I am an international security specialist with a focus on Chinese military and security issues. My research addresses critical questions at the intersection of interstate conflict, great power relations, and the challenge of rising powers. I leverage process tracing, qualitative historical analysis and the case study method with the goal of conducting policy relevant research.
Winner of the 2020 International Security Section of the American Political Science Association Best Book by an Untenured Faculty Member
After a war breaks out, what factors influence the warring parties' decisions about whether to talk to their enemy, and when may their position on wartime diplomacy change? How do we get from only fighting to also talking?
In The Costs of Conversation, Oriana Skylar Mastro argues that states are primarily concerned with the strategic costs of conversation, and these costs need to be low before combatants are willing to engage in direct talks with their enemy. Specifically, Mastro writes, leaders look to two factors when determining the probable strategic costs of demonstrating a willingness to talk: the likelihood the enemy will interpret openness to diplomacy as a sign of weakness, and how the enemy may change its strategy in response to such an interpretation. Only if a state thinks it has demonstrated adequate strength and resiliency to avoid the inference of weakness, and believes that its enemy has limited capacity to escalate or intensify the war, will it be open to talking with the enemy.
Through four primary case studies—North Vietnamese diplomatic decisions during the Vietnam War, those of China in the Korean War and Sino-Indian War, and Indian diplomatic decision making in the latter conflict—The Costs of Conversation demonstrates that the costly conversations thesis best explains the timing and nature of countries' approach to wartime talks, and therefore when peace talks begin. As a result, Mastro's findings have significant theoretical and practical implications for war duration and termination, as well as for military strategy, diplomacy, and mediation.
She discusses these findings in two podcasts at AEI and Young China Watchers and at an AEI event. Please also find a roundtable discussion on the book in the most recent Asia Policy publication, a book review from ASPI, a book review from Strategic Studies Quarterly, a book review from The China Quarterly, a book review in Political Science Quarterly, and a book review from War on the Rocks.
"Mastro forwards a new theory of when states agree to negotiate peace. She demonstrates the power of that theory through painstaking research on several conflicts in Asia. This impressive book thereby makes contributions to international relations theory, Asian studies, and diplomatic history."
Thomas J. Christensen, Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
During the past eight months of the global COVID pandemic, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been active in promoting China’s claims in the South China Sea. I argue that the greatest change in the PLA’s role in the South China Sea has not been operational. The PLA has taken a more active role in China’s South China Sea strategy, but not necessarily a more aggressive one.
What are the key trends in the conventional military balance between China and India? This chapter addresses how each country’s military forces are postured to deter and, if necessary, fight the other. It examines each side’s military priorities, programs of military modernization to date, the local military balance on their land border and in the Indian Ocean, and the implications of these factors for the outcome of potential crises and conflicts.
What is the weakest link in a hereditary autocracy, what are the patterns of collapse and what typically happens after the end of such a regime? This article identifies four patterns concerning the collapse of such regimes. These findings are relevant to policy makers that hope to evaluate the stability of the North Korean regime and plan adequately for its aftermath.
Although China does not want to usurp the United States’ position as the leader of a global order, its actual aim is nearly as consequential. In the Indo-Pacific region, China wants complete dominance; it wants to force the United States out and become the region’s unchallenged political, economic, and military hegemon. And globally, even though it is happy to leave the United States in the driver’s seat, it wants to be powerful enough to counter Washington when needed.
Will China intervene if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, and if so, does Beijing have the willingness and capabilities to deal safely with North Korea's nuclear program? How can the United States account for China’s military role in this mission and work together with China to coordinate their shared interests and regional security?
Please click here for a H-Diplo/ISSF review of the article.
In the Shadow of the Thucydides Trap: International Relations Theory and the Prospects for Peace in U.S.-China Relations, (Journal of Chinese Political Science, November 2018)
What is the likelihood that China and the United States will fall into the Thucydides Trap, meaning that the two countries will fight a major war during a potential power transition? Can we predict the likelihood of major conflict between a rising and an established power? Is the pessimism about the prospects of peace warranted in the U.S.-China relationship?
(The Gathering Pacific Storm, 2018)
What are the long-term implications of strategic competition with China, particularly in military aviation? How does our platform development compare? Employment concepts? Personnel and training?
It Takes Two to Tango: Autocratic underbalancing, regime legitimacy and China’s responses to India’s rise
(Journal of Strategic Studies, July 2018)
What factors do autocracies evaluate when responding to perceived threats and why might they fail to balance appropriately? Do autocratic leaders choose greater exposure to an external threat if, by doing so, it preserves regime legitimacy?
Implications for East Asian and U.S. Security
(The Washington Quarterly, March 2018)
How has China historically approached diplomacy, mediation and escalation in conflict? To what degree are these historical patterns of behavior likely to manifest themselves in future conflicts, especially given all the changes to China’s internal and external environment since China’s last war in 1979? And how might the U.S. role in the region, and shifting power balances more generally, affect China’s decisions about
war termination in future conflicts?
Assessing Patterns in China's Historical Behavior
(International Studies Review, February 2018)
How has China historically performed when it attempts to engage in conflict resolution? Are historical patterns of war termination behavior likely to manifest themselves in future conflicts, even with all the changes to China’s internal and external environments since its last war in 1979?
What to Expect If Things Fall Apart
(Foreign Affairs, January/February 2018)
The conventional wisdom on what China would do if conflict broke out on the Korean Peninsula is dangerously out of date. I argue China is likely to intervene militarily and extensively not in support of North Korea, but to protect its national interests.
An Examination of China's Military Strategy (Strategic Asia, 2017-18)
This chapter explains how a broad base of national power, the prevalence of perceived maritime threats, and national narratives about the “century of humiliation” and Chinese exceptionalism combine to make regional power projection the most attractive national military strategy to Chinese leaders.
China's Emerging Air Base Strike Threat
(Project 2049, November 2017)
This paper, written with Project 2049’s Ian Easton, seeks to provide an overview of the evolving airpower challenge that the United States faces in the Western Pacific and beyond. We explore Chinese military writings on air base strike operations, and then evaluate the current trajectory of the PLA’s precision strike capabilities for conducting such operations.
Long-term Strategic Competition Between the United States and China in Military Aviation (SITC Research Briefs, 2017)
This brief evaluates US and Chinese military aviation through three factors that shed light on the degree and nature of strategic competition: resource allocations, targeted platform development, and airpower employment concepts
The Logic Behind China's Low Military Transparency (Asia Security, 2016)
Why does Beijing exacerbate the asymmetric information problem, even though this theoretically increases the likelihood of conflict? I offer an explanation, the vulnerability hypothesis, for why rising powers are likely to reject military transparency and the conditions under which this may change. These findings have implications for power transition theory and US–China military relations.
China's Evolving Northeast Asia Security (Korea Economic Institute, 2016)
What are Chinese strategic intentions in Northeast Asia and how have they evolved in recent years? I argue that Northeast Asia is the foundation of China’s strategy to facilitate its rise, keep Japan down, and eventually to keep the United States out.
Possibilities, Challenges, and Opportunities (Asia Policy, July 2016)
This is article assesses the factors shaping whether China will develop significant military expeditionary capabilities, the conditions under which Chinese leaders may decide to use the military outside East Asia, and implications for the U.S. This research was also presented as written and oral testimony to the US China Economic and Security Review Commission.
A Global Expeditionary People's Liberation Army, 2025-2030 (NBR/SSI, 2015)
This chapter assesses the changes to doctrine, strategic guidance, operational concepts, force posture, organization, training and logistics Beijing is likely to make if it moves to develop a global expeditionary PLA by 2025-2030.
China's Antiaccess-Area Denial (A2/AD) Capabilities: Is the Rebalancing Enough? (CENSA, 2014)
What are the major components of China’s A2/AD approach and how does the U.S. rebalancing address these challenges? I argue that China’s active defense strategy can be best understood as four pillars: kinetic, geographic, political and deterrent. I present three balancing acts the United States must master in its renewed focus on Asia if it is to successfully counter China’s A2/AD strategy at acceptable costs.
Noninterference in Contemporary Chinese Foreign Policy: Fact or Fiction? (Praeger, 2014)
What is the contemporary role and interpretation of the noninterference principle in Chinese foreign policy, and how has it evolved historically? I argue that the principle is evolving to allow more flexibility, largely because of external pressures. However, when China does get involved in the domestic affairs of other countries, its mode of interference is distinct from U.S. foreign policy.
(The National Interest, November/December 2014)
While the Chinese leadership would prefer to stay focused on internal development and regional issues, facts on the ground will increasingly compel the CCP to develop some global operational capabilities. I argue that the need to protect commercial interests and Chinese citizens abroad, coupled with the desirability of playing a responsible global role, may drive China to develop limited global power-projection capabilities. Click here and here to see video on this article.
(Survival, April/May 2014)
The conviction that economic ties will engender peace is a lynchpin of US strategy, but Asian leaders view failure to protect territorial claims as worse than the losses associated with a limited war.
(Washington Quarterly, January 2014)
The article discusses the roles of coercion and assertiveness in Chinese foreign policy. I argue that increased levels of assertiveness are likely to persist because Chinese officials see the strategy as beneficial and central to China's anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. As a result, the U.S. should reject the Cold War concepts of containment, deterrence via a strong forward military presence, and its focus on crisis de-escalation.
A Closer Look at the Impeccable Incident (Journal of Strategic Studies, April 2011)
On 8 March 2009, five Chinese vessels shadowed and aggressively maneuvered in close proximity to the USNS Impeccable. This paper explains the incident in the context of Chinese coercive diplomacy. China’s strategy included (1) the use of military provocation, (2) a coordinated media campaign, and (3) a challenge to US interpretations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).