Ketian Vivian ZhangKetian Vivian Zhang is an Assistant Professor of International Security in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, Virginia. Her research interest lies at the intersection between international security theory and political economy. Her research covers rising powers, coercion, economic statecraft, and maritime disputes, with a focus on China and East Asia. Zhang received a Ph.D in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her current book project, which is built upon her Ph.D dissertation, examines when, why, and how China uses coercion when faced with issues of national security.

This interview concerns Ketian Vivian Zhang’s book project titled “Calculating Bully — Explaining Chinese Coercion.”


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Young China Watchers (YCW): What prompted you to conduct your Ph.D research on China’s “coercion” — a term that can be provocative in China, whose leaders consistently assert that the country pursues peaceful development and never bullies smaller neighbors?

Ketian Vivian Zhang (KVZ): When I was 12, I came across Condoleezza Rice’s autobiography. That she was part of a minority and a female but became the Secretary of State greatly inspired me. I nurtured an interest in foreign affairs, but soon realized that politics in China was not transparent and there existed several obstacles for me, from the competitive and secretive recruitment of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to gender inequality in state agencies. I decided to learn and analyze politics from afar so that I could maintain a more neutral perspective while not directly involved in politics. These experiences led to me focus on Chinese foreign policy. I pursued this down to the very niche topic of my doctorate study.

For my seemingly provocative research topic, I inherit Thomas Schelling’s neutral and scientific terminology of coercion, which comprises both deterrence and compellence in strategic interactions, emblematic of a particular kind of behavior that almost all great powers — or any states — have employed as part of their statecraft. But admittedly, the Chinese translation of the term as well as the perceived connotation of coercion among Chinese academic and policy circles is relatively negative in the sense that it has a value judgment to it.

YCW: A major part of your research relies on numerous interviews with Chinese government analysts and scholars. What difficulties did you face before and during your interviews, for example gaining access to high-profile figures, discussing such a sensitive topic in China, and ensuring a nuanced and disinterested argument in your research?

KVZ: As I have mentioned, the seemingly negative perception of the term coercion proved tricky in China. In interviews with government analysts and former officials, I rephrased it to simply describe China’s behavior as reported by the Foreign Ministry, such as “countermeasure.” The majority of my fieldwork was conducted between 2015 and 2016, when the control over interview access to elites and government-affiliated figures was relatively more relaxed. The Xi Jinping regime in recent years has greatly tightened its grip on information, especially in the academic realm. If I were to implement my research in 2019 or 2020, I would not be able to approach half of my interviewees, or they would not be willing to go into much detail.

As a lot of interviews can be subjective, I strived to triangulate as many sources as possible. First, I utilized interview and written resources by foreign officials and retired diplomats to cross-check the information provided by Chinese interviewees. I also tried to minimize subjectivity and bias by asking factual questions. For example: I tended to ask what happened, what they would do if they were on the ground, what they knew about China’s actions in certain circumstances, rather than merely asking why China behaved in a certain manner.

Interestingly, my profile lent a little advantage to me in interactions with the interviewees. Since China remains quite a sexist society, I — as a female political science student at the time — was sometimes looked down upon by China’s male-dominated government and scholarly communities. They treated me as if I had not understood anything. While it is psychologically unacceptable, such gender dynamics proved beneficial to my research as the interviewees explained more.

“as a female political science student, my profile lent a little advantage to me in interactions with interviewees”

That said, I still encountered interviewees who were suspicious and held a persistent belief that I was operating on behalf of a foreign agent — the United States — and that I was just there to gather data and implement intelligence work on its behalf.

YCW: Your research finds that the Philippines and Vietnam are the most common targets of China’s coercion, while Malaysia is generally spared since the country does not overtly make noise about the South China Sea disputes and “makes money in silence.” Still, since 2018, Kuala Lumpur has faced growing pressure from Chinese vessels in Malaysia-claimed maritime zones. What accounts for this shift?

KVZ: China has indeed coerced Malaysia, but Beijing’s coercion against Malaysia pales in comparison with that against the Philippines and Vietnam in terms of frequency and intensity. For instance, the sheer presence of Chinese Coast Guard ships in and around Malaysia’s James Shoal is no match for its ramming and harassment of Vietnamese fishing trawlers or Philippine naval vessels in their respective Exclusive Economic Zones.

Nonetheless, China has stepped up its coercion against Malaysia since 2018, partly in response to the domestic political shift in this Southeast Asian country. Once accusing the predecessor had been too soft on China, the Mahathir administration upon ascent to power has hardened its stance for domestic-signaling purposes. However, it is notable that Malaysia has not been as vocal in international media as Vietnam and the Philippines. Therefore, Beijing’s coercion against Kuala Lumpur tends to be comparatively less harsh than in dealing with the Philippines and Vietnam, where China has not limited its measures to grey zone coercion but included diplomatic and economic sanctions, whose impacts far exceed local on-the-ground effects and engulf bilateral relations.

In general, while the South China Sea remains a contentious issue, the post-2016 heat has quite abated. Indicative of this trend, international media coverage of the issue since 1990 has declined from its peak around 2012–2016. On its part, the Chinese government has tried to put the South China Sea dispute on the backburner in light of various considerations. First, since there have been no significant internationalized incidents such as the public arrest of Chinese fishermen in contested waters, Beijing has approached the issue in a more “laidback” way. Second, Chinese coercion against the Philippines and Vietnam appears to have short-term effects on the ground, in the sense that the two countries have at least decreased their activism and engaged in negotiations in regard to the dispute.

YCW: Contrary to speculation that China would be distracted from the disputes in the South China Sea amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the country has engaged in more coercive activities against other claimant states as well as U.S. ships operating in contested waters. According to your cost-balancing theory, how does China weigh up the potential benefits and costs of those activities?

KVZ: There pervades a speculation that China has taken the pandemic as an opportunity to ramp up its activities in the South China Sea. Yet, taking account of hard data, it is difficult to reach a definitive conclusion that China has increased its activism compared to the pre-2016 period. In fact, China has maintained regular patrol of Coast Guard and naval ships in and around the disputed areas to demonstrate its enhanced share of power and power projection capabilities. As such, an increase in China’s activities in the South China Sea has less to do with the pandemic per se but indicates a continued and linear trend that started from around 2007–2008.

In regard to China’s coercion against the U.S. in the region, the growing frequency of U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) over the year is the most critical driver. This logic boils down to China’s need to establish and maintain a reputation for resolve — inactivity is perceived as weakness and will invite further violations. If there is one U.S. naval ship in the region, one can expect the Chinese navy to show up accordingly. Another factor is China’s perception of potential geopolitical backlash. While the Trump administration’s rhetoric regarding China seems harsh, it has gone back and forth with actual undertakings in the Asia-Pacific and especially in the South China Sea. As the Chinese government perceives, Trump’s America has been sending mixed signals to both China and U.S. allies in the region that it is not as dedicated and steadfast as it pledges and should have been. Despite an increase in FONOPs and efforts to court regional claimants, the Trump administration appeared not as committed as the Obama administration. In this light, China’s calculations of geopolitical backlash have been consistently high since post-2000 but not significantly higher in the pandemic period.

Moreover, from the Chinese government’s interest hierarchy, the South China Sea is significant but not the most important issue in its foreign policy. Taiwan remains the most critical concern, whereas domestic politics has always been the salient aspect of regime security for the Chinese Communist Party, especially in the case of the pandemic as they have to focus on economic recovery. Therefore, it is unlikely that China has developed a strategic blueprint for taking advantage of the pandemic to advance its claims in the South China Sea. Instead, recent incidents should be seen as continued and business-as-usual efforts.

“it is unlikely that China has developed a strategic blueprint for taking advantage of the pandemic to advance its claims in the South China Sea”

YCW: From the perspective of a Western-trained Chinese political scientist, do you see any possibility of China and regional countries settling the disputes in peace and mutual acceptance?

KVZ: The prospect of peaceful settlement in the near future would be ideal, but it would also be highly destructive for Southeast Asian claimants in regard to their domestic political climate. For China to accept a negotiated settlement on the South China Sea, it would probably be on its terms. China is very unlikely to accept any settlement short of acknowledging that it possesses all land features and their EEZs within the South China Sea, but it is open to joint development with relevant countries. Such a settlement, however, would be outright unacceptable to any Southeast Asia disputants.

While the South China Sea is not the highest foreign policy priority for China, it is the top concern for Vietnam, the Philippines and perhaps Malaysia given that their livelihood is largely dependent on the sea for fishery and energy development. It is unimaginable that Vietnam or the Philippines would accept a resolution on China’s terms.

On top of that, the South China Sea is very different from the East China Sea. The dispute at stake is multilateral and subject to differing preferred negotiation approach, with China insisting on bilateralism and regional countries requesting multilateralism. Adding to that, Taiwan’s stance on the South China Sea is often neglected but can further complicate the resolution.

In the near future, any sort of agreement seem infeasible, but it does not mean the dispute cannot be managed peacefully. In fact, Code of Conduct negotiations are underway although they have been stalled by China’s insistence on the document being written on its terms. Instead, these countries should work on something akin to a multilateral code of unintended encounters that regulates undesired clashes and escalation at sea. Such a code governing Chinese and American navies and air forces has been in place since 2014. While a long-term solution to sovereignty and maritime rights is still at bay, we might want to focus on managing the disputes with a similar code of conduct.

YCW: The outbreak of the pandemic marks a plunge in China’s international image, as in its failed mask diplomacy and tensions with the West over the origin of the virus. China’s reaction has been far from appeasing. It has become more coercive in foreign affairs in general — from wolf warrior diplomacy to economic coercion, especially against Australia. What might be its motivations to incur such high reputational and, to certain extent, economic costs?

KVZ: The public diplomacy aspect of China’s recent behavior, especially its wolf warrior diplomacy, is baffling. For instance, a lot of statements made by Chinese spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Twitter are highly unprofessional and different from what China has done in the past, at least in diplomatic sense. Such behavior does not conform to the classic framework of coercion, which comprises clear targets, clearly defined actions or attempts, and threatened or inflicted damage on the targets.

China’s economic measures against Australia, however, is standard coercive behavior. While there might be economic consequences, for example the potential heating crisis in Chinese winter following its ban on Australian coal imports, the costs can be manageable and contribute to China’s shift to an internally circulated economic model.

The economic cost that I laid out in my theory is that China is less likely to engage in coercion if it depends on the target for market or supply. But as Xi Jinping is set on transforming the Chinese economy, his perceived/expected costs of coercing Australia appear reasonable and worthwhile. Indeed, it takes time for any country of China’s size to switch its economy to completely internal circulation. What China has done since the pandemic outbreak, especially closing its doors to foreigners and even oversea Chinese citizens, concretizes a push to accelerate the process. In this light, China’s behavior vis-à-vis Australia can be seen as preparations to become less reliant on foreign markets and supplies, and the costs are not so high as to refrain from taking action.

“as Xi Jinping is set on transforming the Chinese economy, his perceived/expected costs of coercing Australia appear reasonable and worthwhile”

Practical evidence proves that Chinese economic sanctions against target countries tend to be short-lived. The Japanese rare-earths ban, for example, lasted for about two months, and so did the banana ban against the Philippines. Rather than long-term strategic behavior, these coercive practices serve the short-term goal of signaling, and the costs seem manageable for the Chinese government.

— Interview by Thang Ha

Voices on China – Ketian Vivian Zhang Assistant Professor at George Mason University
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