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This book offers an assessment of China’s assertive foreign policy behavior with a special focus on Chinese policies in the South China Sea (SCS). By providing a detailed account of the events in the SCS and by analyzing power dynamics in the region, it identifies the driving forces behind China’s assertive foreign policy. Considering China’s power on a domestic as well as an international level, it examines a number of different sources of hard and soft power, including military, economics, geopolitics, and domestic legitimacy.
The author demonstrates that Chinese assertiveness in the SCS can be explained not only by increases in China’s power, but also by effective reactions to other actors’ foreign policy changes. The book will appeal to scholars in international relations, especially those interested in a better understanding of South China Sea developments, China’s political power and foreign policy, and East Asian international affairs.



Chapter 1. The Puzzle of Chinese Assertiveness

The notion of an ‘assertive’ China has been widely discussed, yet there is no consensus about what comprises the assertive behaviour of China and why China (allegedly) started to behave assertively. Some claim that the idea of China’s assertiveness was exaggerated, although most agree that China has become more assertive in the disputed maritime regions. In terms of explanations, most of the accents have been put on the changing distribution of power, domestic factors in China, and external factors. All the previous work and relevant findings notwithstanding, there are important missing links in our understanding of the Chinese assertiveness which invite further research.
This book is going to scrutinize the events of China’s alleged assertiveness and test three hypotheses of what is believed to be behind the Chinese assertiveness from the perspective of Chinese foreign policy. The thesis of the changing distribution of power in the region can be seen as the most often presented explanation of the Chinese assertive behaviour, and hence most of the emphasis throughout the book will be put on this theory. A comprehensive analysis of China’s power will be conducted on various levels, and the findings will be linked to the power sources used during the assertive events. Subsequently, after showing that the main hypothesis cannot explain the Chinese assertiveness by itself, the validity of alternative hypotheses dealing with the domestic politics and the influence of the external environment will be tested. It will be argued eventually that China’s growing power was a necessary, but not a satisfactory explanatory variable of the assertive events. In almost all instances of its assertive behaviour, China reacted to new actions of other actors. The book therefore subscribes to the claim that the Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea could be described as a ‘reactive assertiveness’.
Richard Q. Turcsányi

Chapter 2. Chinese Assertive Actions in the South China Sea

The South China Sea (SCS) has become one of the most problematic spots of international politics, and it has been mentioned as a possible trigger to a large-scale world conflict, the critical tipping point in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region, and the place where global economy meets geopolitics. This diagnosis is the direct result of the high importance of the area for the global economy combined with the complex situation of overlapping territorial claims between six directly involved actors.
The assertive China discourse developed as a reaction to the allegedly changed behaviour of China in the period of 2009–2010. However, it is argued here that the narrative was exaggerated at the time. While the SCS is most often mentioned as the area where Chinese foreign policy indeed was supposed to become more assertive, the individual events in the SCS show only policy adjustments at most. Moreover, the Chinese actions and reactions were not entirely disproportionate when compared to the moves of the other countries. Still, China started to defend its claims more actively. Even though these claims have not been adjusted for decades, the level of activity with which China decided to impose them and also react to other countries’ moves was growing.
In the period of 2011–2016, however, China did become assertive in its behaviour. Altogether five cases of Chinese assertiveness in this period were identified: the cable-cutting incidents in 2011; the Scarborough Shoal stand-off in 2012; the Second Thomas Shoal stand-off, which has been running since 2013; the oil rig incident in 2014; and the land reclamation, construction, and militarization of the outposts taking place since 2014. These five events will be further analysed in subsequent chapters to establish their driving forces.
Richard Q. Turcsányi

Chapter 3. A Comprehensive Concept of Power in International Relations

Power is defined in this book as the ability to achieve and/or sustain a desired goal. It is seen as an issue-specific ability, and it should not be mistaken for sources of power, exercise of power, or influence. Assessing the power of an actor by looking at its sources of power and outcomes is the best available method for approximations of the actual power. To take into account all potentially relevant sources of power, three levels of power sources will be considered—the state, international, and societal levels. One should consider the specific intentions of the given country, for different policy goals may require different sets of power sources. In this thesis, altogether eight areas of power will be considered to form a sufficiently comprehensive assessment of the examined actor’s power.
In the critical engagement with the published works on China’s power, it was shown that even literature which deals directly with China’s power does not necessarily present the full and up-to-date story. It can be suggested that the topic of China’s power and its influence on its foreign policy in general, and after 2008 in particular, is significantly under-researched. Based on the conceptual understanding of power and the discussion of China’s power, it is argued here that it is mainly due to a lack of rigorous and comprehensive work with the key concept of power both within the China watchers’ community and among scholars of international relations in general.
Richard Q. Turcsányi

Chapter 4. China’s Sources of Power at the State Level: The Military, Economy, and National Performance

Sources of power at the state level are seen as of primary importance when assessing the power of a state, as it is here where the state really acts. Militarily, China is the most powerful actor among the direct claimants in the SCS dispute, and the gap between China and the rest is further increasing. The other regional countries do, however, challenge China, and Chinese military capabilities are still not at the level where China would have a reasonable chance to be successful in case a major conflict erupts over the Spratly Islands and the USA chooses to intervene. Without China’s dynamic economy, no major military rise on its part could take place, and in the relevant period, the Chinese economy grew more than that of any other country in the region. Similarly, the Chinese government has been surprisingly successful in governing the country in the previous two decades. It has also been documented both quantitatively and qualitatively that China’s government effectiveness has been increasing since 2012.
Out of the assertive events, however, only one can be seen as directly caused by the power increases—the oil rig incident in 2014. China achieved its deep-water exploration and drilling capability only in the beginning of the 2010s, and this was the first operation to utilize this capability. The centralization of the China Coast Guard, which started in 2012, improved the national performance in this regard. In contrast, in all the remaining cases of Chinese assertiveness, China possessed all the specific capabilities that it used in the cases at least a few years before it chose to apply them. Moreover, on the aggregate level, there is no evidence that either militarily or economically the distribution of power in the region (or on the global level) would pass any threshold. Therefore, the main hypothesis is seen as valid only in one out of the five assertive cases. In the remaining four cases, other explanations must be found.
Richard Q. Turcsányi

Chapter 5. China’s International and Societal Levels of Power Sources

China’s institutional position in the regional and global international system is stable and relatively positive. China was relatively successful in managing international institutions to get the most from them in terms of stabilizing the international environment while not getting entangled in obligations which would go against its interests. But China’s geopolitical position is more complicated. China improved its importance in the regional international system; however, growing security worries have led other countries to hedge against China. Geo-economically, since the 1990s, China has become more sensitive to external development, yet it has not proven to be vulnerable to the external shocks of the 1997 and 2008 crises. On the other hand, the rest of the region has become even more sensitive to China. It was found that China’s soft power is not strong. In this respect, China lags significantly behind the USA, but also Japan and South Korea, and globally it is overtaken by much smaller countries. Quantitatively, the Chinese image has decreased during the 2000s and early 2010s. Overall, China’s soft power can be regarded as one of China’s problematic areas of power sources, and it is likely that the low level of China’s soft power contributes also to its problematic geopolitical position. On the other hand, the available data shows that the Chinese government enjoys a respectfully high level of legitimacy among its people.
All in all, the examples of Chinese assertive policies in the SCS show no signs that any of the international or societal sources of power would be their main cause. While domestic legitimacy and geo-economics can be seen as positive contributors to the policies (but not as their triggers), China’s problematic geopolitical position and low soft power present major limitations for it and perhaps even prevented it from acting more assertively.
Richard Q. Turcsányi

Chapter 6. Theories of Chinese Assertiveness in the South China Sea

Based on the power analysis conducted in the previous two chapters, it will be argued here that the main hypothesis does not fully explain the Chinese assertiveness. Moreover, it is shown that although China’s perception of its power (in a twist of the main hypothesis) increased somewhat immediately in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, the increased perception was not very significant, and it seemed to decrease shortly afterwards. Hence, alternative theories need to be proposed to explain the Chinese behaviour. Subsequently, it is claimed that four out of the five assertive events can be explained as Chinese reactions to other actors’ actions, as the alternative hypothesis 1 claims. With the exception of the oil rig incident, all of the four remaining assertive cases included a direct trigger which, from China’s perspective, was the action of another actor. Furthermore, the changes in the regional international system, particularly those connected to the initiation of the US pivot policy, likely contributed indirectly to the Chinese assertive actions.
Even though the combination of the two hypotheses sufficiently explains all five instances of the assertive Chinese behaviour in the SCS, the validity of the remaining theory was also discussed. The alternative hypothesis 2 is the most complex of the alternative hypotheses, and it required discussing three separate options of how domestic politics could have influenced Chinese foreign policy towards being assertive. Two of them—the fragmentation of the leadership and domestic instability—were found not to be present in a relevant way. While the third indicator’s assumption—the growing nationalism—is met, there are no marks that would indicate that the government would have been under pressure from the nationalistic public opinion and thus decided to adopt assertive policies. On the contrary, the accounts of the assertive actions of China give signs of pre-planned, restrained, and well-controlled behaviour.
Richard Q. Turcsányi

Chapter 7. Conclusion

The primary goal of the presented book has been to answer the question of what has driven the Chinese assertive policies in the South China Sea. Throughout the text, the main focus has been put on the dominant ‘power shift’ theory. Producing relevant answers required a set of steps—to establish the theoretical basis with regard to the assertive China discourse, to develop a conceptualization of power suitable for the analysis, to conduct a detailed description of the events which took place in the SCS in the relevant period, to assess China’s power by following the presented conceptual requirements, and to link the findings about China’s power to China’s assertive policies in the SCS. Furthermore, after showing that the main hypothesis does not explain the assertive policies sufficiently, the discussion about the validity of the alternative hypotheses was presented, which in the end produced a complete theory of Chinese assertiveness in the SCS.
The concluding part of the book consists of two sections. Firstly, summaries of all the findings and assertions from each chapter of the book will be presented, including the findings regarding the validity of the main and alternative hypotheses. Secondly, the outcomes of the research will be discussed from a broader perspective. In particular, it will be discussed what the findings tell us about China’s power, Chinese foreign policy, and Indo-Pacific politics in general and what the takeaways of the research are in terms of the suggested concept of power and its demonstrative application. Finally, a brief postscript will discuss how the new Trump administration in the USA might affect the complex power dynamics in the region.
Richard Q. Turcsányi
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