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Most analysts and commentators portray China's conduct in the South China Sea as a series of aggressive norm violations by an emerging peer competitor to the United States. We argue that this narrative misreads both the substance and dynamics of recent Chinese policy. Since 2016, China has strenuously sought – and largely managed – not to be in technical violation of the Philippines Arbitration Tribunal ruling despite having publicly disavowed it and has attempted to position itself as a champion of win–win co-operation. This stands in stark contrast to the previous four years in which China rather shockingly began asserting itself with little regard for either legality or diplomatic nicety – the period in which the “aggressive China” narrative gelled. What explains China's whiplash behaviour? Why has the international community largely failed to notice recent changes and adjust the narrative accordingly? We argue that the answers to these questions lie in an eclectic appeal to bureaucratic struggles, the regime's two-level game balancing domestic and international pressures, and psychological considerations. These do not, however, provide satisfactory accounts either of China's behaviour or of the international response in the absence of recognising the crucial importance of second-order rules for making, interpreting, and applying first-order rules in the international system. Social practices of rule-making, in short, provide vital context. Our analysis suggests a series of takeaways both for International Relations theory and for managing relations with China.
Whats Really Going On in
the South China Sea?
Mark Raymond
and David A. Welch
Most analysts and commentators portray Chinas conduct in the South China Sea as a
series of aggressive norm violations by an emerging peer competitor to the United
States. We argue that this narrative misreads both the substance and dynamics of recent
Chinese policy. Since 2016, China has strenuously sought and largely managed not to
be in technical violation of the Philippines Arbitration Tribunal ruling despite having pub-
licly disavowed it and has attempted to position itself as a champion of winwin co-oper-
ation. This stands in stark contrast to the previous four years in which China rather
shockingly began asserting itself with little regard for either legality or diplomatic nicety
the period in which the aggressive Chinanarrative gelled. What explains Chinas
whiplash behaviour? Why has the international community largely failed to notice recent
changes and adjust the narrative accordingly? We argue that the answers to these ques-
tions lie in an eclectic appeal to bureaucratic struggles, the regimes two-level game bal-
ancing domestic and international pressures, and psychological considerations. These do
not, however, provide satisfactory accounts either of Chinas behaviour or of the inter-
national response in the absence of recognising the crucial importance of second-order
rules for making, interpreting, and applying rst-order rules in the international system.
Social practices of rule-making, in short, provide vital context. Our analysis suggests a
series of takeaways both for International Relations theory and for managing relations
with China.
Manuscript received 31 October 2021; accepted 22 February 2022
International and Area Studies, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, USA
Balsillie School of International Affairs and Department of Political Science, University of Waterloo, Waterloo,
ON, Canada
Corresponding Author:
David A. Welch, Balsillie School of International Affairs, 67 Erb St. West, Waterloo, ON N2L 3G1, Canada.
Creative Commons CC BY: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
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Original Article
Journal of Current
Southeast Asian Affairs
© The Author(s) 2022
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DOI: 10.1177/18 6810342210862 91
China, South China Sea, eclectic theory, international order, social practices
It is hard to imagine a more important body of water than the South China Sea. An estimated
one-third of global shipping passes through it each year, representing slightly more than a
quarter of all global trade by volume and slightly less than a quarter by value (China
Power Project, 2017). Some 3,365 species of marine sh call the South China Sea home,
representing 12 per cent of the worlds catch at the hands of 55 per cent of the global
shing eet, providing a crucial source of nutrition for littoral states and livelihoods for at
least 3.7 million people (Fridtjof Nansen Institute, 2017). Reliable gures are hard to nd
on the oil and gas deposits that lie beneath the South China Sea, but it is clear that they
are signicant (Daiss, 2018). Strategically, it connects the Indian and Pacic Oceans and
lies at the eastern end of the Strait of Malacca, one of the worlds two busiest narrows and
a vital chokepoint (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2014; United Nations
Conference on Trade and Development, 2017). Chinas sole port for its ballistic missile sub-
marine eet Yulin Naval Base lies on the southern side of Hainan Island, making the
South China Sea a vital bastion for Chinas strategic nuclear deterrent (Cook, 2017).
The South China Sea is also the most contentious body of water in the world. China,
Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei all claim territorial
and/or maritime jurisdiction in whole or in part and none of the conicting claims has
yet been resolved, in signicant measure because of their emotional valence (Welch,
2017). Several non-claimant states have declared the South China Sea vital to their national
interest as well, the most important of which is the United States, traditionally a strong pro-
ponent of the principle of freedom of navigation and respect for the rule of law. To signal its
commitment to these, as well as its rejection of what it considers other countries’“excessive
claims,the United States periodically mounts Freedom of Navigation Operations
(FONOPs) in the form of naval transits or overights. Like-minded countries such as
Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and France have either shown the ag with port
calls or conducted FONOPs as well (Ngo Minh Tri, 2018; Tuan Anh Luc, 2018).
Military activities in the South China Sea, as well as periodic standoffs, clashes, and
crises, have been a major source of regional tension for decades and pose a perennial
threat to peace and stability. Not surprisingly, from time to time stakeholders have
adjusted their South China Sea policies so as to improve their positions or increase the
odds of what they would consider a favourable outcome. Two of the most important
such changes are Chinas abandonment in 2012 of what we might call obstructive
engagementin favour of assertive unilateralismand its subsequent abrupt retreat in
2016 to what we might call a policy of stealthy compliance.What explains these
changes, and why has the second largely gone unnoticed?
We approach these questions in an inductive vein, for two reasons: rst, recreating a nar-
rative arc is particularly helpful for identifying path dependencies; second, deductive
approaches can mask out important or undertheorised causes or reasons for behaviour.
narrative, however, demonstrates the importance of dynamics well understood in the
2Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 0(0)
bureaucratic politics, two-level games, and cognitive psychology literatures acting in combin-
ation. Crucially, these interactions play out in a way rendered sensible only when couched in a
constructivist story about the importance of actorsconcern for, and competence with, inter-
national procedural rules.
Our ndings are important for several reasons. First, and most obviously, they add vital
nuance correcting common misconceptions about Chinese foreign policy behaviour and
the South China Sea disputes. Second, they demonstrate the power of an eclectic approach
to theorising for explaining important phenomena in world politics (Katzenstein and Sil,
2008). Deductive approaches typically prize parsimony, in what Seva Gunitsky (2019:
708) has called a sometimes useful capitulationto the complexity of the social world.
While we do not deny the necessity of simplication in theory-buildingorinempirical
research, we believe that our ndings justify our intuition that existing accounts of the
South China Sea disputes have often purchased too much parsimony at too high a price. A
structural realist retrodiction of Chinese behaviour stressing the rational pursuit of power,
for example, would be unable to account for seemingly irrational behaviour driven by
such things as domestic imperatives or bureaucratic politics. An eclectic approach to theoris-
ing is often a better t for the multi-causal nature of the social world, as well as for the reality
that actors typically have mixed motives. Third, the case demonstrates difculties inherent in
threat perception, whether on the part of the practitioner or the observer. Fourth, we demon-
strate the relevance of established social practices of rule-making in shaping stateschoices
and the outcomes of international disputes, as well as the importance of rules as stakes in
great power conict, which International Relations theory has typically treated largely as a
matter of relative material power. In this respect, we endorse Stacie E. Goddard and
Daniel H. Nexons call for a more expansive understanding of what counts as power politics
and show that competent rule-making is part of it (Goddard and Nexon, 2016). Finally, mis-
understanding Chinas actions increases the risk of inadvertent conict.
Readers should be aware that, because of the acute sensitivity of the issues we discuss
and the fact that they remain unresolved, some of what we relate comes from Chinese
ofcials willing to speak only on strict background. In most cases, we have been able
to corroborate their accounts from at least one independent source and we have endea-
voured not to rely upon any account that an interlocutor would not have been able to
know on the basis of rst-hand experience, but we do appreciate that what follows
will in many cases have an unfortunately unavoidable take our word for itfeel.
The history of the South China Sea is long, murky, but only recently contentious (Hayton,
2014). For centuries, people from communities on all sides of it shed its waters at will,
mostly close to shore but occasionally out by the rocks and shoals under such heated
dispute today, while ships from near and far plied its coasts or, later, when navigational
techniques improved, struck out across open water. For all intents and purposes, the
South China Sea was a regional commons subject to no organised political authority.
Only in the nineteenth century did questions of sovereign jurisdiction arise, when
Raymond and Welch 3
France colonised Indochina and, in the process, claimed various territorial features for
itself. The concept of exclusive territorial sovereignty was a European import alien to
a region unaccustomed to strict borders and tolerant of ambiguous or undelimited author-
ity on the margins of organised politics.
Japan took control of French possessions in World War II. Upon its defeat in 1945, the
question of who owned what in the South China Sea became pressing for the rst time.
In 1947, Chiang Kai-sheks Nationalist government of the Republic of China (ROC)
published a map bounding its claims by means of an 11-dashed U-shaped line intended to
delineate territorial, not maritime, jurisdiction (Chung, 2016: 43; Kim and Druckman,
2020: 44). Following Chiangs defeat on the mainland and his ight to Taiwan, Mao
Zedong and his fellow communist rulers of the new Peoples Republic of China (PRC)
embraced the ROCs U-shaped line, dropping two dashes in 1953 (Chung, 2016: 5657).
The infamous nine-dash linehas been a lightning rod for competing claimants ever
since (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Nine-dash line and disputed features (authorsrendering).
4Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 0(0)
Much of the anxiety generated by the nine-dash line has been the result of the PRCs
unwillingness to clarify what, precisely, Beijing thinks it denotes. The ambiguity dates
from 1974, when the government began routinely making vague statements in diplomatic
correspondence, national law, and both ofcial and unofcial publications about Chinas
rights not only to the islands of the South China Sea but also to their adjacentor rele-
vantwaters (Chung, 2016: 5759). Over time, China would embrace the mantra that it
had historic rightsto the islands and waters of the South China Sea (including archi-
pelagic waters) from time immemorialfounded in general international law(see,
e.g., Dupuy and Dupuy, 2017; Hayton, 2018; Ma, 2019; Wain, 2001; Wang, 2017:
201; Zheng, 2014). Beijings refusal when pressed to provide satisfactory disambiguation
led to the assumption that it claimed not only sovereignty over the territorial features of
the South China Sea but also maritime jurisdiction within the nine-dash line (Welch and
Logendrarajah, 2019).
By ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in
1996, China effectively pulled the legal rug out from under its most expansive possible
UNCLOS swept aside all prior international maritime law and for the rst time
established a uniform set of rights and obligations for all states. Inter alia, it restricted
historicor internal watersclaims to minor bays (Arts. 7, 8, 10); granted archipelagic
watersrights only to fully archipelagic states such as the Bahamas, Maldives, or the
Philippines (Arts. 4654); limited territorial seas in most cases to 12 n.m. from the
coast (Arts. 24); dened an additional 12-n.m. contiguous zonein which states
could exercise police powers for certain law enforcement purposes (Art. 33); established
a 200-n.m. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ, Arts. 5557); provided for certain additional
continental shelf rights (Arts. 7678); and specied the rights of other countriesvessels
within each zone, including, crucially, the right of innocent passage through the territorial
sea (Arts. 1721). Importantly, UNCLOS also specied the maritime rights that attached
to territorial features of various kinds. An island,for example dened as a naturally
formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide”–was
entitled to an EEZ, but a rockthat cannot sustain human habitation or economic
life of [its] ownwas not (Art. 121). The low-water line of a low-tide elevation
(LTE) –“a naturally formed area of land which is surrounded by and above water at
low tide but submerged at high tide”–could be used to x a baseline for a territorial
sea if it were situated wholly or partly at a distance not exceeding the breadth of the ter-
ritorial sea from the mainland or an island,but otherwise an LTE had no territorial sea
(Art. 13). Neither did an articial island (Art. 80[8]) or a fully submerged shoal.
UNCLOS said nothing, of course, about territorial sovereignty, so maritime entitlements
in the South China Sea depend almost entirely upon two considerations: (1) which country
by right enjoys territorial sovereignty over which features; and (2) whether those features
are islands,”“rocks,or LTEs. There are no uncontested features in the South China Sea.
China and Taiwan claim them all. The Paracel Islands are claimed also by Vietnam, and
Scarborough Shoal by the Philippines. The Spratly Islands have several claimants.
The largest feature in the Spratlys, Itu Aba, is controlled by Taiwan; Vietnam controls a
further twenty-one; the Philippines control nine or ten, depending upon how one counts;
Raymond and Welch 5
and Malaysia controls either ve or eight again, depending upon how one counts. China
controls only seven features that were relatively low-grade in their natural condition:
Johnson South Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Subi Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes
Reef, and Mischief Reef (Vuving, 2016).
In some respects, Chinas policy in the South China Sea has been remarkably consist-
ent in recent decades. It has always insisted, for example, upon resolving disputes through
bilateral negotiation and it has always professed a commitment to friendly, peaceful
dispute resolution. It has also studiously avoided arbitration, mediation, or multilateral
negotiation on jurisdictional questions. Chinas critics often refer to this as a divide
and conquerstrategy (Chapman, 2017), and, of course, it makes good sense in view
of Chinas enormous power advantages in pairwise comparisons with rival claimants.
Prior to 2010, however, China sought to keep tensions in the South China Sea low
while maintaining quiet intransigence on maritime and territorial disputes (Fravel,
2011). While tempers would occasionally are, often as the result of incidents at sea
involving Chinas attempts to enforce what it understood as its maritime rights,
Beijing sought to contain them and actively pursued what seems in retrospect to have
been dialogue designed to yield nothing (Amer, 2014). At the same time, it engaged
with rival claimants broadly on other issues, primarily economic ones, to cultivate
dependencies. While China did not have a label for this policy, we might call it obstruct-
ive engagement.Over the course of the following two years, however, Beijing gradually
became more forthright, strident, and inexible (Zhou, 2016: 871872). By 2012 it had
fully embraced a dramatically different policy, one that we might call assertive
The new policy had both symbolic and operational components. One important sym-
bolic move was the issuance of new biometric passports that included a map featuring the
nine-dash line. Arguably, other countries stamping these passports would qualify as de
facto recognition of Chinas expansive claims (International Institute for Strategic
Studies, 2012). Another was to upgrade Sansha on Hainan Island from county- to
prefectural-level municipal status, thereby giving it broader powers to police and garrison
the Paracels, Spratlys, Maccleseld Bank, and Scarborough Shoal, for which China had
given it administrative responsibility.
A key early operational move was Chinas oppor-
tunistic seizure of Scarborough Shoal following what the Philippines, at least, believed to
have been an agreement for both countries to withdraw patrol craft as the 2012 typhoon
season approached.
With Philippine ships out of the way, China dropped a barrier across
the entrance to the shoal and stationed coast guard vessels to chase away Philippine
shing boats, a move that Philippine president Benigno Aquino likened to Nazi
Germanys 1939 annexation of Czechoslovakia (Bradsher, 2014).
At almost the same time, assertive unilateralism got a major boost from events else-
where when Japan nationalised the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in the East
China Sea. Ironically, the Japanese government intended this move to prevent a major
diplomatic crisis with China: arch-nationalist Shintaro Ishihara, Governor of Tokyo,
had announced plans to buy the islands from their private owner with the clear intention
of establishing an outpost of some kind to protest what he bemoaned as the Japanese
6Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 0(0)
governments pusillanimous lack of response to Chinese encroachments. Had Ishihara
done this, Tokyo would have found itself in a major international crisis. But China mis-
interpreted the nationalisation as a deliberate provocation and reacted furiously anyway.
China dramatically stepped up air and sea incursions; outraged Chinese citizens called for
boycotts of Japanese goods and businesses; and violent demonstrations swept dozens of
Chinese cities (Lim, 2012).
Not long after the nationalisation crisis, the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) began
pushing to establish an air defence identication zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea.
Planning for such a zone had begun shortly after the 2001 Hainan Island EP-3 incident,
but each time the proposal came forward for decision roughly once a year the Foreign
Ministry had managed to persuade leaders in Beijing that the move would be too provoca-
tive (personal communication). On 23 November 2013, however, China suddenly did
announce an East China Sea ADIZ, indicating that it would merely be the rst. As the
Foreign Ministry had feared, the announcement triggered worldwide condemnation
(Rinehart and Elias, 2015).
In retrospect, it is clear that Chinas East China Sea ADIZ was a major misstep,
reinforcing fears of what many were beginning to see as Chinas regional hegemonic
ambitions. Ironically, both the impetus to establish an ADIZ and the hostile reaction to
it were grounded in fundamental misconceptions of what an ADIZ is, what it is for,
and what it implies (Charbonneau et al., 2015; Welch, 2013). The sole purpose of an
ADIZ is to reduce both surprise and the need to scramble ghter jets to identify
unknown aircraft. All other things being equal, fewer scrambles mean fewer intercep-
tions, less wear and tear on aircraft, reduced pilot fatigue, and reduced risk of accident
or inadvertent conict. An ADIZ is a mere convenience with neither legal status nor
legal implication. In particular, it confers no jurisdiction (indeed, Taiwans ADIZ
extends well into mainland China). It is therefore not a useful tool and accordingly
has never been wielded in a sovereignty dispute. In 2012, this important fact was
unclear to the PLA, to leaders in Beijing, to blindsided foreign leaders, and to the
media everywhere. The only people, in fact, who fully grasped the concept of an
ADIZ at the time were pilots and air defence personnel.
Chinas East China Sea ADIZ was dangerous in large part because it overlapped both
Japans and Taiwans, raising the prospect of simultaneous interceptions, conicting
instructions to aircraft, and, in extremis, aerial combat. In view of the ubiquitous
misconceptions about their status, a second ADIZ over the South China Sea would
have been even more dangerous. Rival claimants would almost certainly have responded
by announcing overlapping ADIZs of their own, dramatically escalating tensions and
undermining aviation safety. But the PLA was not yet in a position to roll out a South
China Sea ADIZ in any case. It faced one insurmountable challenge: lack of operational
capacity to enforce one. In the East China Sea, this was challenging enough, given the
distances PLA interceptors would have to travel from mainland air bases.
In the
South China Sea, it was simply not feasible. The extreme southern extension of the nine-
dash line lies 1,700 km from Lingshui Air Base on Hainan Island, that is, at the maximum
combat radius of Chinas workhorse J-11 ghter, making timely interception impossible.
Raymond and Welch 7
The solution to this problem was articial islands (personal communications).
Through land reclamation, China could create airstrips with adequate supporting
infrastructure (hangars, supply depots, radars, air defences, etc.) to maintain a
forward presence suitable for operating a peacetime South China Sea ADIZ. China
set about building three such airstrips, on Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, and
Mischief Reef, as well as smaller supporting facilities (without airstrips) on Gaven,
Johnson, Hughes, and Cuarteron Reefs. Not only did these articial islands
provide infrastructure for a forward military presence, they also enabled China to
establish observation stations to monitor other claimantsactivities, and, perhaps
most importantly of all, signalled Chinas seriousness in asserting its claims.
Within a few short years, China went from having the smallest footprint in the
Spratlys to having the largest. For rival claimants, this in itself was cause for
alarm. But particularly worrisome was concern that China would attempt to assert
maritime claims on the basis of these enhanced features despite the fact that
UNCLOS expressly forbade it.
As part of its new assertiveness, China also began more rigorously enforcing its annual
seasonal shing ban and, on 2 May 2014 in a renege of a pledge not to do so dis-
patched its largest oil drilling platform, the HYSY-981, to disputed waters off the
Paracel Islands (Morton, 2016: 924). The reaction was swift and furious (Zhou, 2016:
884887). A ten-week standoff followed that saw violent anti-Chinese protests in
Vietnam and high seas drama as Vietnamese ships attempted to disrupt the oil rigs opera-
tions and Chinese ships sought to keep them at bay, resulting in the ramming and sinking
of at least one Vietnamese shing vessel.
Chinas assertive unilateralism ended abruptly in the summer of 2016. The immediate
cause was Beijings humiliating loss in Philippines v. China, a case under UNCLOS
brought to a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in 2013 by
Philippine President Aquino (Wang, 2017: 188). Frustrated by Chinas intransigence
on maritime and territorial disputes, its high-handed refusal to allow Philippine shing
boats access to traditional shing grounds (especially in and around Scarborough
Shoal), and its articial island building program particularly at Mischief Reef, which
the Philippines saw as falling well within its EEZ Manila asked the Tribunal to rule,
inter alia, on the legal status of the nine-dash line, the status of various features in the
Spratlys (i.e., whether they qualied as islands,”“rocks,LTEs, etc.), and whether
Chinas articial island building campaign and its refusal to allow Philippine boats
access to traditional shing grounds were consistent with its legal obligations. China
refused to participate in the proceedings, objecting that the Philippines had prematurely
abandoned its obligation to resolve disputes through negotiation; that the real purpose of
the case was to undermine Chinas territorial integrity; that the Tribunal lacked jurisdic-
tion; and that the Tribunal was biased against China because a Japanese judge convened it
(Sim, 2016; Wang, 2017). In a stunning tactical mistake, however, China explained in too
much detail exactly why it refused to participate, enabling the Tribunal to reconstruct
Chinas strongest possible defence so that it could proceed to decide the case in good
faith on the merits.
8Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 0(0)
On every major point, the Philippines carried the day (Permanent Court of Arbitration,
2016). The Tribunal ruled that the nine-dash line had no legal force or status; that both
Chinese and Philippine boats were entitled to sh the waters of Scarborough Shoal;
that the manner in which China had reclaimed land to create articial islands violated
its obligations to protect sensitive marine environments; and perhaps most importantly
that not a single one of the disputed features in the Philippinessubmission qualied as
an island.This had the immediate effect of simplifying overlapping maritime claims.
Since rocks and LTEs can at the most project a 12-n.m. territorial sea, the total area
under dispute instantly shrank from a majority of the South China Sea to roughly 2.5
per cent. Accordingly, the Tribunal ruled that South China Sea EEZs could only be cal-
culated from littoral statescoastlines. This meant, among other things, that Mischief
Reef clearly fell within the PhilippinesEEZ, as Manila had maintained, and that
China had had no right to build an articial island on it.
Predictably, China publicly rejected the Tribunals ruling. But, remarkably, it quietly
began to comply.
China dropped all new references to the nine-dash line in ofcial state-
it restored Philippine access to Scarborough Shoal; it stopped trying to enforce
sheries jurisdiction more than 12 n.m. from features that it claimed; and it stopped build-
ing articial islands (though it did continue to complete infrastructure, including military
infrastructure, that it had planned and paid for four to ve years earlier).
Perhaps most
signicantly, China reached out to engage rival claimants in discussions of joint resource
development (Heydarian, 2018) and shelved plans for a second ADIZ in the South China
Sea (personal communications). Chinas policy of assertive unilateralism, in short, sud-
denly came to an end.
There are worrisome signs that China may once again be irting with assertive unilat-
eralism. The passage in 2021 of a new Coast Guard law authorising the use of force
against foreign vessels may indicate an increased willingness to enforce Chinese
claims more robustly.
Moreover, the extended deployment in March 2021 of a large
number of maritime militia vessels masquerading as shing boats at Whitsun Reef in
the PhilippinesEEZ is also difcult to explain from a stealthy compliance perspective
(Erickson and Martinson, 2021). So also if true would a report that China demanded
that Indonesia halt drilling in its own EEZ that same year (Strangio, 2021). Time will tell
if developments such as these are as ominous as many fear them to be.
Explaining Chinese Policy Change
The story to this point suggests that there are at least two important inection points in
Chinas recent policy towards the South China Sea: 2012 and 2016 (whether we are in
the midst of yet another is something that we will only be able to judge with the
benet of greater hindsight).
We know that dramatic foreign policy change is rare. Foreign policy is best thought of
as a punctuated equilibrium. A variety of considerations explain foreign policy inertia,
including organisational culture, organisational routines, the transaction costs associated
with dramatic foreign policy change, the limited bureaucratic resources available to effect
Raymond and Welch 9
it, and a generalised status quo bias (Welch, 2005). From time to time, however, states do
embrace dramatic foreign policy change. The evidence suggests that they are more likely
to do so to avoid painful ongoing or prospective losses than to secure possible gains. Put
another way: framing is a key predictor of foreign policy change. Whether one is oper-
ating in a loss frame or gains frame depends crucially upon some reference point speci-
fying what one considers an acceptable state of affairs. In the realm of international
politics, states dene their own reference points and a wide variety of considerations
can bear on them, including physical security, economic security, respect, honour, a
sense of justice or entitlement, or any other consideration important enough to warrant
inclusion in a conception of the national interest.Notwithstanding the rather strong
assumptions of certain International Relations paradigms, interest specication is an
exogenous, path-dependent process strongly inuenced by sociological considerations
(Kimura and Welch, 1998). Not all states value the same things in the same degree at
the same time.
Scholars of Chinese foreign policy approach their task from a wide variety of angles
using a wide variety of paradigmatic lenses. Lively debates persist between those who
believe that one can explain Chinese foreign policy fully satisfactorily through the lens
of rational choice, history, identity, culture, ideology, nationalism, personality, bureau-
cratic politics, or most commonly various combinations of these (see, e.g., Bueno
de Mesquita et al., 1985; Chang Liao, 2018; Duan, 2017; Feng and He, 2017, 2020;
Gong, 2018; Heberer, 2014; Hoo, 2017; Poh and Li, 2017; Rosyidin, 2019; Takeuchi,
2019; Wirth, 2020; Wong, 2018; Zhang, 2014; Zhu, 2011). Our task is not to adjudicate
these debates as it might be if we sought to explain Chinese foreign policy in general,
although we are inclined to suspect that they thrive on a series of false dichotomies
(culture, for example, conditions rational choice, and is therefore not an alternative to
Instead, our task is to identify some of the key path-dependent drivers of particular
foreign policy changes in the hope that insights of broader value may emerge epipheno-
menally. But of course, to do this we must start with what we hope is a generally accept-
able narrative frame.
We begin by noting the overwhelming post-war imperative for Chinas new commun-
ist leaders of consolidating control over a war-torn and divided country. Once achieved,
their new reference point was a China relatively invulnerable to the predations and humi-
liations it had suffered for more than 100 years at the hands of European and Japanese
imperialism (Blanchard and Lin, 2013; Buckley, 2014; Callahan, 2006; Kaufman,
2010; Wirth, 2020). Under Deng Xiaoping in particular, this resulted in a foreign
policy focused on cultivating a congenial international environment for Chinas
economic development. Under Xi Jinping, China has moved into a new phase in
which it seeks to take what Chinese leaders consider its rightful place among the rst
tier of countries in the world enjoying the appropriate degree of voice, inuence, and
respect. Though somewhat vaguely formulated operationally, and despite confused and
inconsistent signalling (Pu, 2019), slogans such as a new type of major power relations
and the Chinese Dreamare meant to convey this sense of rightful place. As the Chinese
economy has grown and modernised, China has asserted itself more boldly. Opinions in
10 Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 0(0)
the region and around the world have been divided on whether the rise of China repre-
sents a destabilising and threatening development or a constructive and benign one,
but either way, the expectations in Beijing have risen as China has risen.
Frustratingly, from the perspective of the Chinese political, foreign policy, and secur-
ity elite, China has systematically been denied the voice, inuence, and respect they
believe it deserves (Ogden, 2013: 264). The Obama administrations confused and
stonily silent response to Xis feelers about crafting a new type of major power rela-
tionscame across as a major slight and its rebalance to Asiaas an overtly hostile
act (Clinton, 2011; Graham, 2013; Green and Cooper, 2014; Silove, 2016; Simon,
2015). Frustrated by its inability to secure greater sway in lead institutions of global gov-
ernance such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, China has promoted
initiatives such as the BRICS, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the
Shanghai Co-operation Organization, and the Belt and Road Initiative to enhance its
voice and clout.
Chinas rather abrupt embrace of assertive unilateralism in 2012 bears strong evidence
of loss aversion, although the relevant reference point for leaders in Beijing was some-
thing of a moving target. As China grew in power and importance, the refusal of the inter-
national community in general and the United States in particular to grant China the
voice, inuence, and respect it felt it deserved represented an increasingly painful slide
deeper and deeper into a loss frame. With respect specically to the South China Sea,
Chinese ofcials and policy makers worried that rival claimantsincreasingly public
assertions of their own rights were making China look weak and irresolute, threatening
additional loss (Zhang, 2019: 138). Japans nationalisation of the Senkaku Islands
served as a liminal tipping point for hard-line nationalists primarily in the PLA
who had been complaining loudly in internal policy debates about China losing
ground under the relatively kid-glove obstructive engagement policy favoured by inter-
nationalists in the Foreign Ministry.
In a worsening, seemingly perpetual loss frame, the
case for gambling boldly with assertive unilateralism seemed compelling to Chinese
leaders, including Xi Jinping. If the international community did not voluntarily give
China the voice, inuence, and respect to which it was entitled, China would compel it
to do so.
The result was a series of missteps and ascos that made a bad situation worse. These
missteps are partially explained by the ways in which domestic politics, bureaucratic pol-
itics, and political psychology combined to empower actors within the Chinese state that
possessed limited competence with and insufcient appreciation of the importance of
relevant procedural rules. Dramatic increases in aerial and maritime incursions in and
around the Senkaku Islands, for example, coupled with the East China Sea ADIZ
debacle, succeeded only in convincing Japan, the United States, and others that China
had expansionistic ambitions. The HYSY-981 crisis, Chinas breakneck articial
island building campaign, and Chinas stepped-up efforts to enforce its jurisdiction
within the nine-dash line cultivated an image abroad of China as an aggressor, triggering
balancing behaviour and ultimately resulting in a humiliating legal defeat that painted
China as an outlaw state. Notably, the public international response consistently
Raymond and Welch 11
overestimated the degree to which Chinese policy reected the deliberate choices of a
unitary rational actor. Close observers of Chinese politics note the aggravating role not
only of competing bureaucratic interests (the proverbial nine dragons stirring up the
sea; Lai and Kang, 2014: 311), but also of local governments (Li, 2019; Wong,
2018) and state-owned enterprises (Gong, 2018), both of which pushed for bold action
at crucial points during this volatile period (personal communication).
Crucially, Beijings choices about how to engage in assertive unilateralism were
shaped powerfully by its (incomplete and self-serving) interpretation of procedural
rules for determining maritime and territorial entitlements as it attempted to establish a
jurisdictional presence in contested areas while preventing rival claimants from doing
the same. Although de facto control can be an important legal criterion for adjudicating
territorial claims under certain circumstances (Schrijver and Prislan, 2015), Chinas
attempts could not account for the ways in which UNCLOS had foreclosed the kinds
of maritime claims it sought to make. Nor could China mount a competent account or
defence of its own alternative legal position (United States Department of State, 2022;
Waxman, 2022). As Dupuy and Dupuy put it, the vagueness of Chinas legal terminology
raised the question of whether it was being used as an element of political strategyand
left China stuck with a legal case that does not meet the standards of public international
Far from advancing Chinas interests, then, assertive unilateralism saw China fall even
deeper into a loss frame. Internationalists in the Foreign Ministry had predicted this all
along but had been forced to toe the line and try to clean up the international mess.
Finally, after the Philippines Arbitration Tribunal ruling, they were able to wrest back
control. What followed was a concerted effort to rebrand China as a constructive regional
and global power committed to winwin co-operation.
The difculty, however, was that China was now caught in a difcult two-level game
(Putnam, 1988). It could no longer afford to be seen as an outlaw state by the international
community, but neither could it risk a mobilised and highly nationalistic domestic audi-
ence seeing it admit defeat or compromise what everyone in China thought of as Chinas
legitimate rights.
The workaround was a combination of stealthy compliance and
attempts to change the channel (Welch and Logendrarajah, 2019). Beijing began doing
its best not to stray technically offside the ruling (with two exceptions, one of which it
cannot abide by without an obvious admission of error) while at the same time seeking
to enlist competing claimants in joint-development and co-operative resource manage-
ment efforts. China also made a show of reenergizing negotiations designed to result
in a new code of conduct.Notably, this choice of workaround reected sensitivity to
the importance of established social practices of rule-making and interpretation in
shaping outcomes in high-stakes international security cases. It is worth underscoring
that China chose to comply with the bulk of an adverse ruling despite its material advan-
tages relative to the Philippines and other claimants and despite the risk that compliance
could create signicant domestic legitimation problems for the regime.
By all indications, the Chinese public has not noticed any retreat from Beijings rather
expansive earlier claims so that part of the strategy has worked well. But by the same
12 Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 0(0)
token, the international audience has generally not noticed Beijings compliance, either
(Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 2019). The dominant international narrative is
still that China continues to out international law, continues its aggressive pursuit to
control the South China Sea, and remains a threat to peace, stability, and regional
order. The American response, and that of like-minded countries such as Australia,
Britain, and France, has been to maintain pressure on Chinese claims through highly
visible public statements and FONOPs that could potentially risk undermining the
Communist Partys domestic standing as a defender of Chinese sovereignty. Ironically,
were this pressure to increase, it might wind up provoking precisely what it is designed
to prevent.
The failure of the international community to notice Chinas rather dramatic post-
ruling change in behaviour can likely be attributed to a variety of factors, though of
course without detailed and extensive surveys and interviews one can only speculate
on the basis of plausibility. Bearing that caveat in mind, Chinas tightrope walking is
itself almost certainly partly to blame. In the course of trying to avoid having to admit
loss or error to the domestic audience, the regime has as a matter of course also
largely avoided any appearance of admitting loss or error to the international audience.
In addition, Chinas efforts to persuade competing claimants to sign up for joint develop-
ment and joint resource management have included efforts to deter them from unilateral
development efforts in a manner that reinforces rather than undermines the aggressive
Though unconrmed, reports suggest that in 2017 Xi Jinping may
have threatened war if Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte authorised drilling in an
oil block that clearly falls inside the Philippine EEZ (Mogato, 2017). If he did so, it
was in a one-on-one meeting with full plausible deniability, not in an ofcial or public
statement that would have clearly telegraphed a lack of concern for appearing to be
offside the Tribunal ruling. Similarly, by dispatching a survey ship to oil blocks in
Vietnams and Malaysias EEZs in 2020, Beijing sought to chill development efforts
without technically falling afoul of UNCLOS, which allows countries to prohibit
foreign survey activities only in their territorial seas.
There is one issue on which Beijing is particularly exposed: namely, Mischief Reef.
The Philippines Arbitration Tribunal clearly found that Beijing had built an articial
island at Mischief Reef in the PhilippinesEEZ. Only the Philippines had the right to
do this. At any time, Manila could publicly demand that China withdraw. This would
force Beijing to choose between admitting defeat to the domestic audience and publicly
violating UNCLOS. Manilas forbearance on this issue is one of the more remarkable ele-
ments of the South China Sea story. But of course, the threat remains. Mischief Reef
hangs over Beijings head like a Sword of Damocles. Manila likely calculates for the
moment, however, that playing the Mischief Reef card would catastrophically destabilise
what is at present a tolerable, if awkward, status quo.
Beijings tightrope walking aside, there is yet another plausible explanation for the
international communitys failure to notice Chinas stealthy attempts to comply and to
change the channel perfectly normal cognitive psychology. Schema theory teaches
us that we are quick to form beliefs, often on the basis of relatively little information,
Raymond and Welch 13
but that once we have formed them, we resist changing them (Kelley, 1972; Thorndyke
and Hayes-Roth, 1979). We have, as it were, a cognitive double standard. We require
much more information to change our minds than we do to make them up in the rst
place. A classic illustration is Jane AustensPride and Prejudice, in which Elizabeth
Bennet forms a negative opinion of Mr. Darcy early on the basis of a single two-minute
encounter but requires the rest of the novel and a mountain of discrepant information to
change it. Chinas brief but shocking period of assertive unilateralism xed international
beliefs about Chinas intentions and dispositions quickly and decisively. Small wonder
that the resulting aggressive Chinanarrative persists. Beijings tightrope act provides
precious little obvious evidence to challenge it. One must look very closely with a
nuanced eye and an open mind to catch the clues that China backpedalled from its
earlier, disastrously haughty attempts to force others to treat it with the deference and
respect to which it felt entitled.
Explaining Chinas Missteps
One of the most durable aphorisms in the study of international politics is the strong do
what they can and the weak suffer what they must,a statement Thucydides attributes to
the Athenians demanding the surrender of Melos in 416 BCE (Strassler and Crawley,
1996: §5.89, 352). In fact, the strong frequently forbear and the weak frequently play
an active role in shaping their fate. It is not unusual for strong states to do worse, and
weak states to do better, than one might expect simply by looking at relative material cap-
ability. Canada, for example, has traditionally gotten the better of the United States in
bilateral trade negotiations despite hugely asymmetric economic vulnerability
(Hart, 2002; Keohane and Nye, 1977: 193; Kirton, 1980; Welch, 2005: 168215).
Post-Napoleonic France managed swiftly to reassert its position in Europe despite the
best efforts of conservative monarchies to isolate it and keep it down. In both cases,
the outcomes are readily explained with reference to the soft-power advantages in com-
mitment and negotiating strategy that often reect the (materially) weaker partys super-
ior skill at using procedural rules to affect substantive ones in crucial social practices of
rule-making and interpretation (Raymond, 2019: 5456).
In the present case, it is fair to say that China did much worse and the Philippines
much better than a balance of power calculus would suggest, for essentially similar
reasons. Chinas efforts to advance its goals in the South China Sea evinced stunning pro-
cedural incompetence. The Philippinesefforts to undermine Chinas expansive claims
evinced stunning procedural virtuosity. With respect to the former, China put itself on
its back foot, as we have seen, by attempting to put forward a theory of the case that
cobbled together incompatible bases for claims UNCLOS plus historic rights,”’
including rights to archipelagic waters,founded in general international law”–
when UNCLOS had either swept aside the latter or codied the rights in question in
such a way as to undermine maximalist Chinese claims. Aware of these contradictions,
Chinese ofcials studiously avoided disambiguation. It was as though China had
14 Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 0(0)
brought to the poker table a combination of cards and mahjong tiles, pretended that
nothing was wrong, and simply refused to play.
The Philippines, in contrast fed up with Chinese intransigence signed up a team of
the worlds most talented international lawyers, marched to the Hague, and posed exactly
the right questions to knock China off its game. Importantly, the Philippinessubmission
narrowly crafted its terms of reference to render it veto-proof and studiously avoided
asking the Tribunal questions it was not empowered to answer, such as anything pertain-
ing to territorial entitlements. The Philippines came away from the procedure with a
greatly strengthened hand. Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly at the time (certainly
disappointingly, from the perspective of ofcials in the Philippine Department of Foreign
Affairs), President Duterte chose to pocket rather than press home his winnings and
offered Beijing a face-saving olive branch in return for restored access to Scarborough
Shoal and promises of economic gain.
Chinas mishandling of its South China Sea claims is certainly one major cause of the
rise of the aggressive Chinanarrative that persists to this day. Although many countries
have been wary of Chinas growth and ambitions for decades, others including the
United States studiously avoided casting China as an adversary or hostile power, jus-
tifying this position in part by appealing to Chinas generally good record of engaging
constructively in regional and global governance initiatives. At the U.N. Security
Council, for example, China has wielded its veto far less often than either Russia or
the United States. China was (and remains) an active member of more than seventy inter-
national organisations. On most issues, Chinese ofcials have displayed high levels of
competence with procedural rules, which makes the contrast with Chinas handling of
South China Sea issues particularly perplexing and concerning. Threat perception is an
imperfectly understood phenomenon, but deviation from established rules is one well-
documented predictor that has not featured prominently in recent International
Relations scholarship (Cohen, 1978, 1979).
Chinas full embrace of assertive unilateralism in 2012 turned perplexity and concern
into shock and fear. Suddenly, China abandoned even dubious legal argument for indif-
ference to it, creating facts on the ground that Beijing did not even attempt to justify. The
international audience reacted strongly to the appearance that China was abandoning its
commitment to crucial rules governing the adjudication of competing claims, suggesting
a strong attachment to those rules.
Not everything that China did was either illegal or
unprecedented; nothing in international law prohibited China from announcing an East
China Sea ADIZ in 2013, for example, and China was not the rst claimant in the
Spratly Islands to engage in land reclamation activities, merely the most ambitious.
But Chinas evident disregard for optics and for the concerns of neighbouring countries
on issues such as this made it virtually inevitable that others would read nefarious inten-
tions into Chinese actions.
Chinas indifference to its rival claimants did not apply to the Philippines, whose sub-
mission to the Permanent Court of Arbitration triggered in Beijing both fury and alarm
(personal communications). To a large extent the fury was the result of a perception
that the Philippines a small, upstart country would treat China with such little
Raymond and Welch 15
respect that it was willing to put Beijing in a position whereby it stood to lose consider-
able face in the eyes of the world community. The alarm was largely a function of the fact
that Beijing knew that Manila had a strong case. One unconrmed but plausible report
has it that when word of Manilas intention to submit reached Beijing, Chinese leaders
met to decide whether and how to mount a legal defence but quickly discovered that
they would have to put in a B-team to take on the Philippinesall-stars. Instead, they
decided to pretend that the case was duplicitous, ungrounded, and unworthy of dignifying
via participation (personal communication). Arguably, this in itself was a mistake; had
China at least participated through the initial jurisdictional stage, it would have had the
right to appoint one of the judges and might have been able to shape procedure in its
favour (Wang, 2017: 195). Given the decision to boycott, however, China would have
been well advised to remain silent and aloof. Instead, it issued a poorly argued White
Paper detailed enough to allow the Tribunal to reconstruct a good-faith Chinese
defence in Chinas absence (Ministry of Foreign Affairs PRC, 2014). Both Chinas
inability to resist the temptation to mount a legal defence of some kind and the
Tribunals reliance on it clearly indicate the strong compliance pull of widely accepted
international rules for rule-making and interpretation and a shared concern for the
norm of fair play.
Chinese ofcials are aware that they overreached and have many regrets. Perhaps the
strongest regret, if we read our interlocutors for this piece correctly, is promoting and
overselling domestically an unrealistic and indefensible understanding of Chinas
rights in the South China Sea. Had Beijing clearly and consistently represented the nine-
dash line as it was originally conceived, for example as a cartographic convenience
delineating territorial rather than maritime claims it would have been legally unobjec-
tionable. Had China dened its maritime claims in a manner consistent with UNCLOS, it
would have avoided arousing fears abroad about attempting to turn the South China Sea
into a Chinese lake and would have made it easier for the regime to maintain face at home
when the Tribunal ruled that none of the features in the Philippinessubmission was a
fully entitled island. Indeed, the regime could have portrayed this as a welcome clarica-
tion that did not affect its territorial rights, seizing the opportunity to trumpet its law-
abidingness (Quek and Johnston, 2017/2018). Only Chinas articial island at
Mischief Reef would have posed an awkward domestic problem. But if the more knowl-
edgeable internationalists in the Foreign Ministry had been calling the shots all along, it is
unlikely that China would have exposed itself by building an articial island there in the
rst place.
Lessons of the South China Sea for International Theory
We believe that our tale offers several useful takeaways in the quest for a more accurate
and more useful understanding of the dynamics of interstate relations on what is possibly
the highest of high politics issues.
The rst is the value of inductive theorising. Telling the tale of developments in the
South China Sea in an inductive vein draws our attention to the vital relevance of a
16 Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 0(0)
variety of considerations that rarely interact in deductive scholarship bureaucratic pol-
itics, two-level games, cognitive psychology, and the importance of competence with
procedural rules as both a soft-power and productive-power resource. It also enables
us to provide compelling explanations for Chinas embrace of assertive unilateralism,
the outcome of the Tribunals deliberations, and Chinas awkward effort to comply
with an adverse ruling as far as possible while pretending that it had lost nothing.
Weaving these elements together rigorously in a deductive mode, we submit, would be
impossible, not least because deductive theorising from any particular paradigmatic
base would be bound to screen some of them out. Inductively recreating a narrative
arc allows one to draw productively from diverse bodies of theory. The result may
well be a fully satisfactory explanationonly of a particular case at hand, but even
that has value as a proof-of-concept for eclectic theory, particularly when there are
plenty of cases in which the relevance of the individual elements is well established
(Katzenstein and Sil, 2008).
Second, threat perception is difcult to get right. In our telling, the aggressive China
narrative only ts a particular constituency of the Chinese state assertive unilateralist
nationalists, primarily in the PLA and other security organs and only tolerably well
characterised Chinese policy as a whole during their brief period of incompetent ascen-
dance. Moreover, to the extent that China has been aggressive,it has been in pursuit not
of hegemony, domination, or territorial expansion (we are convinced that the Chinese
genuinely believe that all of the territorial features in the South China Sea are sovereign
Chinese territory), but of respect and standing. Others may agree or disagree with Chinese
nationalists that Beijing is entitled to the voice, inuence, and respect it feels it is being
denied, but the belief is entirely understandable when seen against the backdrop of the
century of humiliationa proud civilisation suffered at the hands of modern imperial
Great Powers whom earlier Chinese dynasties would in their turn have considered back-
ward and barbaric from a cultural point of view. Pride matters. And to see that pride
matters, empathy matters. Empathy is key to accurate threat perception, yet it has shock-
ingly little foothold in International Relations theory (Galinsky et al., 2008; Head, 2012;
Hoffman, 1990; Welch, 2022).
Third, rules matter. And rules about rules matter. Skill with rules matters, too.
Successful contestation on the world stage requires much more than raw hard power
resources; it requires being able to make a persuasive case that A is more appropriate
than B, and this, in turn, requires appreciating the value of the ideational edice that
makes A, B, and the concept appropriateintersubjectively intelligible. The case demon-
strates that relevant actors understood the ways that Chinese policy mattered not just for
the disposition of South China Sea maritime and territorial claims but also for the foun-
dational rules that underpin contemporary international order. In advancing its claims,
China engaged in an array of actions that make sense only with reference to existing inter-
national rules for adjudication. That is, these rules are required to render intelligible
important aspects of Chinese policy, such as the ultimately disastrous position paper
and reactions to it. The fact that the stakes of the conict expanded to encompass the pos-
sibility of change to rules for the adjudication of claims, generating strong responses not
Raymond and Welch 17
only from rival claimants but also from powerful extra-regional states, suggests that IR
scholars have often misunderstood the stakes of great power conict. Rather than
simply a matter of control over geography and material resources, the ultimate stakes
in the great power game are the rules and institutions of the international system. It
follows from this that constructivist scholarship has a great deal to offer attempts to
understand power transitions and debates over the future of international order that
have typically been investigated mainly by realists and institutionalists in ways that do
not engage with constructivist insights. In this regard, we echo Goddard and Nexons
call for more ontologically expansive understandings of power politics (Goddard and
Nexon, 2016).
Fourth, and nally, failing to understand all this not only impoverishes international
theory it poses real, tangible risks of inadvertent conict. China may well be a major
threat in various respects for example, by meddling in other countriesdomestic
affairs to shape narratives and policies congenial to the parochial interests of the
Communist Party of China, misappropriating intellectual property, penetrating critical
infrastructure, engaging in cyber espionage, and conducting offensive cyber operations
but it is not at the moment the dire hard-power military threat in the South China
Sea that many countries continue to believe that it is because it is playing defence, not
offence. Treating it as though it were playing offence can only fan the ames of hostility
and mistrust and increase the dangers of accidental or inadvertent conict. It may also
empower assertive unilateralists who undoubtedly believe that Chinas recent period
of stealthy compliance has yielded neither tangible nor symbolic benets. If recent
developments such as the Whitsun Reef incident are any indication, it may already
have done so in which case the international communitys failure to notice changes
in Chinese behaviour following the Philippines Arbitration Tribunal ruling may
ultimately prove both tragic and costly.
For helpful comments, the authors would like to thank Bill Hayton, Charles Hermann, Juliet
Kaarbo, the participants in the Advancing the Analysis of Foreign Policy Changepanel at the
2019 Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, and two anonymous reviewers.
Declaration of Conicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/
or publication of this article.
The authors received no nancial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
1. On causes and reasons, see Hollis and Smith (1991).
18 Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 0(0)
2. For the most part, the testimony of the ofcials to whom we spoke does not paint Chinese
policy or Chinese policy making processes in a attering light. In all cases, they professed a
desire to be heard because of their fears that misunderstandings on these heads greatly increase
the risk of inadvertent conict. The former point blunts the usual self-interest ground for skep-
ticism about anonymous testimony; the latter largely explains its motivation.
3. When asked why China had embraced UNCLOS if it jeopardised its own position in the South
China Sea, a senior Chinese ofcial replied in a moment of unguarded candour: Well, the
Americans were against it, so we assumed it had to be good for us.
4. Maccleseld Bank is, in fact, fully submerged even at low tide, and therefore confers no mari-
time rights under UNCLOS. No state would have legal jurisdiction over it unless it fell within a
territorial sea, EEZ, or continental shelf claim recognised in accordance with the provisions of
UNCLOS Art. 76.
5. There is debate about whether Chinese ships remained after the Philippines withdrew or briey
withdrew and returned (see, e.g., Taffer, 2015: 96; Zhang, 2019: 146).
6. In fact, China has essentially abandoned operating its East China Sea ADIZ, having underes-
timated this challenge.
7. A common misconception is that the main purpose of the three airstrips on Chinas articial
islands was to defend Chinas nuclear submarine eet (see, e.g., Chan, 2016). This is incorrect.
In peacetime there would be no occasion to y such missions, and in wartime the airstrips
would themselves be early casualties. Personal communication.
8. Kim and Druckman mistakenly claim that the Tribunal also found that Gaven Reefs, Johnson
Reef, and Hughes Reef fell within the PhilippinesEEZ, but as the Tribunal ruled that these are
all either rocks entitled to a 12-n.m. territorial sea of their own, or within 12 n.m. of a feature so
entitled, they would only fall within the PhilippinesEEZ if the Philippines had sovereignty
over them, which was a matter outside the Tribunals remit (Kim and Druckman, 2020: 52;
Permanent Court of Arbitration, 2016: 473474).
9. For a detailed point-by-point analysis, see Welch and Logendrarajah (2019). See also Hayton
10. Notably, at the time of writing the Chinese foreign ministry website included no references to
the nine-dash line or its cognate expressions (such as dotted line)or even the Mandarin
original (线)more recent than 4 August 2016, and the number of pages that returned
hits had shrunk dramatically since that date, indicating a deliberate effort to downplay the term.
11. Personal communications. The great fear was that Chinas next project would be at
Scarborough Shoal, prompting an unusually blunt deterrent threat in 2016 from U.S.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (Batongbacal, 2016). Notably, as of the time of writing
China has never landed a military aircraft on any of the three airstrips it constructed in the
Spratly Islands, which indicates a remarkable degree of restraint.
12. There is debate about whether the Coast Guard law is benign or menacing (cf. Luo, 2021;
Okada, 2021).
13. Lai (2012). Interestingly, as Zhang puts it (2014: 902), The traditional Chinese
explanation of their foreign policy is that Chinese leaders calculate the international
situation correctly and make foreign policy choices rationally.Our analysis challenges
this simplistic view.
14. Personal communications; You (2017). Ambiguity about where to draw the line between dip-
lomatic and security issues further complicates the bureaucratic division of labour (You, 2017).
Raymond and Welch 19
15. Dupuy and Dupuy (2017: 124, 141). Chinas detailed post-ruling rebuttal of the Tribunal award
presumably the best that Chinese legal scholars could muster, and apparently prepared
without time pressure (Chinese Society of International Law, 2018) does no better, essen-
tially presuming rather than demonstrating the truth of its major claims and objections. It is
plainly an attempt to dress up in quasi-legal garb Beijings political objections to the
Tribunal ruling.
16. For example, the Foreign Ministry learned of the HYSY-981 deployment on the morning it hit
the news (personal communications).
17. Personal communications; Ferdinand (2016: 949). Note, however, confusion about whether
Beijing considers the South China Sea a core interest(see, e.g., Nie, 2018; Tham, 2018;
Zhou, 2019a: 3334).
18. Zhou (2019b). As Xue notes, improved bilateral relations are a requirement for not the result
of successful joint development ventures (Xue, 2019).
19. See, for example, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (2020). With respect to Chinas recent
survey vessel deployment, Mohd Zubil bin Mat Som, Director-General of the Malaysian
Maritime Enforcement Agency, remarked, We do not know its purpose but it is not carrying
out any activities against the law(Ananthalakshmi and Latiff, 2020).
20. In 2018, one of the present authors spent a full hour in a one-on-one brieng of a high-level
Obama administration state department ofcial detailing all of the ways in which China had
stealthily complied with the Tribunal ruling, prompting the response: Thats fascinating; I
dont believe you.
21. Strong emotional attachment to internalised procedural rules for rule-making is evident in other
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Author Biographies
Mark Raymond is Wick Cary Associate Professor of International Relations and Director of the
Cyber Governance and Policy Center at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Social
Practices of Rule-Making in World Politics (Oxford University Press). He has also published on
International Relations theory, Internet governance, and cybersecurity.
David A. Welch is University Research Chair and Professor of Political Science at the University
of Waterloo and teaches at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. He has published widely on
international security, foreign policy analysis, crisis decision making, and East Asian ashpoints.
He is co-author of Understanding Global Conict and Cooperation, 10th ed. (Pearson
Longman), with Joseph S. Nye, Jr., and co-editor (with Toni Erskine and Stefano Guzzini) of
the Cambridge University Press journal, International Theory.
26 Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 0(0)
People often disagree about what counts as “just” in a particular case. Such disagreement is natural and understandable once we realize that people commonly bring to the concept of justice different understandings of what makes something just or unjust, interpret general principles differently in specific circumstances, and/or fail to see eye to eye on appropriate ways of resolving justice disputes. But in all cases, disagreement about what is just logically requires that the parties share an understanding of what it is that they are disagreeing about. Similarly, any analysis of the role justice might play in a particular domain – here, negotiation – requires a shared understanding of what it is that is playing the role in question. The purpose of this article is to articulate and justify a shared understanding of the concept of justice that facilitates both the understanding and resolution of justice disputes.
Full-text available
This study offers an explanation for Beijing’s seemingly self-defeating approach to the South China Sea that distances China ever more from the regional and international communities which it wants to lead and join while drawing in the foreign military presence that it seeks to keep at a distance. Combining recent research on the role of emotions and on hierarchy in international politics, this article shows how the powerful narrative of national ‘humiliation’ and ‘rejuvenation’ has informed Chinese maritime politics. As the South China Sea became incorporated in the linear timeline of China’s 5000 year civilizational history, the US’ and its allies’ push-back against Beijing’s territorial claims deepened China’s ideational isolation. The ensuing state of solipsism increases the risk of violent confrontations.
Full-text available
In 2013, despite deteriorating relations between Russia and the United States and increased global contention over cybersecurity issues, participating states in the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly agreed on a landmark report endorsing the applicability of existing international law to state military use of information technology. Given these conditions, the timing of this agreement was surprising. I argue that state representatives engaged in a rule-governed social practice of applying old rules to new cases, and that the procedural rules governing this practice help to explain the existence, timing and form of the agreement. They also help to explain further agreements expressed in a follow-on report issued in 2015. The case study findings presented here demonstrate that social practices of rule-making are simultaneously rule-governed and politically contested, and that outcomes of these processes have been shaped by specialized rules for making, interpreting and applying rules. The effectiveness of procedural rules in shaping the outcome of a contentious, complex global security issue suggests that such rules are likely to matter even more in simpler cases dealing with less contentious issues.
While ‘confidence’ and ‘trust’ are familiar terms in the Asia–Pacific security lexicon, there is surprisingly little agreement on what they actually mean and how they relate both to each other and to the practical challenges of conflict management. In this essay, I seek to disambiguate them and to make the case for precise (stipulated) meanings. I also argue for the importance of a third concept that has received surprisingly little attention from either scholars or policymakers: namely, empathy. I then proceed to examine how the failure to achieve empathy complicates and potentially threatens conflict management in two of the Asia–Pacific’s most serious flashpoints: the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea. I then explore the practical consequences of achieving a higher degree of empathy in both cases. Greater empathy with Kim Jong-un I argue, could be calming, but may well be highly alarming. Greater empathy with Xi Jinping, in contrast, would demonstrate that we have overestimated the Chinese threat in the South China Sea.
A review of studies of China’s foreign policy reveals three dominant methods: the area studies approach, the IR theory method, and the integrated approach. We suggest that it is time to pay close attention to an emerging research program focusing on the study of Chinese international relations (IR) scholars, especially their internal debates, as a new venue to understand China’s foreign policy. Although Chinese IR scholars are normally quoted as valuable sources in the study of Chinese foreign policy in general, there is no systematic study of China’s IR scholars per se. In order to transform the study of Chinese IR scholars to a full-fledged research program, researchers need to pursue theoretical innovations on the relationship between different types of IR scholars and foreign policy inquiries, advance multi-method research designs across the different methods of field interviews, textual analysis, and opinion surveys, as well as encourage international collaboration between Chinese scholars and non-Chinese scholars.
Although nearly twenty joint development agreements have been signed since the 1950s, only a few have been implemented and even fewer have achieved successful commercialization. This article discusses the conditions leading to the implementation failures of joint development agreements. Applying the Crisp-set Qualitative Comparative Analysis method to nineteen joint development agreements between 1958 and 2008, this article argues that the only causally-related condition associated with the failed implementation of joint development agreements is the deterioration of bilateral relations, often arising from the maritime boundary dispute that the joint development agreement was supposed to resolve. Other possible hypotheses, such as lack of economic incentives, energy independence, domestic opposition, third-party intervention and disagreements over the details of the project, do not show any correlated pattern with the failure to implement such agreements. The finding provides policy implications for the current boundary disputes in the South China Sea: improved bilateral relations is the prerequisite for the effective implementation of joint development ventures, and not the other way around. Littoral states should also not pursue joint development agreements as a false pretext to secretly consolidate their maritime boundary claims, or to confirm the status of a “dispute”. Furthermore, successful negotiations for a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea may help to create a conducive atmosphere for claimant states to agree on the joint development of offshore hydrocarbon resources.
en This article explores the role of the local government in Hainan Province in Beijing’s policy in the South China Sea (SCS) disputes. The article argues that Hainan has played three major roles in the SCS disputes: an avid defender of China’s claim and position, an active definer of China’s interests in the disputes, and a helpful participant in asserting China’s national security in the SCS. The establishment of the Sansha city has significantly increased Hainan’s involvement in the SCS contestations. This article concludes that Beijing’s policy in the SCS is unlikely to become significantly more moderate partly because of Hainan’s strong position on the dispute and keen interest in the resources in the area. The article also recommends incorporating the views and activities of local governments in future studies on Chinese foreign and security policy. Abstract zh 中国南海政策:海南省地方政府发挥了什么作用? 本文就北京方面在南海(SCS)争端中采取的政策,探究了海南省地方政府发挥的作用。本文主张,海南在南海争端中发挥了三个作用:一个积极拥护中国主张和立场的守卫者、一个积极为中国在南海争端中的利益发声的定义者、一个协助维护中国在南海的国家安全的参与者。三沙市的建立显著提升了海南在南海竞争中的介入。本研究结论认为,北京方面在南海实行的政策不太可能在很大程度上变得较为温和,部分原因是因为海南在南海争端中的强势立场,和对该区域资源的渴望。本文还建议将地方政府的看法与活动融入到今后有关中国外交政策与安全政策的研究中。 Abstract es Provincia de Hainan en la Política del Mar del Sur de China de China: ¿Qué papel juega el gobierno local? Este documento explora el papel del gobierno local en la provincia de Hainan en la política de Beijing en las disputas del Mar del Sur de China (SCS). El documento argumenta que Hainan ha desempeñado tres papeles principales en las disputas de SCS: un defensor ávido del reclamo y la posición de China, un definidor activo de los intereses de China en las disputas y un participante útil en afirmar la seguridad nacional de China en el SCS. El establecimiento de la ciudad de Sansha ha aumentado significativamente la participación de Hainan en las competencias de SCS. Este estudio concluye que es poco probable que la política de Beijing en el SCS se vuelva significativamente más moderada, en parte debido a la fuerte posición de Hainan en la disputa y al gran interés en los recursos en el área. El documento también recomienda incorporar las opiniones y actividades de los gobiernos locales en futuros estudios sobre la política exterior y de seguridad de China.
Since 1990, China has used coercion in its maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, despite adverse implications for its image. China is curiously selective in its timing, targets, and tools of coercion: China rarely employs military coercion, and it does not coerce all countries that pose similar threats. An examination of newly available primary documents and hundreds of hours of interviews with Chinese officials to trace the decisionmaking processes behind China's use and nonuse of coercion reveals a new theory of when, why, and how China employs coercion against other states, especially in the South China Sea. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the findings show that China is a cautious bully that does not use coercion frequently. In addition, when China becomes stronger, it tends to use military coercion less often, choosing instead nonmilitary tools. Moreover, concerns with its reputation for resolve and with economic cost are critical elements of Chinese decisionmaking regarding the costs and benefits of coercing its neighbors. China often coerces one target to deter others—“killing the chicken to scare the monkey.” These findings have important implications for how scholars understand states' coercive strategies and the future of Chinese behavior in the region and beyond.