Rhetorical traps and China’s peaceful rise: Malaysia and the Philippines in the South China Sea territorial disputes - CWP Alumni Christina Lai

Wednesday, Aug 16, 2017
by dsuchens

China’s economy and its military capabilities have grown significantly in the last three decades, yet Southeast Asian countries responded differently to China’s foreign policy. This article examines China’s assurance and reassurance strategy toward Malaysia and the Philippines in the South China Sea territorial disputes. It points outs the ‘assurance and entrapment’ strategy that China and its neighbors deployed toward each other. China deploys different foreign discourses toward these two countries to address their concerns, and these countries also positively respond to Chinese rhetoric. However, when China was more assertive during 2010–13, they applied rhetorical strategies to constrain China’s foreign behavior. Specifically, both Malaysia and the Philippines set up different traps to gauge China’s intentions and highlight the inconsistency between China’s previous commitment on the peaceful rise and its recent assertiveness. The comparative analysis shows how they employ legitimation strategy in the territorial disputes. It concludes with policy implications for US–China relations.

1 Introduction

Ever since China launched major reforms in its domestic and international policies in the late 1970s, it has gone through a significant rise in its economic development and military modernization. When China became more assertive in the South China Sea (SCS) territorial disputes, China’s rapid growth of naval force and its foreign behavior have caught much attention in Southeast Asian countries and the United States. While current studies and policy reports noticed China’s assertiveness in the SCS disputes, a few have noticed the variation in which China contested and assured the claimants. This study traces the development of China’s rhetoric and behavior toward Malaysia and the Philippines under the framework of China’s peaceful development. While both China and the Philippines strongly challenged their claims and confronted each other in the Scarborough Shoals, China and Malaysia exhibited restraint and reassured their benign intentions (Kreuzer, 2016).

The power asymmetric between the claimants and China does not adequately explain why rhetoric deploy by China and others – tends to constrain and trap China’s options or the variation of bilateral relations between China and its neighbors. If ‘talk’ is cheap and China is bound to be a revisionist or in an aggressive state, then why did Malaysia choose to assure China by reminding its ‘peaceful development’ discourse, rather than strengthen the military ties with the United States immediately witnessing China’s assertiveness in the SCS disputes? Similarly, if might always makes right, then why did the Philippines as a weaker state choose to settle the disputes in the UN court of arbitration, despite the fact that China had already occupied the Scarborough Shoal with its stronger naval capabilities?

China’s perceived assertiveness and US security presence in the Asia-Pacific only exhibit part of the story of the recent development in Asian politics. These two factors serve as an overall description, and this study suggests a complete understanding of how the assurance rhetoric of Malaysia and the Philippines shapes their legitimation strategy in the maritime disputes and their bilateral relations with China.

Theorists in formal modeling argue that public speeches and official statements are ‘cheap talk’ that provides little information. However, Stacie Goddard highlights the role of rhetoric in Prussia’s legitimation strategies, and she argues that the way it justified its expansion in the 1800s prevented a potential anti-Prussian balancing coalition from rising (Goddard, 2009a).

In China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East AsiaKang (2007) highlights that the national identities of China’s neighbors are greatly affected by historical memory of the Sinocentric tributary system in which China, the dominant state, was essentially benign; the smaller states in this system preferred accommodating stances that allowed them to benefit from warm relations with their peaceful neighbor. The article extends Kang’s identity-based argument, focusing on China’s active use of identity-based framing and diplomatic strategies.

I build on both Kang’s and Goddard’s works to examine how China and its neighbors – Malaysia and the Philippines – apply assurance and legitimation strategy in the SCS disputes. More specifically, this study demonstrates how their relations with China – varied from 2000 to 2016. The article proceeds as follows. First, it highlights China’s assurance and reassurance strategies, and it outlines the nature of China’s peaceful rise discourse. It then examines how China and its neighbors – Malaysia and the Philippines – handle the territorial disputes in the SCS. Finally, it offers an explanation for change and continuity of China’s foreign rhetoric and addresses policy implications for the future of US–China relations.

2 Malaysia and the Philippines: a comparative study in the maritime disputes

When dealing with a rising China, Malaysia and the Philippines face similar external constraints: power asymmetric between a strong and a weak state, and geographical proximity which inevitably involves in the maritime disputes. However, these two countries also possess different diplomatic orientation in Asian politics.

For example, amid the tension of maritime conflicts, the Philippines evoked a legal-based legitimation strategy by depicting China as a hegemon that bullied a weaker state, and by undermining China’s peaceful development discourse. The Philippines has been a security ally of the United States by signing a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951. Although the Philippines enhances economic ties with China, the security alliance with the United States implies possible US involvement when encountering military conflicts with China in Southeast Asia.

On the other hand, Malaysian Prime Minister Razak claimed that both countries share a similar vision and common value of peace and prosperity. Specifically, he endorsed the central role of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in fostering growth in Asia and Chinese dream – a focus on the people’s well-being proposed by President Xi.1 In 2016, when Razak visited China with groups of government officials and businessman, he announced that bilateral relations now have reached to ‘new highs’. Moreover, Malaysia decided to cut a 476.19 million defense budget in 2017, which indicated a push back from US security initiative according to a policy expert in Asian security.2

Both of them, like China, have established artificial structures in several islands and explored natural resources in the disputed areas, but with a different degree. None of them have literally compromised on any of their territorial claims. In this regional context, how China interacts with Malaysia and the Philippines provides an important venue to investigate how weaker states assure and constrain a stronger one.

3 China’s assurance and reassurance strategies: a peaceful rise discourse

Realism argues that a rising power may face balancing behaviors when its material capabilities increase rapidly. China accordingly hopes to prevent Asian countries from establishing an anti-China alliance. More specifically, China’s foreign discourse should devote a significant amount of effort to forestalling the formation of such alliance by expressing China’s peaceful intentions. The terms ‘China’s peaceful rise’ and ‘China’s peaceful development’ were used by both China’s officials and scholars to highlight China’s foreign policy in the twenty-first century. In this article, I develop a research framework of assurance strategy which emphasizes how China’s foreign discourse, when perceived as a peaceful rising power, can maintain positive relations with its neighbors. Meanwhile, Asian states send out reassuring signals to express their benign intentions which help stabilize the regional order.

3.1 China’s ‘peaceful rise’ discourse as a self-binding commitment

Scholars in international relations highlight the role of self-binding commitments in the study of institutional bargaining and cooperation. When a self-binding commitment is made credible, the actor that implements it can benefit both itself and others (Maoz and Felsenthal, 1987). This study argues that major statements from a rising power can serve as a crucial indicator for other countries to examine its consistency between rhetoric and behavior. More specifically, China’s ‘peaceful rise’ discourse creates a self-binding effect that significantly increases the cost of any revisionist behavior. As Avery Goldstein points out, China sought international conditions that would allow it to focus on its economic development, and it aimed to forestall any actions by the United States or others to use their superior material power to block China’s rise (Goldstein, 2001, p. 836).

3.2 China’s ‘peaceful rise’ discourse as a rhetoric trap

Realists would argue that such rhetoric is ‘cheap talk’ and that a revisionist China would rhetorically reassure its neighbors until China becomes powerful enough to achieve its revisionist goals. However, this study shows that Southeast Asian countries do not ignore China’s rhetoric and are careful to examine what China has said. The use of rhetorical legitimation strategy affects the threat perceptions and foreign behavior of China’s neighbors. It is important to consider China’s use of ‘rhetorical entrapment’, a concept elaborated by Schimmelfennig’s work on the European Union (EU) (Schimmelfennig, 2001). The European community committed rhetorically to the integration of all European countries based on their liberal and democratic values, and this rhetorical commitment allowed Central and East European states to justify their bids for EU membership claims according to the EU’s essential identity: liberal democracy, multilateralism, and unity. The strategic use of rhetorical commitment turned into rhetorical entrapment by highlighting the importance of the EU to honor its previous commitment.

Built on previous literature on self-binding commitments and rhetorical entrapment, this study shows that through the process of ‘rhetorical entrapment’, China’s peaceful rhetoric raises the cost of any Chinese aggression. Once certain discourse is adopted and recognized by those with authority to promote the ideas implied by it, this gradually becomes the guiding framework or rhetorical common ground in which actors contest and legitimate the issues (Hansen, 2013). Following this logic of reasoning, China’s peaceful development is one of the most important foreign discourses advocated by Beijing to assure Asian countries and beyond. This assurance rhetoric also serves as China’s legitimation strategies in the SCS disputes in which China’s and all the claimants’ legitimation strategies evolve around this theme, as the weaker states attempt to infer China’s intentions and constrain its behavior.

4 Legitimation strategy in the SCS territorial disputes

Legitimation strategy and assurance rhetoric exert effects on foreign policy by creating meaning to state’s behavior. Rationalist explanations underappreciate the role of rhetoric, because statements from political leaders were inconsequential compared to other strategic maneuvers in negotiating process. In the case of China’s peaceful development, I counter this conventional view by highlighting the rationale in which the Chinese leaders construct their statements, the careful attention from Asian countries, and the recurring debate and contestation over the role of China and the future of Asian leadership.

In Indivisible Territory and the Politics of Legitimacy: Jerusalem and Northern Ireland, Stacie Goddard offers a framework on legitimation strategies and rhetorical contestation in territorial disputes. She asks: ‘under what conditions are actors unable to divide territory through the partition, shared sovereignty, or other mechanisms of division?’ (Goddard, 2009b, p. 3). Through her compelling case studies on Jerusalem and Northern Ireland, Goddard convincingly showed that territory can be negotiable at one point in time and become indivisible at another (Goddard, 2009b, p. 15).

This study builds on Goddard’s excellent work, and it proposes a different perspective in unpacking the regional dynamics in the SCS territorial disputes. Whether the ownership over certain reefs or islands, the demarcation of nautical lines, or the rights to natural resources, become negotiable depends upon how China assures its neighbors and how they legitimate their claims during the negotiation process. Moreover, it shows China’s peaceful development discourse leads to a constitutive effect on its Asian policy by establishing a positive image, shaping the baseline expectation from its neighbors, and laying the foundation for debates in the SCS territorial disputes. Political leaders in Malaysia and the Philippines apply rhetoric to legitimate their claim to the contested territory, and these rhetorical strategies may constrain or even trap China in their framework. In this sense, the perception of China’s threat or its benign intentions, are constructed, not merely revealed in the course of assurance and entrapment strategy among Asian countries.

5 Examining Chinese President Xi Jinping’s statement: at home and abroad

The islands and their adjacent waters certainly contain rich natural and fishing resources. However, China also attributes a strong sense of national pride to its claims over the SCS. China’s maritime expansion and control over the island was depicted as a process of rejuvenation toward great power status. For example, China’s official statement such as the island is ‘an inalienable part of Chinese territory since ancient times,’ represents Beijing’s strong will to reclaim the sovereignty which was previously taken by foreign powers.3 Extending control over the SCS not only heals the emotional wound in Chinese collective memory, but also solidifies the Communist Party rule in China (Dutton, 2014, pp. 7–9). Therefore, the nationalistic discourse sometimes surfaces in China’s public opinion over the territorial disputes which nevertheless demands the Chinese leaders respond firmly to other claimants. For example, President Xi emphasized the role of territorial integrity in a meeting with the Communist Party's Politburo. He said:

No foreign country should expect us to make a deal on our core interests and hope we will swallow the bitter pill that will damage our sovereignty, security and development interests.4


Xi’s strong statement certainly implied a less flexible stance toward concessions in the territorial disputes. Even though China has sought to repeat assurance to Southeast Asian countries, its strong statement at home and assertive military actions represented a contradiction of Chinese foreign policy.

A stronger China may demand more respect in many international issues, but it does not necessarily mean that the Chinese leadership would opt for a confrontational stance that seriously provokes its neighboring states. As China enjoys greater international presence, its foreign discourse must be non-aggressive in tone and be supportive of regional stability (Swaine, 2010, pp. 6–9).

Therefore, rather than ignoring the criticism of China’s assertiveness, the Chinese leadership actively engages in sending out benign intentions. For example, China’s President Xi Jinping reassured Asian countries and the United States of China’s benign intentions, and that China will seek to resolve disputes peacefully. In an address to the Australian parliament in Canberra, Xi said:

Many people applaud China’s achievements and have great confidence in China, while some others have concerns about China, and there are also people who find fault with everything China does … . I think these diverse views are to be expected. After all, China is a large country of over 1.3 billion people. It is like a big guy in the crowd. Others will naturally wonder how the big guy will move and act and be concerned that the big guy may push them around, stand in their way, or even take up their place … China remained ‘unshakable in its resolve to pursue peaceful development’ and sincerely hoped that other countries would do the same.5


Xi was mindful of history’s lessons ‘that a war-like state, however big it may be, will eventually fall’. Xi’s public statement serves as an interesting case in point, as he clearly recognized this regional suspicion and its serious consequences. China’s foreign discourse and behavior are restrained because of this rhetorical trap.

A legitimation strategy that resonates with the domestic audience may be deemed assertive or aggressive to China’s neighbors. Crafting an effective legitimation strategy that appeals to both domestic and international audience is indeed a challenging task. Such inconsistency between the two might undermine China’s assurance rhetoric to Asian countries, as political survival for the communist party is still the priority for the Chinese leaders.

6 China, Malaysia, and the Philippines in the SCS Disputes

Scholars in international relations point out that China’s assertiveness is a gradual process in which China is catching up in steps with its capabilities, and China’s increasing presence and confidence in the SCS is a reflection of such change (Mearsheimer, 2010Friedberg, 2014). However, a closer examination of China’s behavior and the different responses from the major claimants reveals a more complex dynamic. Even though China’s overall relations with Southeast Asian countries certainly experienced difficulty starting in 2010, the way in which Malaysia and the Philippines assure and entrap China in legitimating their claims show how Asian neighbors perceive China’s rise differently. The variation among China’s and others’ legitimation and assurance strategy points to a comparative study of rhetorical entrapment in Asian politics. This section focuses on China’s diplomatic rhetoric toward Malaysia and the Philippines in the SCS disputes, and how these countries have framed its foreign discourses differently to address their security concerns and national identities.

7 China and Malaysia

The section highlights how Malaysia’s rhetoric corresponding to China’s overarching framework of peaceful development had led to positive bilateral relations even when China became more assertive in the SCS disputes. More specifically, Malaysia responds positively to China’s role in Asia, and they enjoyed shared values and norms in regional affairs.

In 1999, Prime Minister Mahathir’s pursuit of independent foreign policy assured China of its non-confrontational stances, and his advocate of ‘common interests of peace and regional development’ corresponded to China’s rhetoric from the 1990s to 2000s.6 Similarly, Mahathir’s successor, Prime Minister Badawi publicly pointed out that ‘the strengthening of U.S. – Japan security alliance in Asia-Pacific is destabilizing, because it serves to provoke more than it reassures’.7 His statements certainly addressed to China’s concern in Northeast Asian security. So far Malaysia has not formed alliances with the United States and Japan, and it purposely keeps itself distant from any kind of security commitment to balance against China.

Aside from stressing China’s peaceful development, Beijing established another rhetorical framework to signal its benign intentions: China was once a victim of imperial dominance, and therefore a stronger China nowadays will never seek to be a hegemon like the West (Strauss, 2009). In 2005, a White Paper titled China's Peaceful Developmenthighlighted Zheng He’s achievement (1371–1435) in promoting peace and trade among China and 30 countries in Africa and Asia. Zheng’s voyage to the ‘Western Seas’ in the fifteenth century not only mirrored China’s growing presence in regional politics nowadays, but also implied the great opportunities China can bring to the world. Following this official document, Beijing also invested significant resources in portraying Zheng He as a key figure representing China’s goodwill diplomacy.8

Unlike the Philippines’ strategy of leveraging the US security alliance, Malaysia’s assurance rhetoric is carefully crafted to represent a symbol of friendship and oceanic trade for China–Malaysia relations. For example, in a meeting with President Xi, Dr. Mahathir advocated to set up ‘Zheng He Association’, which aimed at promoting cultural exchanges and bilateral trade, a tribute to China’s legacy to bring prosperity to Malaysia. Furthermore, in May 2014, Razak pointed out a convergence of discourse between China and Malaysia. Specifically, Chinese dream and Malaysia’s Vision 2020 both provide important venues in which Asian countries can actively participate and promote prosperity as a community.

7.1 Malaysia’s assurance strategy in the SCS disputes

The SCS dispute serves as a good case study of Malaysia’s assurance strategy toward China, as Malaysia can better engage with China through bilateral than multilateral means. As a founding member of ASEAN, Malaysia is expected to solve the territorial disputes with China along with other claimants. Liberal institutionalists argue that multilateral institutions provide great leverage for small states when dealing with stronger states, as the institution represents a rule-binding forum and creates relevant norms to follow. The Mischief Reef incident that took place in 1995 caught Asian countries’ attention, because China had built a structure on Mischief Reef to claim its sovereignty. However, each Member State had different responses toward China’s behavior (Cossa, 1998). The Mischief Reef indicated that Malaysia could successfully assure China through a bilateral negotiation even though the nature of the disputes involved other states. From China’s perspective, the SCS dispute is better resolved through bilateral negotiation with individual states, because its stronger power provides greater leverage. In this sense, Malaysia’s response to China specifically addressed China’s concern. For instance, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar openly rejected the Philippines’ proposal to discuss the disputes in ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). He said that,

It was a bilateral issue to be discussed bilaterally … the South China Sea issue should be settled through bilateral negotiations … .  It would only make a bilateral issue of dispute more complicated if the issue is internationalized.9


His statement is consistent with China’s preference to deal with this issue bilaterally. Malaysia’s distant attitude toward the ASEAN framework is a successful use of assurance strategy toward China, as it signals benign intentions to deal with China over the SCS disputes. The clever use of assurance strategy indeed led to success in better bilateral relations. As Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said,

Malaysia’s China policy has been a triumph of good diplomacy and good sense … . I believe that we blazed a trail for others to follow. Our China policy showed that if you can look beyond your fears and inadequacies, and can think and act from principled positions, rewards will follow.10


The management of SCS disputes is the outcome of assurance–reassurance for China and Malaysia, which seek to maintain good momentum in bilateral relations. When Malaysian Prime Minister Najib visited China in 2009, the two sides decided to solve the disputes and rebuild bilateral relations. More specifically, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao assured Najib that China would follow the Declaration on the Conduct on the SCS. Both countries can jointly safeguard peace and stability on the SCS.11 Later Najib’s public speech reassured China that Malaysia never viewed China as a threat but as an important partner. Malaysia aimed to address the issue through friendly consultation under the guidance of international laws.12 Both sides managed to solve the territorial disputes through a friendly dialogue.

Unlike the Philippines, which are confronted with China’s assertive attitude in the SCS disputes, Malaysia’s assurance diplomacy returned after the CLCS dispute and remained unchanged in 2010, albeit with thinly veiled warnings that assertive behavior by China would have consequences. As Prime Minister Najib Razak said,

Malaysia does not see China as indulging in power projection but as wanting to engage with major powers to achieve a balance in the region … . Although China has become more assertive than ever before, we believe China would not want to destabilize the region, and that there are mechanisms for us to undertake conflict resolutions with China because Chinese people tend to be quite pragmatic people. We believe we can work and consult with the Chinese.13


Malaysian assurance diplomacy yields success when engaging China. However, it is worth noticing that Malaysia still favors the Code of Conduct (CoC) proposed by ASEAN countries in dealing with territorial disputes (Kuik, 2013, pp. 37–38). Both Malaysia and China agree to address their concerns over ‘core interests’ in the SCS and cooperate on this issue. It is fair to conclude that Malaysian assurance strategy is expected to continue if China does not seriously challenge its national interest in the SCS.

7.2 Assurance strategy toward a positive dynamic

When China became more assertive toward Japan and the Philippines starting in 2010, political tensions certainly heightened in East Asia. However, Malaysia maintained more stable relations with China during this period. For example, at the second Strategic Consultation, both sides decided to designate 2014 ‘Malaysia-China Friendship Year’, and they agreed that ‘Malaysia-China relations were moving on the right track from strength to strength.’14In addition, at the Shangri-La Dialogue where the Asia-Pacific countries and the United States gathered and discussed regional security, Prime Minister Najib Razak stated that ‘while I remain fully committed to the common ASEAN position in terms of our engagement with China on the SCS, I am equally determined to ensure that our bilateral relationship remains unaffected.’15

Unlike the Philippines, which are confronted with China’s assertive attitude in the SCS disputes, Malaysia’s assurance diplomacy remained unchanged in 2010, albeit with thinly veiled warnings that assertive behavior by China would have consequences.

Even though Malaysia recognized the increasing incidents among China and other claimant states in the SCS, high-level officials have refrained from publicly confronting China on territorial disputes. Instead, the Malaysian government chose a specific rhetorical strategy reassuring China of its good intentions. In 2010, Najib publicly stated that ‘China as a global economic power is not a threat to any nation … . China over the last two decades had brought overwhelmingly positive developments to the Southeast Asian region.’16 When China’s navy ships visited James Shoal nearby Malaysia in 2013, the Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein eased concerns about the Chinese patrol vessels. He said:

Just because you have enemies, doesn’t mean your enemies are my enemies … . The Chinese can patrol every day, but if their intention is not to go to war it is of less concern … . I think we have enough level of trust that we will not be moved by day-to-day politics or emotions.17


These two official statements emphasized that China ‘is not a threat economically militarily to Malaysia’. Concerning China’s assertive stance, Malaysia’s rhetorical strategy was quite different from those of the Philippines’ that seek to detect or reveal China’s revisionist intentions. In Bing’s study on China–Malaysia military ties, one of the military officers he interviewed well-summarizes the Malaysian foreign policy and assurance rhetoric toward China. The officer claimed: ‘it is important to continue to have confidence building measures, and not to let [China] have the feeling of animosity … engage with [China], capitalize on [China] rhetoric on peace and make them committed to it (Bing, 2015, p. 297)’. Within this ‘non-threat’ context, Malaysia’s foreign discourse subtly reminded of China not becoming a ‘real’ threat to Asian countries – a self-fulfilling fact that China intended to prevent for the last two decades; China has applied mild rhetoric toward the Malaysian government’s measures on the disputed islands. Moreover, when Beijing’s rhetoric shifted toward a more assertive attitude in 2009–10, its official statement toward Malaysia remained unchanged. China has assured Malaysia that it is willing to solve the territorial disputes peacefully and promote peace and stability. Therefore, Malaysia’s assurance strategy toward China is a good example of prudent diplomacy, because it avoids explicitly confronting a stronger China.

7.3 From Declaration of Conduct to CoC in the SCS

In November 2002, ASEAN and China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS (DoC) that pledged to exercise self-restraint in maritime activities that would affect peace and stability in this region. Even though DoC was a non-binding agreement, China’s diplomatic stance successfully reassured the ASEAN countries that China’s ‘peaceful rise’ was indeed a serious commitment.

Recently, the SCS territorial disputes have been a central topic for recent ASEAN meetings. When Malaysia was chairing ASEAN in 2015, it urged to implement DoC and to conclude a legally binding CoC. Anifah Aman, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia publicly asked China to work with ASEAN members countries in the negotiation of the CoC, as it would provide rules to maintain status quo and encourage confident-building mechanism among the claimant countries.18 China positively responded to Malaysia’s request on drafting CoC, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and in China’s Ambassador Huang Huikang Malaysia both agreed to explore ‘preventive measures on managing risks at sea’.19 On the SCS disputes, the discourse from China and Malaysia indicated that both sides spoke the same language in the consultation of CoC. The fact that Malaysia’s soft rhetoric has worked to constrain China can be shown through statement from China’s President Xi Jinping in 2014, as he praised Malaysia for adopting ‘quite diplomacy’ instead of confrontation and international litigation.20

In a nutshell, Malaysia did not set up a rhetorical trap to gauge China’s intentions, but it focused on reassuring China of its benign intentions. The hidden message from Malaysia was a soft reminder to urge China to maintain its long-held image as a peaceful rising country.

7.4 The Luconia Shoal incident

In 2015, Malaysia identified a Chinese coast guard ship that keeps Malaysian fisherman away from the fishing ground nearby the South Luconia Shoal (Gill et al., 2016, p. 10). Malaysian Prime Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, made a strong statement concerning China’s encroachment on coral areas close to Malaysia’s shore. However, without directly referring to China, he said: ‘We Malaysia should rise to defend our country … this is not just a matter of economy but sovereignty.’21

More recently, Malaysia identified nearly 100 Chinese fishing boats and coastguard vessel nearby the Luconia Shoals.22 The frequent presence of Chinese ships around Malaysian reef could push Malaysia gradually harden its stance on the SCS disputes, which leads to unstable China–Malaysia relations.23 Malaysia might seek closer security ties with the United States, a suboptimal outcome for China if it continues to challenge Malaysia’s jurisdiction.

The 2016 Luconia Shoals incident also points to the lack of policy coordination among the Malaysian government. When the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) discovered about 100 Chinese vessels sailing close to the Luconia Shoals, it had caught media coverage in Asian and beyond. However, the Defense Ministry Hishammuddin Tun Hussein later responded that the Navy did not identify any Chinese vessels encroached into that water area (Han, 2016). Such a contradictory response was hardly an assurance statement for Malaysian officer. Instead, it revealed the lack of communication inside the Malaysian government, which might undercut Malaysia’s long-held policy posture toward China.

Although bilateral tensions certainly heightened in the recent events, Malaysia’s policy has not constituted a fundamental break from its assurance strategy and self-restraint diplomatic practices toward China (Kuik, 2014). In sum, Malaysia’s rhetoric demonstrated a clear pattern of not viewing China as a threat, even when China was perceived to be more assertive in 2010–15 in the SCS disputes.

8 China and the Philippines

The SCS is not only a critical strategic pathway for East Asian countries, but also a rich water area full of natural resources. The quest for the fishing area, oil, and natural gas created potential conflicts among China and Southeast Asian countries. Beijing deployed the strongest rhetoric among the two countries examined in this article. For example, China’s spokesman said that the Philippines officials were being ‘irresponsible’ in making their territorial claims, and China’s spokesman even elaborated at length to justify Beijing’s legal claims.24 This invocation of legal norms is itself a form of reassurance, as it raises the costs to China if it were to violate international law in the SCSs. One possible explanation for China’s harsher stance toward the Philippines is its closer security relations with the United States that might deter China’s growing presence in the SCS. This section highlights the Philippines’s assurance strategy in the JMSU – a tripartite agreement among China, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and it also traces the political controversy which took place afterward in 2008.

Under the JMSU agreement, the oil companies supported by these three countries began a joint survey in the SCS in 2005. The joint development project represented the Philippines’ effort to address China’s concerns in the SCS. For example, when Chinese President Hu Jintao paid a state visit to the Philippines in 2005, both countries issued a joint statement highlighting the role of JMSU. It claimed:

The two sides agreed that the collaboration in the South China Sea had given a boost to China-Philippines relations and made historic contributions to pragmatic cooperation among relevant countries in the South China Sea and to peace, stability and prosperity in the region. The two sides welcomed the signing of the Tripartite Agreement for Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking … a historic step towards the transformation of the South China Sea into a sea of friendship and cooperation.25


The signing of the JMSU in the SCS serves as a model for cooperation in the region, as both China and the Philippines have already worked out a joint development plan. However, the Filipino people strongly opposed President Arroyo’s actions, accusing her of selling out the Philippines territory for China’s financial assistance.26The initial project ended in 2008 due to domestic pressure. Even though JMSU failed to realize, it presented the first step for the Philippines and China in resolving the disputes through jointly development projects, which corresponds to China’s preference in bilateral settings.

Most importantly, China’s rhetoric even reminded the Philippines government of the ‘law-binding’ aspect of JMSU: it complies with the principles of the ‘ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS (DOC)’. Evoking a sense of community, China encouraged the Philippines, as an active member of ASEAN to positively contribute to the peace and development in Asia.27

Accusations against the politician in selling out the Philippines sovereignty to China during the JMSU negotiations remained strong, and therefore China might have substantive material interests in preserving this deal. However, such an explanation fails to address how China tailored its rhetoric in assuring the Philippines and China’s willingness to binding its behavior in a multilateral and legal framework.

The JMSU illustrated that confidence-building measures and assurance strategy was possible to achieve substantial outcomes, albeit difficult, for the Philippines and China. When Vietnam joined the negotiation in 2005, this framework served as the most likely scenario for all the claimants if they attempt to explore resources in the contested area.

So far the Philippines has used diplomatic maneuvers in the territorial disputes with China. At the same time, it needs to maintain military ties with the United States to deter China’s assertive behaviors. The United States and the Philippines share the same objectives in fostering the status quo and freedom of navigation in the SCS. The United States is committed to providing the Philippine army with ‘a minimum credible defense posture’.28 For example, the United States upheld its commitment to strengthen the Philippines’ maritime intelligence, and it provided a radar system along the Philippines’ coastline.29 The Philippines is investing significantly to purchase two offshore patrol boats and maritime aircraft to prevent future military confrontation.30

8.1 China’s assertive behavior starting in 2010

Contrary to the previous President Arroyo, who maintained positive relations with China, China’s assertive attitude and discourse marked a significant change for bilateral relations. When President Benigno Aquino III took office in 2010, the tension heightened over the SCS between China and the Philippines (De Castro, 2012).

Moreover, China’s assertiveness was observed through its enforcement of the sovereignty claims in the SCS. For instance, in February 2011, a Chinese warship appeared nearby Jackson Atoll, a water area close to Palawan province, and fired shots at Philippines fishing boats.31 There were increasing skirmishes, through which China and the Philippines were putting markers along the Spratly islands in 2011.32 The repeating process of establishing and removing markers on these islands added pressure for the vessels from both sides.

Responding to frequent territorial disputes with China, President Aquino decided to upgrade the Philippines naval forces and became more assertive on sovereignty claims. For example, in 2011 when referring to the ownership over the Reed Bank – the islands which are currently contested by the Philippines and China – President Aquino made a strong statement indicating that ‘What is ours is ours.

33 The representation of the strong versus the weak was also salient in the Philippines’ official statement, in which rhetorical strategy that China had a hard time to counter it.34 At the same time, the Philippines also emphasized the primacy of international law and the adherence of rule-based regime in the SCS disputes, and the law-based legitimation strategy continues to be the rhetorical framework in which China and the Philippines apply.35 The Aquino administration began to modernize the military with a specific focus on air and naval forces. More specifically, the Philippines requested 12 F-16 fighter jets and a third coast guard cutter from the United States.36Washington also paid close attention to the development of the territorial dispute and addressed the Philippines’ concern over China’s assertiveness. For example, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton reaffirmed the US security commitment in Asia-Pacific and reiterated that territorial disputes should be settled peacefully.37 Clinton’s high-profile visit and her public statement on an American warship sent an assuring signal to the Philippines as it deals with a stronger neighbor. From China’s perspective, however, the US reassurance strategy, both rhetorically and militarily, sent out worrisome signals to China, as stable US–Philippines relations may serve as an effective strategy to contain a rising China.

8.2 The 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident

When China and the Philippines dispatched naval vessels nearby the Scarborough Shoal, the probability of military conflict significantly increased. In May, the Chinese government imposed trade restrictions on the Philippines bananas, claiming that there were pests found in the banana imports. Most of the banana growers and exporters were suspicious about China’s quarantine, because no such restriction had happened in the past decades.38 China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fu Ying, made a strong statement amid the escalating tensions, as she said to the chief Filipino diplomat in Beijing that Manila was ‘severely damaging the atmosphere of the bilateral relations between China and the Philippines’.39

Furthermore, there was controversy concerning whether both sides truly agree to settle this dispute. Recent official statements from the Philippines diplomat revealed that China reneged on that deal by refusing to withdraw its ships when the Philippines did.40 Therefore, China’s assertiveness and coercive measures against the Philippines raised suspicion about China’s commitment in solving the territorial disputes in a peaceful manner.

While the Philippines military officers stressed the urgent need to upgrade defense capabilities, the Aquino administration had barely kept its military spending up to 1% of the annual budget.41At this state, the Philippines government was not fully prepared for a serious military confrontation with China over the disputed waters. Suffering from a lack of budget to upgrade naval capability, the Philippines managed to acquire three former Hamilton-class cutters from the US Coast Guard. This transfer enabled the Philippines navy to patrol throughout its Exclusive Economic Zone.42 Despite the growing awareness of China’s threat, the Philippines’ motives and ability to maintain military defense in the SCS remain weak for the foreseeable future.

8.3 A legal aspect of peaceful rise

To counter China’s assertiveness in the SCS territorial disputes, the Philippines has opted for a more proactive way via United Nations arbitration tribunal. In 2013, the Philippines sought to handle the disputes in accordance with international law and urged China to adopt a peaceful and rule-based solution.

Most importantly, the fact that the arbitration panel proceeded without China send the alarming signals to its neighbors implying that China does not obey the international rules (Dutton, 2013, pp. 1–6). China’s reluctance of participating in the legal process undermined its images as a responsible member of the international community.

Furthermore, the Philippines deployed a rhetorical strategy highlighting the law-binding aspect of a peaceful rising country which contrasts China’s assertive behavior in the SCS. For example, Foreign Minister Albert Rosario made an explicit statement in the Permanent Court of Arbitration. He said:

Tensions have risen dramatically. Unable to resolve these disputes ourselves, we thus turned to this arbitration to provide all parties a durable, rules-based solution … . China is not just interfering with the progress of the Filipino people; China’s unilateral actions and the atmosphere of intimidation they have created are also trampling upon the rights and interests of the peoples of Southeast Asia and beyond.43

His statements clearly presented a juxtaposing between a weak state who tries to safeguard the integrity of law and legal order, and a stronger one who neglects justice and fairness in the international community. The Philippines had enjoyed a moral high ground while China was in a difficult situation.

8.4 China’s dismissal attitude toward the Philippines’ submission

From a Chinese perspective, the Philippines’ unilateral move to the arbitration had violated its previous commitment to resolve the disputes through friendly dialogues. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a strong statement labeling Manila’s decision as ‘political arrogance and legal prejudice’.44 Similarly, Fu Ying, China’s Vice Foreign Minister, openly declared Beijing’s position: no acceptance, no participation, no recognition, and no implementation concerning the verdict. She also claimed that the tribunal has acted in ‘a reckless manner and abuse its power’.45

Anticipating the result of the ruling favorable to the Philippines, China, albeit was concerned, still disregarded the legal process. For example, when delivering a speech at a US think tank in Washington DC, former China’s State Councilor, Dai Bingguo, also indicated ‘China will to honor its due obligations … uphold the integrity and authority of the UNCLOS and other international law … [However,] the final award of the arbitration … amounts to nothing more than a piece of paper’.46

Beijing’s dismissal to the ruling has left itself open to criticism that it was, and will not be committed to international law and rule-based norms. In the end, China might abandon its peaceful development principle and opt for military force to resolve disputes in the SCS (Storey, 2013, pp. 4–5).

While China’s occupation was considered a demonstration of ‘might is right’, the ruling favorable for the Philippines, to some extent, showed that right could turn into might by successful legitimation rhetoric. For example, when China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that the reclamation and construction work would meet the demands for China's military defense, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, most widely read newspaper in the Philippines, soon made a strong charge against China’s hypocrisy. It argued:

the reclamation and construction work is a direct and final repudiation of Beijing's former policy of a ‘peaceful rise’. That policy was meant to reassure China's neighbours that its continuing transformation, first begun by Deng Xiaoping, posed no security threat. Under Xi Jinping, however, its most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong, China has embraced a policy of expansionist nationalism …47


Although it can be argued that laws are the weapon of the weak, the Philippines efforts have started to gather international support for the Philippines. For example, John Kemp, an analyst in international affairs at Reuters, resonated with the Philippines’ discourse. He wrote:

‘[The South China Sea] raises questions about whether states can be bound by the decisions of international tribunals against their will … . For China, it is about adjusting the postwar international framework to accommodate the country's ‘peaceful rise.’48


The Philippines’ rhetoric on bringing up the case to international organization set up a trap that put China in a difficult position. China faced moral charges of not abiding to international law, and its reluctance in the negotiation process undermined China’s image. The ruling turned out to be favorable to the Philippines, and China might have to make more careful responses to counter the situation. So far the Philippines strategy has gained a paper victory to constrain China’s growing naval power and assertive stances, as it applied China’s peaceful rise discourse in a legal framework.

9 Lock-in effects in the ‘rhetorical trap’

Rhetorical entrapment can be best observed through China’s foreign rhetoric starting from 2009 to 2014. Moreover, with the passing of time, China’s assurance discourse has created significant lock-in effects in which China’s foreign policy is restrained by its previous commitment on the peaceful rise.

These effects are especially salient in the responses from China’s neighboring countries to China’s foreign behavior in 2010. Moral and political pressure compels the Chinese leadership to respond to China’s assertiveness either by officially addressing the shift of such foreign policy or re-adjusting China’s rhetoric back to a ‘peaceful rise’ one.

9.1 How China resolves the ‘rhetorical entrapment’?

China’s long-held assuring rhetoric has prevented a stronger China from breaking its promise radically. An examination of the China’s recent development indicates that its foreign behavior remains cautious in many aspects. For example, China soon realized its more assertive stances have prompted enhanced US security ties with East Asian countries that may gradually encircle China. Starting in 2011, China showed signs of self-restraint and a more conciliatory Asian policy (Gompert and Saunders, 2011, pp. 45–46).

This rhetorical entrapment reminds the Chinese leadership carefully not to be perceived as a ‘war-like’ or ‘conflict-prone’ state from others. This study devotes most of its part in identifying both the continuity and change of China’s foreign discourse from 2000 to 2010, and it also addresses how China managed to overcome the rhetorical traps by adjusting its foreign policy. Table 1 illustrates the process of China’s assurance and reassurance strategy.

Table 1

The process of rhetorical entrapment and reassurance strategy



Therefore, the rhetorical entrapment is a two-way process, in which not only Asian states highlight the inconsistency between China’s discourse and behavior, China also deploys the reassuring strategy to uphold its previous commitment. At the same time, China in 2015 continued to expand its presence in the SCS by dredging sand from the ocean bottom to enlarge the land mass of the coral reefs it controls.49 This behavior, while less confrontational than provoking collisions with foreign vessels or spraying them with water cannons, continued to create tension between China’s conciliatory rhetoric and its assertive maritime actions. The summary of the finding from China’s neighbors can be presented as follows (see Table 2).

Table 2

Summary of rhetorical strategy from Malaysia and the Philippines

China’s neighbors  Rhetorical strategy toward China  Notes  China’s response 
The Philippines  Active legal claim/ international law  Weapons of the weak  Refuse to participate in the process 
Malaysia  Reminding the non-threat context/softly entraps China  Form DOC to COC in ASEAN  Positive reassurance 


10 Conclusion

China’s national power is growing significantly, but how China will handle the SCS disputes remains an issue of debates among scholars and policymakers. Instead of focusing on material capabilities of a rising country, a deeper understanding of China’s rhetoric toward its neighbors is also an integral part of power politics.

Realists argue that only hard power such as military capabilities and economic capacity are the main reasons why Asian states do not balance against China. Such an explanation is incomplete, because the distribution of power also involves subjective perceptions of threat and foreign rhetoric. Thus, the study of assurance and reassurance strategy properly addresses the theoretical and empirical puzzles that lie in Asian politics as well as international relations.

The finding of this study can contribute to both international relations theory and East Asian politics in two major ways. First, it proposes a framework of assurance-entrapment and conducts empirical tests in the two cases. Even though much of the literature on major power behaviors has focused on how it exerts influences in certain issue areas or how it performs in international institutions, few have examined how other countries perceive the rise of major power systematically. This study analyzes the interactive process among China and its neighbors in Southeast Asia when they try to maintain positive bilateral relations as well as stable regional order. Second, this study emphasizes how Malaysia and the Philippines legitimate their claims in the SCS disputes and apply rhetorical entrapment to constrain China. The comparative study of these two countries contributes to a deeper understanding of foreign policy discourse and Southeast Asian politics. The rhetorical strategies of the Philippines and Malaysia can explain the different ways in which Asian countries respond to the rise of China in a systematic manner. It demonstrates variation in responses not only among two countries in Southeast Asia, but also traces the development across time.

10.1 Implication for the US–China relations

Scholars in international relations offer different predictions about the US–China relations (Friedberg, 2005Ikenberry, 2008). If the two countries will inevitably engage in serious conflicts, then foreign rhetoric is ephemeral and inconsequential. Military build-ups and alliance formation would then seem to be the only viable strategy for the United States and China. On the other hand, if a clash is avoidable, then assurance strategy and positive exchange of ideas can help the two sides coexist peacefully across the Pacific Ocean.

Understanding the dynamic is critical to US diplomacy in the region, China’s harsher rhetoric and behaviors since 2010 have opened a window for more unified regional efforts to dissuade China from becoming more aggressive and revisionist in Asia. At the same time, the US ‘pivot’ towards Asia announced by the Obama administration has not always been framed in ways that take into account the discourse between China and its neighbors, and has thus at times risked undermining US cooperation either with China or with US allies in the region.

For instance, if China’s neighbors all interpret US assurance message as leverage against China, it would be harder for the United States to convince China that it would remain neutral in the SCS disputes. As Kenneth Lieberthal, a renowned China expert, examines the nature of US pivot policy in Asia, he rightly points out:

But this new integrated Asia strategy risks overreach by creating expectations that Washington will not be able to meet, … and assuming goals among other Asian countries that miss their more complex perceptions of American prospects and strategies in the region. It is therefore very important for American officials to keep tight control of their rhetoric so as to avoid unnecessary distrust and tension as they flesh out details of U.S. strategy (Lieberthal, 2011).


The strategic landscape of Asia is heavily dependent on US–China relations and the rhetorical frame they assign to each other in this region. US presence in Asia to a greater extent, may deepen Beijing’s suspicion of containing a rising China – an anti-China alliance by the United States and its allies – which results in intense competition between China and the United States. There is no clear guideline for evolving US–China relations, but China definitely remains one of the most challenging and crucial partners that the United States has to skillfully handle. The US assurance and reassurance strategies toward China, therefore, require carefully crafted signals to address both China’s concerns and its Asian allies’ interests at the same time.


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6   ‘Speech at the 3rd Malaysia-China Forum’, 19 August 1999. http://www.pmo.gov.my/ucapan/?m=p&p=mahathir&id=967

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10   Keynote address by Prime Minister of Malaysia, Abdullah Badawi, in China-Malaysia Economic Conference, 12 February 2004.

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25   Joint Statement of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of the Philippines, 28 April 2005.

26   The term ‘selling out’ referred to the sea body that is not disputed by China and Vietnam, but the JMSU gave these two countries access to the previously uncontested area. For more detailed explanations, see Baviera (2012).

27   China worried about tendencies in Philippines having negative influence on ties. Xinhua (2008, March 12).

28   Joint statement of the Philippines-United States ministerial dialogue. (2012, April 30). U.S. Department of State.

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33   Recto Bank is the Reed Bank in the Philippines terminology. Recto Avenue is one of the major streets in downtown Manila. President Aquino: Philippines to protect ‘what’s ours’. (2011, July 26). Philippines Daily Inquirer.

34   ‘Statement on the Reed Bank,’ 8 March 2011.

35   ‘A rules-based regime in the South China Sea’ (2011, June 7). Philippines Daily Inquirer.

36   Philippines seeks 12 F-16 fighter jets from US. (2011, December 12). Associated Press.

37   Clinton reaffirms military ties with the Philippines. (2011, November 16). The New York Times.

38   In Philippines, banana growers feel effect of South China Sea dispute. (2012, June 10). The Washington Post, More importantly, Stephen Antig, President of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association, claimed that ‘the Scarborough Shoal issue may be viewed as political, but it could have a devastating effect on trade relations between the country and China.’ For a detailed coverage, see Banana industry fears loss of China trade over Scarborough row. (2012, May 7). Philippine Inquirer.

39   Dispute between China and Philippines over island becomes more heated. (2012, May 10). The New York Times.

40   Philippine diplomat to China: Don't turn shoal into island. (2016, April 13). Associated Press.

41   AFP Chief: Defense spending should be 1% of Phl budget. (2015, March 30). Philstar.

42   PH to get 3rd Hamilton-class warship from US. (2015, November 18). Rappler.

43   FULL TEXT: Closing remarks of DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario in last day of Merits Hearing. (2015, November 30). Philippine Daily Inquirer.

44   ‘Wang Yi: It Is Political Arrogance and Legal Prejudice to Pressure China over South China Sea Arbitration’, 22 April 2016.

45   ‘Why China Says No to the Arbitration on the South China Sea,’ Foreign Policy, 10 July 2016.

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47   China's reclamation work in South China Sea unacceptable. (2015, April 18). Philippine Daily Inquirer

48   Maritime disputes test China's peaceful rise: Kemp. (2015, May 28). Reuters.

49   U.S. Navy alarmed at Beijing’s ‘Great Wall of sand’ in South China Sea. (2015, April 1). The Washington Post.


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Christina Lai Photo


Christina J. Lai

International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, lcx008, https://doi.org/10.1093/irap/lcx008

Published: 19 July 2017