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Book review: Chinese Assertiveness in the South China Sea by Richard Turcsányi

By Ariane Combal-Weiss

24 May 2018

Chinese Assertiveness in the South China Sea: Power Sources, Domestic Politics, and Reactive Foreign Policy by Richard Q. Turcsányi, Springer, 27 October 2017.

Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS) is a buzzword in the Asian strategic landscape. Perhaps only the DPRK nuclear crisis can compete among the top challenges to the ‘rules-based international order’ in Asia. But China’s rise and involvement in the SCS have a particular meaning, as they are major factors in the global power shifts of the 21st century. Yet the very notion of China’s ‘assertiveness’ is often taken for granted. The rationales, the characteristics and the factors underpinning Chinese growing assertiveness are rarely investigated. This is the gap Richard Turcsányi fills in his new study of Chinese behaviour in the SCS.

After tracing the origins of the SCS disputes, he identifies two main waves of assertiveness, the pre-2011 and 2011-2016 periods. He articulates a definition of ‘assertiveness’ and goes through the factors that boosted China’s growing assertiveness. He uses concrete events and incidents in the SCS to assess when China has been assertive. The land reclamation, constructions and militarisation of China’s outposts since 2014 are examples of assertive moves and bold responses to the arbitration hearing initiated by the Philippines.

To explain Chinese assertive moves in the SCS, he first questions the shift of China’s power in the international context, exploring how China’s sources of power at the state, international and societal levels contributed to its assertiveness. For Turcsányi, China’s acquired power from previous years was instrumental to its assertiveness in the South China Sea, but its assertive moves were in most cases triggered by external factors. Chinese assertiveness is considered here as an inappropriately bold reaction to what Beijing perceives as a worsening of the international environment and the behaviour of other actors. Domestic political factors played a minor role in China’s assertiveness. References to China’s perceived weak spots (geopolitics and soft power), should allay fears over the Chinese threat. China’s increasing military abilities, combined with international perception of China as being too assertive, leads regional stakeholders to balance against China.

His thorough assessment of the perception of the distribution of power adds to the rigour and originality of the analysis. China flexing its muscles in the SCS is usually analysed from the angle of ‘hard power’. Soft power and narratives are often overlooked in the assessment of China’s ability to achieve and/or sustain the situation it desires in the SCS. This is where Turcsányi’s work brings a valuable contribution to the understanding of China’s policy. Soft power is indeed considered as one of the main limitations of China’s power in the SCS, as the worsening image of China has no link with its actual behaviour.

Yet, references to soft power appear very late in the book. While Turcsányi provides definitions of soft power, he understands ‘soft power’ in the cultural sense, which is often associated with national cultural institutes and fuelled by dissemination of a country’s culture and values. Yet ‘soft power’ also has a political side, linked to a stakeholder’s involvement in multilateral institutions, its ability to rally and mobilise actors as well as to set the agenda. And this would deserve a more thorough analysis as regards China, which could help further understand its leverage on the SCS issue. For instance, little is devoted to China’s lobbying strategy on the SCS towards ASEAN Member countries. Yet Beijing has allegedly exerted diplomatic pressure on Cambodia when the latter holding the ASEAN Chairmanship refused to add a reference to Chinese activities in the SCS in the ASEAN Statement in 2012. The same goes for China’s diplomatic pressure in the context of the drafting of the HRVP Declaration on behalf of the EU on the Award rendered in Arbitration between Philippines and China in July 2016. Ahead of the adoption of this declaration, Beijing pressured some EU Member states to tone it down. These are other examples of China’s ability to get what it wants, through soft means. China’s ‘political’ soft power should thus be further emphasized as another source of power in the South China Sea.

Building on the South China Sea disputes, Turcsányi’s book provides a very precise and comprehensive analysis of China’s rising power and assertiveness. He explores the very concept of ‘power’ and distinguishes intentions, sources and exercises of power. He also sees power as a relative ability depending on capabilities of other regional stakeholders. His work provides guidance on how external powers can take into account Beijing’s oversensitivity and weak soft power while designing their strategies towards China. It offers a meaningful contribution to the understanding and conceptualisation of power, as he comes to the conclusion that soft power is the first leverage on the geopolitical battlefield of the 21st century.

Since the publication of this book, Chinese President Xi Jin Ping has further tightened his grip on power, in particular following the 19th Communist Party Congress in October 2017 and the March 2018 National People’s Congress sessions. The ongoing reforms and restructuration within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could have major impacts on the civil-military relations and the role of domestic factors in fuelling Chinese assertiveness. The expansion of the PLA Marine Corps in 2017 as an example of administrative and ministerial reorganisation in China could contribute to China’s overall power and its assertiveness in the SCS. Many of China’s neighbours would have been concerned at the landing of fighter and bomber planes on the reclaimed islands in May 2018 despite promises made to President Obama that this would never happen.