Understanding the Potential for Conflict in the South China Sea

By Bailey Wong
Clocks and Clouds
2016, Vol. 7 No. 1 | pg. 2/2 |

Potential and Alternative Interpretations

This research concludes that economic interdependence plays the single greatest role in constraining the use of force in the South China Sea; however, there are other potential and alternative explanations for the same decline. Data used to analyze China's Charm Offensive would also support constructivist claims that the establishment of regional frameworks (which thus create norms of behavior among states) substantially mitigates the risk of conflict. That said, there are other interpretations among Sinologists and international relations theorists as to how these findings can be interpreted.

Most prominent of dissenting interpretations belong to realist scholars. The evidence collected could tentatively support a nuanced interpretation of the offensive realist's argument: that China's vast accumulation of power could have hegemonic, stabilizing effects on the region. Still, the plausibility of such an explanation is hampered by the disputant states' vigorous opposition to China's island reclamation activities, and the increasing role of U.S. naval projection, both of which risk escalating the conflict.

Other Sinologists argue that China is using the Charm Offensive and this current period of prolonged economic and diplomatic engagement to cynically bide time for a sustained military buildup and perhaps impending military engagement. Such a buildup would inevitably expand China's growing naval capabilities, which represents a dangerous challenge to U.S. naval primacy, and certainly the security of disputant states (O'Rourke 2016). Data regarding China's military spending and pundit speculation of China's naval ambitions (most notably its pursuit of a second, homegrown aircraft carrier and an increasingly treacherous submarine fleet) would support these claims (Lim 2011; Ross 2009). Such realists allege that China's recent economic parity with the United States and military modernization have allowed China to make the constrained provocations it has in the South China Sea. However, these scholars acknowledge that China is not yet powerful enough to openly engage in a violent conflict over the South China Sea. So long as that remains true, the use of force in the South China Sea will be constrained. However, this interpretation of peace is subject to change should China's military strength— especially relative to the United States and the collective will of ASEAN—rapidly surge. These realists would mostly agree that economic interdependence and regional norms are constraining force for now, but disagree as to whether these factors will continue to hold in the decades to come.


The South China Sea will continue to be a contentious nexus for conflict in Southeast Asia for the foreseeable future. At present, there are no clear solutions to the multiple territorial disputes currently at stake. Regional normative frameworks, primarily propagated through Chinese-ASEAN cooperation, has made diplomatic progress, but remain unlikely to permanently constrain China's aggressive provocations. This is supported by conditions surrounding the Philippines' legal challenge to invasive Chinese claims—a step taken through a legal, normative framework which is widely anticipated to be ignored by the Chinese (Permanent Court of Arbitration 2013). At the same time, relative power does not offer a complete explanation either. Growing Chinese military advantages, especially in defense spending, technology, and geographic proximity may have encouraged recent territorial reclamations, but offer no sign of actual use of force. My analysis thus calls into question the supposedly belligerent nature of states which increase their relative power, and identifies possible contradictions in the influence of regional normative frameworks. Of the three variables analyzed, the increasing economic interdependence would appear to have the most constraining influence on the use of force by raising the costs of conflict.

This research contributes to an ongoing debate within international relations regarding the factors by which states decide to use force. By identifying economic interdependence as the most plausible constraining influence on the use of force, this research can hopefully provide insight to policymakers regarding the South China Sea and conflict prevention at large. By specifically investigating variables pertinent to prevalent international relations theory, this research can also inform future conflict prevention models. Of course, these findings are subject to methodological limitations. As such, future research regarding the potential for conflict should seek to identify other plausible factors for conflict between states. Such research would have to examine other global hotspots to compare these same variables, and new ones, for explanatory power.

Future research specifically focusing on the South China Sea will have to carefully monitor potential normative and economic solutions for a permanent resolution to the territorial dispute. The data that I collected has demonstrated an unquestionable Chinese military advantage that is widely expected to grow over the coming years. However, all parties involved, including China, have indicated a preference against conflict (at least for now), and a long-term, nonviolent solution is viewed to be in everyone's best interest. This combination only makes further research regarding conflict prevention more important. This research can continue to search for and improve operationalization for factors which constrain the use of force. Such research would hopefully help guide security policy into an optimistic future.


Bailey Wong is a student of International Studies and Economics. He graduates in May of 2018. School of International Service (SIS) and College of Arts & Sciences (CAS), American University. Email: bw9738a@student.american.edu


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  1. The dependent variable, uses of force in the South China Sea, is displayed as an interval variable. The three independent variables are displayed as ordinal variables.
  2. China's first engagement with ASEAN occurred in 1990, when Malaysia included China in its regional free trade proposal for the East Asia Economic Caucas.


Table 1A: Dependent Variable 1—Relative Power

Table 2A: Dependent Variable 2—Regional Normative Frameworks

Table 3A: Dependent Variable 3—Economic Interdependence

Table 4A: Independent Variable—Use of Force

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