What's Really Behind Chinese Assertiveness in the South China Sea?
Chinese structures and an airstrip on the man-made Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands are seen from a Philippine Air Force C-130 transport plane of the Philippine Air Force (April 21, 2017).
Image Credit: Francis Malasig/Pool Photo via AP

What's Really Behind Chinese Assertiveness in the South China Sea?


“Chinese assertiveness” has become an infamous phrase – it is regularly used by media, pundits, and politicians, yet there is little scholarly work that would clarify the meaning of the concept. A similar situation exists when it comes to China’s power. Although it is generally assumed that “China is rising,” there are surprisingly few systematic studies of China’s power being done comprehensively and rigorously.

As such, we have ended up with the proposition that China is “assertive” and that the ongoing “power shift” is the reason why. In reality, we do not know which Chinese actions, precisely, fall within the “assertive” label or what this label actually means. Similarly, we do not know how much power China has acquired, and we are not even sure how to assess China’s power. Worse, there is not even much ongoing discussion about these questions.

My recent book Chinese Assertiveness in the South China Sea addresses these issues. It defines the concept of “Chinese assertiveness,” establishes what policy actions qualify to be included, and then tests explanations as to why China conducted such policies. The South China Sea is taken as the case study since this is the area where there is nearly a consensus that China acts assertively.

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Chinese Assertiveness: What, When, and Where

To begin with, an “assertive” action is one when China (in this case) actively pursues its interests and acts boldly toward achieving its goals, even if they contradict the interests of other actors. An assertive action by China must be significantly different from both the actions of other countries and previous norms. Hence, when talking about Chinese assertiveness, we talk about new and unique Chinese behavior, which is qualitatively and/or quantitatively different from the behavior of other countries.

Looking for the policy cases which fulfil these criteria in the area of the South China Sea, we first notice that the events from the years 2009-2010 – when the “assertive” discourse started developing – do not meet them. Only since 2011 can we find cases when China acted assertively. Altogether, the book identifies five such examples: cable cutting incidents, the Scarborough Shoal stand-off, the Second Thomas Shoal stand-off, the oil rig incident, and land reclamation and militarization of Chinese outposts.

These five cases should serve as the basis for the study of how and why China acted “assertively” in the South China Sea.

China’s Power and Its Role

There have been various explanations dealing with the topic of why China has acted assertively; however, no rigorous testing has been done so far. The explanation that growing power of China made it act assertively has been the most influential theory, and therefore it is also at the center of the book. The book first builds a comprehensive and multidimensional model of power, which includes three levels (international, state, domestic) and eights sources of power: military, economy, national performance, international institutional setting, geopolitics, position in the international economy, domestic legitimacy, and soft power.

Based on this model of power, it was found that in general, China’s power has been growing especially when it comes to economy and military, but also in terms of international economic position, domestic legitimacy, and national performance. On the other hand, the main limitations of China’s power are geopolitics and soft power.

When it comes to the five assertive cases, only in one case did a newly acquired capability allow China to move. This was the oil rig incident, when China dispatched its most advanced and newly acquired deep water drilling technology, and it protected the operation with newly unified and strengthened paramilitary forces. In all the remaining four assertive cases, China could have acted in the same ways years or even decades before. Moreover, major power improvements notwithstanding, in the years when the assertive behavior took place, China was still far away from overtaking the United States. In other words, China’s power did not pass any particular threshold in the “assertive” era.

Furthermore, taking a closer look at Chinese domestic discussion, neither Chinese leaders nor public opinion saw China as overtaking the United States. Hence, there was no “power shift” taking place, and the perception in China was more or less in line with the reality.

Alternative Explanations: Toward the Theory of ‘Reactive Assertiveness’

After showing that the “power shift” can explain only one out of five assertive cases, the book takes into account two alternative hypotheses. Domestic politics is one which has often been used in various ways to explain Chinese assertiveness – be it the role of the Xi Jinping, a loss of control by the central leadership, an attempt to distract from domestic problems, or growing nationalism. None of these ideas offers a persuasive explanation.

The assertive behavior had started already at the end of Hu Jintao era, and thus predates Xi. At the same time, considering the importance of the South China Sea disputes and rapid centralization of power in Xi’s hands, it is unimaginable that the central leadership would be losing grip of what is going on in the area. Available indications show very high levels of public satisfaction in China, both generally and even when it comes to events such as territorial disputes. Furthermore, public satisfaction and national performance indicators were improving at the time of these incidents. Only growing nationalism can be seen as a contributing factor, yet hardly a trigger.

On the other hand, the other alternative explanation which was found to be valid for four out of five assertive events in the South China Sea. In each of these cases, China responded (assertively) to what it saw as a new development. The immediate triggers were thus the court ruling in The Hague, Filipino actions at the Scarborough Shoal (particularly the Philippine Navy’s presence) and the Second Thomas Shoal (the Philippine attempt to repair its outpost), and another phase of maritime surveys. Moreover, the assertive actions of China took place after the United States initiated its “pivot to Asia,” which was seen in China as worsening of its geopolitical position.

Hence, I argue for the theory of China’s “reactive assertiveness,” at least when it comes to the events in the South China Sea. It should be emphasized that this says nothing about whether China was legitimate or not in its behavior, or whether other claimants and their actions were devised wisely or not. What is claimed is that in most assertive actions, China — from its perspective — did not begin to act assertively as soon as it acquired the power to do so, but only chose to use its capabilities when it felt the situation required (or allowed) such action. It also remains an open question, however, as to how the power dynamics in the region will develop with Donald Trump in place, which can already be assessed as having a negative impact on American power.

Richard Q. Turcsanyi, Ph.D. is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague and Assistant Professor at Mendel University in Brno. He recently published the book Chinese Assertiveness in the South China Sea. Power Sources, Domestic Politics, and Reactive Foreign Policy

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