASCON) or Alker and Schmalbeger (CEWS). Seeing conflicts as HMM is important for the potential developments of IT tools to help analysts, as, for example, we know that Dynamic Bayesian Networks (thus considering both time and probabilities) can help with HMM.

Joe Bond (Harvard University), Vladimir Petroff (Suffolk University), Sean O’Brien (Center for Army Analysis), Doug Bond (Harvard University) “Forecasting Turmoil in Indonesia: An Application of Hidden Markov Models”; paper prepared for Presentation at the International Studies Association Convention, March 17-20, 2004.

2 thoughts on “How to Analyze Future Security Threats (5): Scenarios and Crises”

  1. There is a possible crisis brewing in the Caribbean Sea.
    I would like to explore possibility for using this approach to look at at
    that issue.

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