Calculating Bully: Explaining China’s Coercion

Ketian Zhang is an Assistant Professor of International Security in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Her research explores how globalized production and supply chains affect states' foreign policy and domestic state-society relations, especially regarding coercion and protests. Ketian's book project, Calculating Bully: Explaining China’s Coercion, examines when, why, and how China uses coercion over issues of national security, such as territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.

Professor Zhang defines coercion as “the use (or threats) of negative actions to demand a change in the behavior of a target state.” There are four main types of coercion, including diplomatic sanctions, economic sanctions, grey-zone coercion, and military coercion. Grey-zone coercion refers to the use of civilian law enforcement agencies to inflict damage, such as using coast guard and maritime vessels in the South China Sea to block Philippine naval vessels. Zhang argues that when and why China decides to use coercion, and which coercive tools they decide to use, is explained by “cost-balancing theory”.

Cost-balancing theory posits that China will use coercion if the need to establish a reputation of resolve is high and the economic cost is low. Coercion is primarily used in order to establish a reputation of resolve, or in other words, deter states from encroaching on China’s national security interests by setting a precedent that China is not weak and is willing to defend its interests. In general, China will only act if the economic cost of coercion is low, meaning that China is not dependent on the target state for markets and supply and could afford economic retaliation. However, when it comes to core interests, namely Taiwan and Tibet, China may move forward with coercion even if the economic cost is high. Military coercion is only used if the chance of geopolitical backlash is low. If a target country has a treaty of alliance with the United States, for example, China is unlikely to use military coercion because they would likely face backlash from Washington.

Zhang draws a number of conclusions and implications from her research. Coercion comes down to a goldilocks choice: balancing the need to establish resolve with potential economic cost. In this sense, the globalized economy provides both opportunities and constraints for rising powers’ coercive behavior. China often uses coercion as a signaling device, echoing the proverb “kill the chicken to scare the monkey,” or in other words, use coercive tools against a low-stakes target state in order to deter more threatening states.

The implications of Zhang’s research on U.S. foreign policy are twofold. The United States should respond to China’s coercive behavior through “quiet rebalancing”, conducting more frequent Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) without giving the situation major media attention. The United States can also take advantage of it economic leverage, targeting China’s market and supply through economic sanctions.

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