China’s Rise and IR Theory: The South China Sea
For several years, I have been discussing in classes the puzzle of why China has become more peaceful as it has become more powerful. Prior to the turn of the century, China had a fairly aggressive foreign security policy, even if it was limited to territorial issues and other battles near its borders. These included preventing North Korea from losing the Korean War, a border war with India in 1962, border skirmishes with the Soviet Union in 1969, and several clashes with Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s (twice over disputed islands in the South China Sea). Then the aggression stopped.
Not only did the aggression stop, China’s foreign policy strategy in the region switched from conflict to cooperation. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, China negotiated successfully to resolve border disputes with many of the 14 states on its border. In 2002, it signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In 2005, China agreed with Vietnam and the Philippines to explore and develop jointly oil and gas resources in the South China Sea, despite China’s claim to nearly the entire area.
China’s extensive claim to the South China Sea means that Chinese territorial claims there clash with those of other states. Various Spratley Islands are also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan, while the Paracel Islands are claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. There are known gas and oil deposits in the area that make these islands (in many cases no more than rocks big enough for a chair) more valuable than their surface area would suggest. They also provide China, which lacks air and sea power projection capabilities, a means of projecting its power beyond the mainland.
Realist international relations theory suggests that China should be becoming more forceful in asserting its interests as its relative power rises. But that has not been the case. Liberalism would (more accurately for the recent past) predict that China, benefiting from links to the global economy and the international institutions that facilitate international exchange, would become more of a team player as its stake in the international system from which it benefits rises. These macro-level approaches to analyzing international politics, in which the state is the unit of analysis, have their value. However, a micro-level approach that analyzes the decisions of leaders within domestic political institutions sheds more light on China’s past foreign policy behavior. Much IR theory ignores the preferences of domestic actors, and it’s these preferences and China’s political institutions that best explain China’s foreign policy behavior over the past two decades.
As Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” (gaige kaifang) policies began to be implemented in 1979, China’s foreign policy became less aggressive. Whereas Mao, when China was weaker, sought a confrontational foreign policy that would keep the revolution going, Deng and his successors have sought a peaceful international environment that would allow them to make the most of economic globalization. And make the most of it they have.
China’s economy surpassed Japan’s last year to become the second largest in the world, and recently China has become more aggressive in asserting its South China Sea claim. Chinese boats (not always Navy boats) recently confronted vessels in the area from both the United States and India, Asia’s other rising power, as well as attempting to cut cables from a Vietnamese oil exploration vessel. A realist approach predicts this more aggressive behavior and well explains the recent efforts of regional states to balance against China. But this alliance building and multilateral approach by ASEAN states in their dealings with China is not in an effort to address the balance of power in the region; it is to address what “defensive realist” Stephen Walt calls the “balance of threat.” The United States is still, by far, the greatest military power in the region. But Asian states, with the notable exceptions of North Korea and, perhaps, Myanmar, know that the U.S. is little threat to them. China, however, they do perceive as a threat. Little else could explain why Vietnam would choose to engage in naval exercises with former enemy the United States.
Perhaps realism best predicts state behavior when states feel most threatened; thus, Mao balances with the United States in the early 1970s against what he perceived to be a threatening Soviet Union and Vietnam pursues closer ties to the United States as its fears of China rise. Similarly, North Korea and Iran rapidly pursue nuclear weapons after the U.S. leader declares they are part of an axis of evil and invades the third member of the axis.
Realists claim that it is relative state capabilities that bring structure to an anarchic international system. China’s capabilities have made it the nearest rival of the United States in terms of economic output and its military should gradually close the gap with the United States over the coming decades. China’s relative rise and the concomitant decline of the United States, should it continue, will present a grand experiment for the two major international relations theories. Realism, particularly John Mearsheimer’s brand of “offensive realism” predicts conflict between the United States and China. Liberalism, in contrast, suggests that international institutions (including multilateral bodies, but also norms) will constrain China’s behavior as it rises. Time will tell. Or, perhaps, history will show that what matters most is the decisions of political leaders based on their perception not so much of national interest in the international system but of self-interest domestically, as they seek foreign policies that will help them to maintain office.
Economic development is one pillar of legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which, of course, has no electoral legitimacy. A secondary pillar is nationalism. Using an approach that assumes political leaders wish to remain in power and that their policies reflect that aim, I predict that if China’s economy falters in the future, the CCP will put more of its weight on the nationalism pillar. In doing so they will take more aggressive foreign policy actions, particularly those that spark nationalism, such as actions supporting China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, and, if the Party’s grip on power is really threatened, moves toward Taiwan. No foreign policy action would unite the Chinese people more than an effort to retake Taiwan. While realism predicts conflict from a rising China and liberalism, cooperation, a micro-level approach suggests that leaders will do what is in their best interest politically. Sometimes that is to engage in conflict with other states; sometimes it is to cooperate with them.
- Progress in South China Sea dispute (Australia Network News) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)
- While You Were in Europe: South China Sea Military Flare-up Ahead? (paul.kedrosky.com)
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