Abstract

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.

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