Home > Applying Political Science, International Relations, Political Science > China’s Rise and IR Theory: The South China Sea

China’s Rise and IR Theory: The South China Sea

The South China Sea

Image via Wikipedia

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.

Competing South China Sea Claims


One Rock Claimed By the Philippines and China

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.

  1. September 26, 2011 at 8:48 am

    China is a fascinating case study that presents many “tests” of IR theory. Robert Kaplan seems to be taking a less sanguine view of China’s intentions, and not only in the South China Sea. His latest book focuses on the Indian Ocean and the efforts by China to extend naval power infrastructure throughout that region. I would suggest also using constructivism to uncover the world view of the Chinese foreign policy leadership and their vision for China’s “manifest destiny.” In particular, the actions by China in the two spaces: Outer Space and Cyberspace indicate that China is going to exert its new-found capabilities in these domains as well. I look forward to the next article.

  2. September 26, 2011 at 9:21 am

    Great point about constructivism, Larry. China is a particularly apt case for the constructivist point of view and I should have had a bit about that. As a grad student, I started a coauthored paper with an assistant professor using Wendt to inform an analysis of the old tributary system. We were pushed off the project for various reasons…

  3. Jonathan Fulton
    September 26, 2011 at 9:53 am

    I agree that an attack on Taiwan would get everyone all riled up in a nationalist frenzy, but all those NT dollars in Shanghai are worth something to the CCP too. I think reclaiming Taiwan is an absolutely last gasp desperation tactic, and if the economy gets to that point it may well be among the least of our worries.

    In terms of realist theory and China’s relative peace over the past 30 years – the longest such period in something like 250 years – the realist in me would say that China’s strategy is to use the norms of international institutions to advance its interests more than a reflection of a newfound appreciation of interdependence. A more cooperative international presence serves the state. For now.

    Good post – will this be a regular feature?

  4. Hillary
    September 26, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    perhaps it has become more peaceful as it’s gotten more powerful because now that China has more power they don’t need to use as much violence anymore.

  5. Jocelyn
    September 27, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    I think China’s economic development will continue to rise. Hopefully, there’s no falter in there economy in the future, in so that they will not take more agressive foreign policy actions, as the article stated and they will not try to get into conflicts with others.

  6. Irain J.
    September 28, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    Seems like China’s gradual assertion of power makes it unnecessary for them to use force. They continue to acquire more power and are peaceful. I think they might not feel as threatened as before.

  7. Daniel Kemether
    September 28, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    i dont see US and China engaging in a serious war. If either China or the U.S.’s economy is tampered with, it could send the world into a depression. I also think that if China Usurps us as Hegemon, we will allow it as long as China provides a stable leadership role. Also, China is transitioning to democracy, and as histories show democracys in general show less aggression.

    • September 28, 2011 at 11:54 pm

      There is absolutely no indication that China is transitioning to democracy. In addition, there are many reasons why China might be more aggressive internationally if it were to become democratic. Finally, history does not show that democracies are less aggressive, just that they are less aggressive toward one another.

      • bklunk
        September 29, 2011 at 9:03 am

        The empirical record also shows that transitional periods (both in terms of international power and democracy (hypothetically in China’s case) are the most unsettled and most likely to end up with shooting.

  8. Sarah B.
    September 28, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    I agree with Jocelyn and Irain that China is feeling more empowerment and therefore might not feel the need to use so much force against other countries.

  9. Yesenia Gutierrez
    September 29, 2011 at 5:42 am

    When looking at the the Neo-Liberal view of the national interest it makes sense that China would seek to cooperate and reciprocate rather than to take action, they had more to gain and more to loose. It seems that the Neo-liberal approach has been working for them because they have increased their overall wealth, while putting relative power on the back burner, although that has increased as well. Because of this I think that a confrontation between China and the United States is likely to happen because of China’s stake in the United States Economy and valuation of the United States as a trading partner. Although, there might be a conflict later if China wishes to assert their power, but once again this would hurt their national interest. I completely agree with the idda that the Chinese Communist party will seek out any useful means to assert their power to ensure that the Chines people are content and somewhat agree with their regime.

  10. Emma Fonseca
    September 29, 2011 at 11:05 am

    I think that the more powerful China is, the less stress they need to put on violence towards other countries. Aggression is mainly a tool to get or keep power. If China has gained the political and social power that it has strived for, then everyone knows what aggression they are capable of. However, if China continued with violence and aggression, they would look like a country showing power “because they can”. When they know they are strong, they don’t feel the need to show power in a negative way.

  11. Neil Singh
    September 29, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    China doesn’t need to be aggressive as long as they’re economically sound and trade relations remain good. If the Chinese economy were to take a sharp dive, then maybe we could have a problem.

  12. Nathan Reed
    September 29, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    I think that China is definitely a major world power now. I think they switched policies because they realized that they were the most powerful Communist nation in the world after the USSR fell. They are certainly asserting their power on their neighbors. My Vietnamese friend said that China is taking over Vietnamese farms through economics. I forgot the precise details, but they force the Chinese businessmen force the farmers into situations that they cannot recover from. China is now using their brains to obtain small goals at a time without the American public noticing. About a possible war with China: at this point in time, it is not going to happen. With the debt payments that we are paying them, we essentially pay for 80% of their military. Our country’s excessive spending is one reason that China is a superpower. They know that if they start a war with them and win (which is what would happen at this current time), then we would never pay them back. They are too smart to give up a large source of income. If they really want to attack us, they would do it when we are no longer paying back our debt to them.

  13. Richard
    September 29, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Based on my limited but growing knowledge of China and it’s economic growth, I often get the impression that the American media tends to eschew the truth in regards to how fragile China’s continued economic growth is. With so much invested in the west, it seems like aggressive behavior is far from China’s best interests and runs counter to their goals- which appear to be assuming a role as creditors and setting the stage for a future monopoly on high value resources.

    Speaking of liberalism in regards to the Chinese leadership acting in their best interests as individuals, I still believe that strengthening their economy through independence offers a more definitive route towards maintaining political credibility.

  14. Lauren Barrera
    September 29, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    It is definitely apparent that with China’s growing power, they no longer have the need to be forceful. I am just afraid of their reaction in the future, if a nation begins to threaten the power they currently hold. As Jocelyn said, I too hope that their economy maintains its strength so that they will not cause conflicts with others.

  15. Samuel Park
    September 29, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    I agree with Yesenia Gutierrez. China isn’t turning into a democracy anytime soon, so a war is still possible.

  16. Ana Waskiewicz
    September 29, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I think that since China is becomin gmore powerful maybe it doesn’t feel the need to use force. It is getting its power so why shouldn’t it be peaceful?

  17. Mitchell
    October 2, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    I don’t think we have to worry about China for some time. Despite its growing economic power, it doesn’t have very many allies compared to the U.S.

  18. Brishonn
    October 4, 2011 at 11:23 pm

    “more power equals less violence”

  19. Christopher McHenry
    December 1, 2011 at 8:36 am

    China’s economy is doing great and from the looks of how the country does business they should be progressing for quite some time. I agree with what Neil said how China will not be agressive because of the way they are doing trades with other countries. If you take there trade relations away then there might be a problem

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