On March 2, 1969, the gunfire perpetrated by the Chinese Border Guards killed thirty one Soviet Border Guards. This incident triggered a strategic crisis between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. Most analytic work on this topic explaining this incident by way of the ‘unitary actor model’ considered it as an intentional attack by the central government of the PRC (People's Republic of China). However, this view ignores the complexity inherent in a tactical situation in this border area. Moreover, the primary sources quoted by the literature fails to corroborate that the Chinese central government or the military command of the PRC Army literally ordered or commanded the gunfire on March 2nd.
This paper tries to reassess the cause of 1969 Sino-Soviet Border Conflict from the perspective of organization theory. It focuses on how the military organization on the field can implement the crisis management strategy planned by the central government in a mistaken manner.
According to the Normal Accident Theory, when the unit (the lower level of the entire organization) deals with a complex and highly sensitive incident, it faces the dilemma of 'decentralization' as it has to cope with 'the interactive complexity' and 'the tightness of coupling' at the same time. As the incident is interactively complex, the system (the upper level of the entire organization) permits the decentralization of the unit (the lower level of the entire organization) in order to ensure a flexible response to a complex situation. On the other hand, if the incident is tightly coupled to the entire organization, the system tries to centralize the unit in order to minimize the risk of the unit's engaging in an unexpected action. If the incident is complex and tightly coupled, however, the system faces problem of determining the right level of decentralization between the system and the unit.
The relations between the state and the military organization in a security crisis is emblematic of such an organizational dilemma in 'Normal Accident Theory'. As escalation between nuclear states results in mutual destruction, each state tries to tightly control its military organization in order to use it for the purpose of delivering diplomatic signals to the opposing states. This means that the state needs to be sure that the military fulfill the mission given without deviation, for the fear of sending an unintended wrong diplomatic signal. While this may be so from the state’s level perspective, the military units in the field still face the organizational duty of survival in a complex tactical situation. This, in turn, demands decentralization in military actions and maximization of military readiness at the field. So if the state’s control of the military is not strong enough, the military, given the challenges it faces, will enhance combat readiness, which likely leads to unintended diplomatic signals to its opposing states.
The preemptive gunfire by PRC border guards on 2nd of March was the result of the organizational dilemma of the PRC government-military organization relations rather than a well-coordinated action by the Chinese government. The PRC central government tried to implement the 'controlled pressure' strategy which tries to maintain the patrolling operations carried out for years, in facing the USSR's 'limited escalation' strategy which tries to increase the intensity and the frequency of the border patrol operations. However, contrary to the perception of the PRC central government and the local military district, the tactical situation in the border area was unfavorable to PRC border guards. Moreover, the PRC rules of engagement exercised tight control only over the size of double-squads, and gave platoon –level operations significant discretion by commanding by negation. This means that platoons were allowed to act first and report later.
As a result, the border patrol squad in the Zhenbao Island tried to enhance the combat readiness by exploiting the loophole of the PRC army's rules of engagement. The border patrol platoon instantly returned fire when they heard the gunfiring sound from the Soviet side, although the PRC government and the military district issued strict limits on gunfire.
This research raises questions about the widely-accepted cause of the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict. Moreover, it tries to design a theoretical framework for organizational problems in a state’s implementing crisis management strategies.