February 3, 2021

Why has the People's Republic of China (PRC) courted international opprobrium, alarmed its neighbors, and risked military conflict in pursuit of its claims over vast areas of the South China Sea? Answering this question depends on recognizing long-term patterns of continuity and change in the PRC's policy. A new typology of “assertive” state behaviors in maritime and territorial disputes, and original time-series events data covering the period from 1970 to 2015, shows that the key policy change—China's rapid administrative buildup and introduction of regular coercive behaviors—occurred in 2007, between two and five years earlier than most analysis has supposed. This finding disconfirms three common explanations for Beijing's assertive turn in maritime Asia: the Global Financial Crisis, domestic legitimacy issues, and the ascendancy of Xi Jinping. Focused qualitative case studies of four breakpoints identified in the data indicate that PRC policy shifts in 1973, 1987, and 1992 were largely opportunistic responses to favorable geopolitical circumstances. In contrast, the policy change observed from 2007 was a lagged effect of decisions taken in the 1990s to build specific capabilities designed to realize strategic objectives that emerged in the 1970s.

Posted Online January 25, 2021
https://doi.org/10.1162/isec_a_00400    -    https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/full/10.1162/isec_a_00400

Andrew Chubb

Andrew Chubb is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, undertaking a three-year investigation of the role of domestic public opinion in international crisis diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific. A graduate of the University of Western Australia, his work examines the linkages between Chinese domestic politics and international relations. More broadly, Andrew's interests include maritime and territorial disputes, strategic communication, political propaganda, and Chinese Communist Party history.

Photo Credit: By Voice of America - http://blogs.voanews.com/state-department-news/2012/07/31/challenging-beijing-in-the-south-china-sea/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47176473