The maritime rights and valuable natural resources of the South China Sea are hotly contested by a number of nations, including Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. China's bold moves in the region have long attracted major media attention, but the country has also been curiously selective in the timing, targets, and tools that it uses to advance its claims.
When does Beijing use military force in its maritime disputes? What other types of non-military coercion does China employ in the South China Sea? How has the United States responded to Chinese maritime policy, and how are American policies viewed by its partners in the region? Listen to to this episode of the International Security Off the Page podcast to find out!
Here, IS Executive Editor Morgan Kaplan speaks to Ketian Zhang, Scott Swift, and Susan Thornton about Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. This episode is based on the article “Cautious Bully: Reputation, Resolve, and Beijing’s Use of Coercion in the South China Sea,” published in the Summer 2019 issue of International Security.
A stream and edited transcript of the podcast can be found below.
Morgan Kaplan: Hello and welcome to IS Off the Page. I’m your host, Morgan Kaplan and I’m the Executive Editor of International Security, a quarterly journal edited and sponsored by the Belfer Center at Harvard Kennedy School, and published by the MIT Press. On today’s episode of IS Off The Page, we’ll be talking about Ketian Zhang’s summer 2019 International Security article, “Cautious Bully: Reputation, Resolve, and Beijing’s Use of Coercion in the South China Sea.” To help us with this discussion, we have the author, Dr. Ketian Zhang, with us as well as guests: Retired Admiral Scott Swift, who is a former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and Susan Thornton, who is a retired senior U.S. diplomat with almost 30 years of experience with the U.S. State Department in Eurasia and East Asia. She’s also currently a Senior Fellow and Research Scholar at the Yale University Paul Tsai China Center and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Morgan Kaplan: Ketian Zhang is an Assistant Professor of International Security in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Thank you, Ketian, for coming on the show today. Why don’t you start off by telling everybody a little bit about your article, “Cautious Bully: Reputation, Resolve, and Beijing’s, Use of Coercion in the South China Sea.”
Ketian Zhang: Great. Thank you, Morgan, for having me here. I’m very excited to talk about my article. So, the main question that I’m asking in this article is, when, why, and how does China coerce other states in the South China Sea. I started this article with two intentions in mind, and the first one is that there have been a lot of discussions in both the academic and the policy world about the extent to which China is becoming more assertive or not. And the second intention or puzzle that I had in mind when starting this article is that China engaged in military coercion in the 1990s, but they started to use non-military coercion more beginning around 2007. So, with these two puzzles and questions in mind, it might mean that China uses coercion to establish a reputation for resolve. And secondly, China refrains from using coercion when the economic cost, of course, in the target states becomes too high. And the third point is that, China tends to use non-militarized coercion more when it perceives that the geopolitical cost of using military coercion becomes high.
Morgan Kaplan: So, what do we mean by non-militarized coercion? Walk us through the different ways that China is able to use coercion in the South China Sea.
Ketian Zhang: So, this is one thing that makes this article more interesting in the sense that, when we think about the word or the term “coercion,” sometimes military coercion is what comes to mind. But, in fact, states—especially rising powers like China—have been using all kinds of coercive tools including non-militarized tools. So, the ones that I’m conceptualizing and finding in this article are that, first, China uses diplomatic sanctions, for example, canceling high level exchanges between, say, China and the target state or even downgrading the diplomatic relationship. And the second kind of non-militarized tool China has been using is economic sanctions. In the context of Southeast Asia, it could be withdrawing aid or threatening certain oil and gas drilling companies in the South China Sea. And the third kind of non-militarized tool which stands in between the strictly non-military tools such as diplomatic or economic sanctions and the militarized courses of action is what I call “gray zone coercion.” So, that is the use of a civilian law enforcement organization such as the coast guard or the maritime surveillance agencies to inflict physical damage on the target state. It stays below the threshold of the use of the military, but at the same time it inflicts physical damage on the target state nonetheless.
Morgan Kaplan: That’s super interesting. Do these gray zone actors—where do they get their orders from? Are they getting their orders from the PLA or the PLA Navy? Who directs them exactly and how does that affect the extent to which we can see it as being a coercive action that’s being taken directly from the top?
Ketian Zhang: That’s a good question. So, one thing that I would like to clarify is that these “gray zone” coercive actors, they don’t take command from the PLA or the Navy cause they’re the civilian aspect of the Chinese bureaucracy or agency. They all belonged to the Chinese State Oceanic Administration up until 2018 after which there was a reform within the Chinese state that made the State Oceanic Administration part of a broader Department of Natural Resources. But nonetheless, there is still the civilian wing of the Chinese bureaucracy, and it’s my understanding that they take orders from, of course, the State Oceanic Administration. But the State Oceanic Administration also takes orders from, sort of, more so the central government. So there is a pretty systematic chain of command, clearly written rules and regulations about how they should act in certain circumstances. And, in particular, when it comes to facing off with target states such as Vietnam or the Philippines, all of those actions and what kind of actions they should be taking will all have to be reported up to the central level. So it’s highly centralized, but more so on the civilian side of things.
Morgan Kaplan: Right. And so you’ve been looking at the pattern of China’s use of coercion in the South China Sea over a number of years and it seems like you’ve found that there’s quite a bit of variation in terms of the type of coercion they use. Can you tell us a little bit about what you found, what you discovered in terms of these patterns?
Ketian Zhang: This is, I think, another thing that might be interesting, even in a descriptive sense, to people outside of the study of Chinese foreign policy in the sense that it’s not the case that China has only become more assertive since around 2010. I’m looking at the timeframe from 1990 all the way to around 2015 or 2016. China actually engaged in military coercion quite a bit, almost 40% in the South China Sea, in the 1990s, especially in the mid-1990s, and between 2000 and 2006 China refrained from coercion despite some of the actions taken by other Southeast Asian countries that China perceived as threatening. Starting from 2007, China began to use coercion again, but none of these cases of post-2007 Chinese coercive action were actually militarized. So we see sort of a cyclical pattern of Chinese use of coercion, but at the same time, the tools that China prefers to use has become or have a become more non-militarized in the more recent years.
Morgan Kaplan: So what explains this variation?
Ketian Zhang: I would argue that—so my theory is what I would term a cost-balancing theory in the sense that China balances between the need to establish a reputation for resolve and the economic costs of using coercion. In the 1990s, the need to establish resolve was pretty high for China, especially because there were more actions taken by other Southeast Asian countries that China viewed as threatening. But also we’ve seen more media reports about such actions, which increased China’s pressure to establish resolve because it believes that everybody else is watching Chinese behavior and if it doesn’t do anything other states might view is as the Chinese giving the green light for their actions in the South China Sea.
Ketian Zhang: So, at the same time, the economic cost for China to coerce has been pretty low. Moreover, when the United States left the Subic Bay in the Philippines in early 1991 to 1992, China believed that there was a geopolitical vacuum in Southeast Asia, which explains the frequency with which China used military coercion in this particular period. But between 2000 and 2006, the need to establish resolve was lower, and there were also fewer media reports on the South China Sea at the international level. At the same time, China was in need of Southeast Asia because it was interested in establishing free trade zones, economic zones, with Southeast Asian countries, and there were no exit options for China. So in this particular period, China refrained from coercion. Beginning in 2007, China began to coerce again more because of the increased media exposure on the issue of the South China Sea. But at the same time, because the United States, so to speak, returned to East Asia since around the early 2000s, the geopolitical pressure for China to use military coercion was pretty high. So trying to use coercion, but it went to “last choice” and was kept at the non-militarized level.
Morgan Kaplan: Terrific. Well, Ketian I only have one more question for you.
Ketian Zhang: Sure!
Morgan Kaplan: Are you ready?
Ketian Zhang: No idea. But I like challenges, so please go ahead.
Morgan Kaplan: Are you ready to go “off the page?”
Morgan Kaplan: And now we’d like to bring in Scott Swift, a retired Admiral with nearly 40 years of experience in the United States Navy and previously the commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet. Admiral Swift, welcome and thank you for joining us at Off the Page.
Scott Swift: Thanks very much for the opportunity to join you.
Morgan Kaplan: It’s a pleasure to have you. So, Admiral Swift, given your experience as commander of Pacific Fleet and your decades of experience in the Indo-Pacific, do you agree with the assertion that China can be classified as a “cautious bully” when it comes to responding to incidents that China perceives as threatening in the South China Sea?
Scott Swift: Yeah, well, first I would commend Ketian for the article. I mean, I think it’s extraordinary and I’ve already recommended it to many of the folks that I know. Talking about the two specific words, “cautious bully,” I would expand that discussion to say that it is true that China is cautious and I think it’s reflected in the article in the approach that China took in the run-up to the Scarborough Shoal incident. So, you could characterize that as being cautious, but I would suggest that it’s more reflective of how thoughtful China is. It’s also reflective of the fact that I think that China has a grand strategy. They think about their issues from a strategic perspective, and unless a competitor pursues that same approach, it’s difficult to compete. With specific reference to the term “bully:” A bully, in my mind, is someone who’s out looking for a fight. I don’t see that in China’s actions, and I don’t see it in how they characterize their actions. What I see is the implementation of a strategy and, where China uses coercion, they’ve done the calculus from a sense of furthering their strategic objectives.
Morgan Kaplan: You know, you had mentioned that this is part of a broader grand strategy on the part of the Chinese, and as Ketian has shown in her article, right, these are well thought-out strategies in terms of how to use coercion. The question is, though, has China been successful in your view in using these different nuanced approaches to establish a reputation for resolve in the South China Sea? We know this may be their intention, this may be the result of their calculation, but are they actually establishing that reputation from the perspective of the American military and other countries in the region?
Scott Swift: I would counsel caution in defining “success,” and that’s difficult because of the lack of transparency. Exactly what are China’s goals? So, without understanding what those goals are, we tend to come to conclusions through assumptions—as to whoever the observer may be, thinks those goals may be—and then measure success against that. But in direct answer to your question, I think, in the near term, China’s largely pleased with the progress that they’ve made. I have definitely seen a shift in the region with allies, partners, friends, and others as to their confidence level and regaining the stability. I think there’s a common view that things are unstable in the region, and I don’t think they’re trending towards stability in the way that those in the region would like to see stability. And I think China has done a job that I’m sure they feel is admirable and taking advantage of that instability.
Morgan Kaplan: Ketian you wanted to jump in on this?
Ketian Zhang: To the question about how successful China is and how to actually define success: I absolutely agree with the Admiral that it’s really difficult to correctly measure what success is in terms of Chinese coercion. Probably also, from my perspective, due to several reasons, and the first one is that how successful Chinese coercion is or will be in the future actually depends on U.S. actions in the region. It really is a factor of how much the United States is willing to commit to defending freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific region as well as U.S. ally or alliance commitment to, especially, the Southeast Asian countries. And the other factor, I think, is internal to the countries in Southeast Asia. For example, the administration change to the Duterte administration, which is not necessarily a function of Chinese coercion, but rather pretty much internal to the Philippines’ domestic politics. And the third point is that I think there’s also a trade-off in terms of Chinese coercion. It could be, in the short term, successful in scaring some of the actors in Southeast Asia into behaving how China would want them to. But at the same time, it probably would generate a long-term backlash from all of the other actors in the Asia-Pacific region against China. So, I guess there’s always a short-term versus long-term trade-off in terms of using coercion as well.
Scott Swift: Ketian’s comments about near-term success, I think, are spot on. This is not a near-term competition, you know, and unfortunately I think from the U.S. perspective too oftentimes we look at it that way. China has a much larger view. I think that the South China Sea is interesting, but I don’t find it fascinating because I think the competition is being played out on a much bigger scale. Ketian mentioned the freedom of navigation in a maritime context, which is how it’s characterized 95% of the time, but I would suggest what makes allies, partners, friends, and others in the region uncomfortable is they recognize the strategic significance of the competition. And that is that the freedom to navigate is not being impeded just in the military and not just in the maritime domain. Freedom of navigation is being impeded in the diplomatic domain, the information domain—yes, the military domain—but the economic domain, the financial domain, the intelligence domain, the legal domain, and there are others. China has a whole-of-government approach, and unfortunately, from the U.S. perspective, I think we’re too focused on the military response, which I don’t think is very effective and quite frankly it increases risk because a military miscalculation is very difficult to walk back as opposed to a diplomatic miscalculation or a financial or a legal miscalculation.
Morgan Kaplan: Right. So that brings up a great point, which is what can actors like the United States do to counter China’s use of both military and non-military coercion in the South China Sea from the perspective of those wanting to push back on Chinese encroachment into the established order?
Scott Swift: Well, I’d be interested in Ketian’s response to this perspective. And first of all, I do think that we need a whole-of-government approach. I think that China does have a grand strategy and there’s, beyond the scope of this discussion, a discussion of exactly what “grand strategy” is. But I think China has a grand strategy and I think it’s reflected in the broad global approach that they’re taking. And I think without a grand strategy, any country has a very difficult time competing in that measure. There’s a dialogue, once again, about freedom of navigation that I use to explain that. But with that grand strategy, it allows China to have not only a whole-of-government approach, but from that whole-of-government approach, a whole-of-nation approach.
I mean, the Chinese people are energized and committed to the goals of the Chinese government. You know, that’s not the case here in the United States, and I think it’s because we haven’t thought sufficiently about the problem strategically. And once you do that, you realize that the scope is much larger than just the South China Sea. That there are some issues in the South China Sea that, I think, goes to the legitimacy of the Xi Jinping government, which is why I think we need to be very careful about what approach that we take there. And I think as Ketian points out in her article, there were some opportunities lost because we didn’t understand fully the strategic competition at the time. We missed opportunities to act decisively in the early stages of the Scarborough Shoal incident that would have been more supportive of maintaining stability in the region and would not have been destabilizing. And the last thing I’ll say is that I think it’s very important to take a more multilateral approach to these challenges. It’s telling that China prefers a unilateral or bilateral approach in resolving the differences that they have. It is not from a broad regional perspective, it’s with individual countries. So, I think the approach of with, by, and through other countries is an approach that we should more fully embrace and be less declarative and demanding of what we expect of others and more of listening and soliciting what others are thinking.
Ketian Zhang: I absolutely agree with Admiral Swift—that it’s, in a sense, very important to have a grand strategy even though it’s beyond this article. But it actually is what’s guiding Chinese foreign policy in the sense that China is using a comprehensive set of tools in achieving its goals. It actually has a pretty clear interest hierarchy in terms of what’s most important and what is less important. And as much as I would want to say that the stuff China sees as important to China is actually not the most important foreign policy issue to China . . . I think that is why you see more Chinese use of non-militarized tools as opposed to militarized coercive action because the stakes are just not as high as, say, a Taiwan.
Scott Swift: My response to those that say, “Hey, based on the disunity that’s within our government right now, it’s a task impossible to generate a grand strategy.” And my response to that is the process is more important than the product. So, the competition is not a bad thing. You know, competition, as long as you understand what the rules are, makes everyone better—this kind of win-win approach that China advocates for on a regular basis. So we have much more in common than we do in competition with China. And understandably, we do focus on those friction points that generate the competition. The competition is not about the South China Sea. It’s not about reclaimed islands. It’s not about environmental issues. I don’t think it’s about personal information. I mean, all of these are challenges, I acknowledge that, but at the highest level, it is about this rules-based order. And to be precise it’s about the rules that govern the rules-based order, specifically how those rules are changed. What China is doing is, uh, it’s, I’m less concerned about them changing the international order. I’m more concerned about the methodology that they’re changing the rules, which is focused on—the article, that is, Ketian’s article that she wrote—where they’re using force and coercion across all the domains of government, where they feel they don’t have the luxury of time to change the rules as opposed to discourse and dialogue. That’s why China is circumspect about engaging in organizations like ASEAN because they want a unilateral or bilateral approach where all their power can be brought to change the rules using that force and coercion piece. So I again, in summary, I would say the process is more important than the product.
Morgan Kaplan: Right. So, I mean, this may be a good place to think about a kind of final question in terms of what does the future look like in terms of competition in the South China Sea and more broadly?
Scott Swift: The couple of points I would make: One is I do think that they are more cautious because they don’t want . . . they’re caught in a conundrum here. They want to be—they need to be—more cautious because they don’t want to lose the progress that they’ve made, the successes that they’ve made. You know, back to your original point: As I talked to allies, partners, and friends in the region, they’re much more circumspect about their confidence in their relationships with the U.S. and where the U.S. stands specifically with whatever their issues may be. I think China would view that as a success. Part of China’s strategy is to separate the United States from its traditional and potentially new allies, partners, and friends. China does not want to have a setback to the progress that they’ve made. There’s caution there. But I do think that they recognize that the clock is ticking. They have huge internal issues that are not going to get simpler with the passage of time—the Uighur issue, their economic issues. I’m not sure that their economic model can survive full contact with the global economic model. If you look at the environmental issues, land-use issues, I mean the list goes on and on and on. I’m not sure that the self-assessment of China is they have the luxury of time, which is that balancing factor of how cautious can they really be.
Morgan Kaplan: Well, thank you so much Admiral Swift. One final question that we like to end on in the show is, you know, given all your experience in your career, what advice could you give young academics, young policymakers, young analysts in their career?
Scott Swift: I would say it’s important to write and whatever and to speak. I think you should spend 10% of your time writing and speaking and 90% of your time listening. When I was a commander in the Navy, I oftentimes would ask, “what problem are we trying to fix?” And if it’s because something is broken, let’s understand what’s broken first fully before we start talking about the solution.
Morgan Kaplan: Admiral Swift, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.
Ketian Zhang: Thank you.
Scott Swift: Thank you, Morgan. And Ketian, thank you for the wonderful article.
Ketian Zhang: Thank you so much, Admiral.
Morgan Kaplan: Joining us now is Susan Thornton, who is a Senior Fellow and Research Scholar at the Yale University Paul Tsai China Center and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She previously served as Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State. Ms. Thornton, welcome to the show. We might as well dive right in and ask how do you perceive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea?
Susan Thornton: Yeah, well, thanks Morgan. It’s great to be with you today and great to have a chance to chat with Ketian about this really fascinating topic. I guess I would say that, in general, China’s recent behavior in the South China Sea has been troubling to me as a diplomat. I think China’s foray into the South China Sea over the last basically 10 years has really reflected, in some sense, this sort of new aggression that we see in China’s foreign policy. It represents to some extent, I think, an expansion of what China calls its core interests. Also, of course, very troubling that it seems to represent an assertion of new kind of China-centric rules as opposed to strict adherence to international rules and UNCLOS with the ITLOS tribunal. And I mean, frankly, I also see that China has possibly overstepped in alienating a lot of the countries on its periphery and its neighborhood. And it may turn out to be a strategic blunder if China looks back on it in a few years. One question I wanted to raise and surface in this conversation with respect to the South China Sea is how much does international law, international instruments, China’s ratification and membership in UNCLOS and the various deadlines associated with UN activity, how much has that affected China’s behavior?
Morgan Kaplan: It reminds me a bit, also, in your article Ketian, about the fact that the Chinese have been focusing specifically on non-military forms of coercion in the South China Sea. I wonder to what extent that is a way for the Chinese to assert themselves in the region without necessarily raising huge red flags from an international law perspective. I mean, and this is a question I guess to both of you, but are those two things related—the fact that the Chinese may be employing more “gray zone,” more hybrid-type operations, as not specifically the PLA or the PLA Navy doing things in the South China Sea because they’re trying to kind of have some sort of plausible deniability about violating certain international laws and norms?
Susan Thornton: Yeah. Well, I think on the basic question about military coercion versus non-military coercion, you know, China in the 90s had fewer tools to use in the non-military toolbox. And as of 2019, China has a lot of leverage in other areas and certainly China’s looking to avoid escalation. One of the sort of things I think we can count on part of the Chinese government is they’re always looking to stabilize and calm down a situation, even if they’re the ones that are, you know, pursuing the sort of, you know, coercive behavior and so they don’t really want to escalate the situation. They don’t really want to have to contend with a situation that they can’t control. And of course, military coercion is among those instruments that is least subject to the ability to control it once you unleash it. So, I think that goes a long way toward explaining why China doesn’t turn as much to military instruments.
As far as de-escalatory, I mean, I think it’s not really de-escalatory to pursue this kind of coercion; but the pattern that I’ve seen is that China is quite deliberate and so I think that’s an interesting part of your article, you know, where you get at the decision making process in China behind when to use coercion. I mean, the cases that I’ve seen are all . . . I mean, China is quite deliberate about the way it goes about this. It first warns. It might do one small thing as a plausibly deniable but symbolic step to show whichever country is the target of this activity that they better take China’s warning seriously and then they kind of go from there if the country does not take the warning seriously.
And so it seems to be quite a deliberate and centralized process, which you brought out in the article. But I think the question of why does it use which tools . . . to some extent that can be answered by just the point that these tools now have been developed by China. The very good example of a tool that’s been developed that reflects both China’s desire to have plausible deniability over what it’s doing, respect international law, et cetera, et cetera, is the development of these maritime militia forces that are fishing boats but that have very serious kinds of offensive and defensive weapons deployed on them to be used in conjunction with coast guard forces or PLA Navy forces to enforce China’s claims or other things in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
Morgan Kaplan: What about the flip side of the coin now, right? What about the United States? How is it dealing with these very diverse types of Chinese actions in the South China Sea that seem to range everything from clear military coercion to non-military coercion to even propaganda normative acts. Do you see that the United States over the years has recognized these trends that are emerging in the South China Sea and it has been catching up or appropriately responding to it in ways that are actually effective?
Susan Thornton: I mean, I think that definitely the U.S. has been responding to it. It’s a very complicated set of events that have transpired, and looking at the historical record is definitely important for trying to figure out exactly what the U.S. has been doing and whether or not it’s been effective. This issue came up in a very dramatic way in 2010 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was at the ASEAN regional forum in Hanoi. She said that basically U.S. interests in this area are important and freedom of navigation, access to these waters, is very important for both commerce and U.S. military activity, and also that the U.S. has a very big interest in the peaceful resolution of disputes in this area because we have a number of treaty allies and we want to make sure that their interests are protected. But we also don’t want to get drawn into a military conflagration because of contested claims in these areas and our defense obligations with our treaty allies.
Susan Thornton: So, I think that gives the U.S. a very huge stake in how China’s coercive measures vis-a-vis other claimants in this region are carried out, and what kinds of tools the Chinese are using, what they’re pursuing. And, you know, certainly up to now the U.S. has mainly used diplomatic tools, both private and public statements, certainly trying to get the claimants to effectively work together to pursue their interests. And then, of course, our freedom of navigation operations, which is mainly there as a symbol that says we’re going to maintain access to this region. Another interesting incident in that regard was the Chinese announcement of the air defense identification zone over the East China Sea features, which the U.S. subsequently told China it was not going to recognize and then demonstrated to that effect by flying through it.
So, those are the kinds of things the U.S. has been doing. And we’ve been doing quite a bit on the diplomatic front, but many people have said our efforts were unsuccessful because we were unable to prevent or roll back China’s building up of its features in the Spratlys particularly in the period starting in I guess 2013, 2014. So . . .
Morgan Kaplan: These are those sand islands?
Susan Thornton: Right.
Morgan Kaplan: Just making sure I get the right image in my head.
Susan Thornton: Reclamation—reclaiming land on coral reefs that was never there before.
Ketian Zhang: Yeah. Yeah. Just think in terms of, you know, multiple huge football fields. Like, quite a few of them. Very extensive, large sand islands.
Morgan Kaplan: Presuming with airstrips?
Ketian Zhang: Yes. I mean, most of them.
Morgan Kaplan: So, how are U.S. allies in the region perceiving this? You know, are they taking U.S. actions as a sign of, “Oh wow, the red line does uphold.” Or are they saying, “Well, I don’t see that as the U.S. upholding a red line;” or, in fact, “I don’t trust that the U.S. will uphold red lines in the future.” So, we, in a way, we’ve talked about the Chinese perception, we’ve talked about the American perception, and now I think it’s worthwhile thinking about how America’s allies are viewing this?
Susan Thornton: Yeah. Well, I mean, that is a very interesting question given the political moment and the foreign policy moment which the U.S. finds itself with respect to countries in the region. One of the areas where we have seen continued U.S. stepped up activity, attention, and diplomatic and security involvement is in the South China Sea. With these freedom of navigation operations, you have a lot of military people attending various fora around the regions talking about this, keeping the South China Sea on the radar screen of the international community, which, I think, is welcomed by people in the region, smaller countries in the region, the other claimants who are still engaged in this long slog with China. The negotiation of a code of conduct for the South China Sea, which has been going on for 15 years or more now.
And that kind of engagement and activity is certainly welcome. The other elephant in the room is the U.S. attitude and policies toward economic activity in the region, which has a lot of countries in the region basically questioning continued U.S. involvement. Is the U.S. retreating from the region and the world? And so, the fact that we stay engaged and keep up our presence in the South China Sea is, I think, helpful and reassuring to some extent. Now, the one treaty ally that we have that’s a claimant and in the South China Sea, of course, is the Philippines. And the election of Rodrigo Duterte several years ago really flipped that relationship 180 degrees on the issue of South China Sea. As he said, he was going to try to take down the temperature of this issue between the Philippines and China and most of the countries in the region want to try to balance a little bit between the U.S. and China. And I think we see a lot of that now.
Ketian Zhang: I actually want to follow up and ask Ms. Thornton two related questions with regard to U.S. policies and the degree to which the United States has alliance credibility toward allies in the Asia-Pacific region. So, the first one is: To what extent do you think there is coordination within the United States with regard to its diplomatic statecraft—military actions or statecraft as well as economic involvement—in the Southeast Asian region? Is there enough coordination? And the second is with regard to specifically economic statecraft in the sense that, um, to what extent do you think the United States has economic leverage over China to potentially turn China away from aggressive courses of actions in the future?
Susan Thornton: So, the issue of coordination of U.S. policy is a good question. It’s always a problem, I think. We have a sprawling bureaucracy. Different agencies have different, very narrow purviews on questions. It’s very hard to get people at the top of the pyramid to focus on different issues because they have so much going on and there are very few of them as compared to some other systems. You can’t refer every single question to the President who has a lot, obviously, on his plate. And it’s hard in our system, I think, to refer things to other people who don’t have the same level of leadership clout to enforce those mandates or views or positions. So coordination is a problem. Certainly, the preponderance of the defense infrastructure in our foreign policymaking is something that needs to be looked at very carefully as we go out into the future because it . . . the militarization of our foreign policy is something that I think most people would find is kind of undeniable over the last 20 years.
And something that, in the case of a question like the South China Sea where there are conflicting maritime claims, is something that should be resolved through a diplomatic process, negotiation. It’s an economic issue mostly because it’s mainly about resources, and the resources in the South China Sea are hotly contested. Most of the countries in the region see it as an economic issue and not as much as security and military issue, but the U.S. brings that lens to it because of its fee for access. So, I think it’s difficult to coordinate, certainly, as far as the role of the allies. There’s a lesser-known effort by the Obama administration and you write a lot in your article about the Scarborough Shoal standoff of 2012. Following that, there was a pretty big effort to try to make sure that the Scarborough Shoal remained an undeveloped feature and that the status quo with respect to Scarborough Shoal would not change who, uh . . . obviously China and Philippines both claim Scarborough Shoal, but that it would remain unresolved and that there would be no construction on that feature. And, so far, that has held up. So, I think that’s an example of something that’s a pretty big success that nobody knows about. It’s the kind of thing that the U.S. can do with its diplomacy and be very influential.
Morgan Kaplan: Before we wrap up, Ms. Thornton, when we say goodbye to a guest, we like to ask if they have any advice they would like to impart upon either young scholars entering the disciplines, studying these issues or young folks finishing up college heading off to the State Department or going into the policy community. What piece of advice would you have for them?
Susan Thornton: Well, I would probably have way too much advice, but operating in this current environment where we’re basically driven by narratives more than facts, we really need to come back to the good scholarship that’s done by experts in the field. You see every day how busy top-level policymakers are. They get swept away by these media narratives. Oftentimes—you know, I don’t want to talk about fake news—but media narratives are about a quarter of a millimeter deep and very wide and they have very sweeping influence and it’s very hard in the current climate to get us back to some kind of fact-based discussion. People seem to think that it’s very boring to talk about facts, but I really appreciate Ketian and other scholars and experts delving into what’s really happening and trying to get at the truth and then trying to bring that to a wider audience so that people can really have informed and realistic discussions and not keep trafficking in these kinds of false narratives. That seems to be so prevalent now.
Morgan Kaplan: Well, I think that’s a terrific point to end on. So thank you so much Ms. Thornton for joining us and thank you also to Ketian for providing a fascinating article to help motivate our discussion today on the South China Sea.
Rex Horner: Off the Page is a production of International Security, a quarterly journal edited and sponsored by the Belfer Center at Harvard Kennedy School and published by the MIT Press. Our program is produced and edited by Morgan Kaplan, the Executive Editor of International Security. The associate producer is me, Rex Horner. Technical direction and post production by Benn Craig. Thanks to our intern Naomi Silverstein for additional assistance and special thanks to Hilan Kaplan for composing our theme music. Upcoming episodes and additional material for Off the Page can be found online at belfercenter.org/offthepage. All articles from the journal can be read at mitpressjournals.org/is.