Facing the Ravenous Sea Dragon

How Weaker Nations Confront Chinese Coercion in the South China Sea

by Dung Huynh

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The risk of armed conflicts in the South China Sea (SCS) has been rising since the late 2000s when China increased the frequency with which it exercised its coercive power over other littoral nations, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Chinese coercive behaviors range from Coast Guard patrols to ramming fishing vessels, to capturing fishermen for ransom and harassing the economic activities (oil, gas, and fishing) of other nations as well as surveying in other nation's Exclusive Economic Zones, all in defiance of international law. How to cope with China's strategy of coercion, including potential military actions, to both safeguard territorial sovereignty and sustain economic development is one of the major policy challenges facing SCS claimant nations.

Nevertheless, how weaker nations respond to Chinese assertiveness in SCS disputes comprehensively and comparatively has been understudied, although much has been written on China-Southeast Asia relations. This dissertation attempts to fill in that research gap by exploring the policies of weaker nations to counter Chinese coercion in the SCS disputes. Using literature review, case study analysis (including qualitative comparative analysis), and quantitative methods with a newly collected and compiled dataset (N=329 cases between 1970 and 2021), it aims to address two questions: 1) What policies have weaker nations adopted to respond to Chinese coercion in the South China Sea disputes? 2) What combinations of factors are associated with the effectiveness of these policies? The findings (discussed in the Summary below) provide policy implications for the SCS nations and relevant states, including the United States and other Asian nations.

The original contribution of the dissertation is twofold. Empirically, it contributes a dataset of how China coerced SCS nations and their responses, adding value to future research on the SCS disputes. Theoretically, the dissertation is expected to add to the scholarship of inter-state coercion an empirical study of the SCS disputes with a focus on the policymaking of small states in territorial contests. Moreover, it also aims to offer insight into the understudied policies of SCS nations against Chinese assertiveness in territorial disputes in Southeast Asian studies through a cross-nation comparative analysis based on comprehensive data.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Policy Issues and Research Questions

  • Chapter Two

    Empirical and Literature Review

  • Chapter Three

    Research Methodology and Data Collection

  • Chapter Four

    Chinese Coercion in the SCS

  • Chapter Five

    The policies of Weaker Nations against Chinese Coercion in the SCS Disputes

  • Chapter Six

    Critical Factors of Weaker Nations' Policies against Chinese Coercion in SCS

  • Chapter Seven

    Within-Case Analysis for Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia

  • Chapter Eight

    Policy Implications and Conclusion

  • Appendix 1

    Disputed waters in the SCS

  • Appendix 2

    Vietnam's oil business and Chinese survey in Vietnam's EEZ

  • Appendix 3

    Claims of nations and the 2016 UN Tribunal ruling

  • Appendix 4

    Examples of the cases and QCA method

  • Appendix 5

    R Script for binary logistic regression of factors

  • Appendix 6

    Chapter 6: Critical Factors of Weaker Nations' Policies

  • Appendix 7

    Dataset for Chinese coercion in the SCS

Research conducted by

This document was submitted as a dissertation in September 2022 in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the doctoral degree in public policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. The faculty committee that supervised and approved the dissertation consisted of Angela O’ Mahony (Chair), Bonny Lin, Christopher Paul, and Carl Thayer (external reader, Emeritus Professor, UNSW Canberra).

This dissertation is partially funded by the Eugene and Maxine Rosenfeld Dissertation Award and the Charles Wolf Dissertation Award.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Dissertation series. Pardee RAND dissertations are produced by graduate fellows of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, the world's leading producer of Ph.D.'s in policy analysis. The dissertations are supervised, reviewed, and approved by a Pardee RAND faculty committee overseeing each dissertation.

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