By David A. Welch, University Research Chair and Professor
Not long ago, the South China Sea dominated the international news. China was throwing its weight around, building massive artificial islands with runways and other military infrastructure; drilling exploratory wells in waters claimed by Hanoi, triggering violent confrontations with Vietnamese boats and anti-Chinese riots in Vietnamese cities; blocking Philippine boats from traditional fishing grounds (an act Philippine president Benigno Aquino likened to the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia); and generally behaving as though one of the world’s most important maritime thoroughfares was a Chinese lake. China had “indisputable sovereignty” since “time immemorial” over the South China Sea’s territorial features and “associated waters,” Beijing insisted, despite the fact that no fewer than five of its neighbours—and pretty much the rest of the international community—emphatically disagreed.
Tensions came to a head in July 2016, when an arbitration tribunal, in a case brought by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ruled against China’s expansive maritime claims. World leaders called for China to respect the ruling but feared and largely expected that it would not. Predictably, China declared the ruling “null and void” on the grounds that the tribunal was illegitimate and lacked jurisdiction.
But then two very strange things happened. First, China quietly began to comply with the ruling whose validity it had just rejected. Second, no one noticed. With respect to the first: why? With respect to the second: why not?
The answers to these questions tell us an awful lot about what it takes to understand international politics. Our usual paradigmatic lenses and rules of thumb are simply not up to the task. There is no Realist, Constructivist, or other magic bullet—nor any set of pithy aphorisms—that can help us make sense of what happened. For that we must look to a combination of bureaucratic politics, two-level games, and Jane Austen.
The bureaucratic politics piece helps us understand why in 2012 China suddenly began behaving so badly in the South China Sea and why it equally suddenly stopped in 2016. We (by which I mean most scholars, policy makers, journalists, and members of the general public) tend to think of China as a unitary actor. This is understandable: China is a one-party state governed by a strong-man leader who takes great pains to project such an image. But, in fact, Xi sits atop a sprawling bureaucracy in which various agencies and ministries jockey for position, push for their views to be heard and need to feel appreciated. The most important internal cleavage, as far as foreign policy is concerned, is between internationalists in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and nationalists in the People’s Liberation Army and related security organs. Traditionally, the internationalists had the upper hand, because of their superior expertise. But in 2012, nationalists began winning internal foreign policy debates by stridently insisting that the Foreign Ministry’s don’t-rock-the-boat preference for engagement denied China the voice, respect, and deference to which they believed it was entitled as a renascent Great Power. The result was four years of foreign policy disasters, anti-China balancing, and a new global narrative of China as an expansionistic, aggressive, outlaw state. The Philippines Arbitration Tribunal proved to be the final straw. Foreign Ministry internationalists took over once again and have since actively been trying to rebrand China as a responsible global citizen.
But the regime could not be seen domestically as having lost or backed down. Its very legitimacy depended on its reputation as guarantor of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Having oversold the public on unsustainable claims, the regime had to pretend that those claims were intact. This is where two-level games come in. Beijing understood that it needed the international community to see it as a team player, but it also needed the domestic audience to see it as having stood its ground. So far so good on the latter, but not the former. The “aggressive China” narrative still dominates, and competing claimants are, for the most part, resisting China’s attempts to change the channel from sovereignty to cooperation and the joint development or management of resources.
Which is where Jane Austen comes in. Cognitive psychology teaches us that people form beliefs quickly and easily, often on the basis of relatively little information, but once having formed them, resist changing them. We have, as it were, a cognitive double standard. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet formed an image of Mr. Darcy as a haughty, pompous misanthrope on the basis of a single short encounter at the beginning of the novel and only changed her mind at the very end after encountering a mountain of discrepant information that simply did not fit with that image. The nationalists’ brief ascendance fixed the “aggressive China” narrative, but we have yet to update it. No one notices China’s attempt to play nice in part because Beijing is not trumpeting it, fearing a domestic backlash, but also in part because of Pride and Prejudice Syndrome.
China is no longer the threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea that it appeared until very recently to be. But we will not appreciate this fully until we relax our assumption that China is a unitary actor, understand the regime’s domestic/international predicament, and read more Jane Austen.