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Factors influencing China's behaviour in the South China Sea

Yoshino, Harumi


Harumi Yoshino


Tim Huxley


This research assesses China's likely future behaviour in relation to the South China Sea disputes, critically evaluating two prominent, related topics of discussion among the International Relations scholars since the late 1980s. One of these topics is theoretical: to what extent is the flourishing `liberal peace' argument in International Relations theory valid when applied to China's international behaviour, and towards the South China Sea disputes in particular'? The advocates of the `liberal peace' argument have spent much energy attempting to prove the positive correlation between peace and such factors as democracy and economic interdependence using statistical models. In addition, one faction of the liberal school emphasises the effectiveness of institutions which supposedly impose constraints on a state through international rules and agreements. However, liberals' arguments fail to engage with some critical points. First of all, whether a state goes to war is not a matter of probability but a political decision. Secondly, the costs of sacrificing economic ties and violating internationally-agreed obligations surely affect a decision to go to war. However, if a state perceives that its vital national interests are at risk, such costs will have little influence on decision-making. In addition, liberals' argument ignores the importance of the political framework in which economic interdependence functions. Furthermore, liberals do not pay attention to the facts that institutions are usually established by the initiative of a hegemon and its supporters, and that the rules and norms of institutions generally reflect the distribution of power among their members. This dissertation illustrates the way in which realist thinking (involving consideration of survival, balance of power and relative gain) still forms the foundation for states' behaviour.

The other topic relevant in this dissertation is empirical and concerns which of the conflicting opinions about China's future geopolitical orientation is more accurate: that China will become an assertive regional hegemon as her economy develops and her military is modernised, or that she will not obtain even regional hegemonic status for some decades to come due to her lack of economic and military power. The first view generally draws the conclusion that China should somehow be contained, while the second view concludes that other states need to engage China so that the latter can be tied into the international community. A major problem with arguments of this type is that China's likely behaviour tends to be predicted on the basis of research on specific issues. In particular, military factors, such as China's increasing defence budget, its vigorous purchase of advanced weapons particularly from Russia, and the PLA's weight in the government's decision-making, have been overemphasised. Although stronger military capabilities may provide a government with wider foreign policy options, states - including China - usually do not use force just because their military capabilities become stronger. Understanding the nature of states and the factors that drive states' behaviour is necessary in order to avoid extreme conclusions. This dissertation tries to integrate the existing empirical studies and theoretical assumptions in International Relations theory.

The reason for focusing on the South China Sea is that this case is important in the sense that the disputes there are not just territorial conflicts involving China and other claimants. The South China Sea disputes involve many factors such as fisheries, energy, and extra-regional powers' strategic and economic interests, besides the overlapping territorial sovereign claims. In addition, economic interdependence between China and regional states has deepened since the 1990s, and the region has international institutions such as APEC and the ARF where economic and security issues, respectively, are I Introduction discussed. The last two factors make this case particularly suitable for the application of IR theory. This dissertation will demonstrate that geopolitical considerations are dominant not only in China's decision-making but also in the ASEAN states' attitudes towards China and the disputes themselves.


Yoshino, H. (2001). Factors influencing China's behaviour in the South China Sea. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date Apr 3, 2012
Publicly Available Date Feb 22, 2023
Keywords Politics
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Politics, The University of Hull
Award Date Jan 1, 2001


Thesis (28 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2001 Yoshino, Harumi. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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