Written by: James Boehme, Tufts University
Vast quantities of International Relations scholarship published over the past several decades have sought to explain the infamous “rise of China” as a modern great power. Naturally, many scholars have framed their analysis within a broader narrative examining great power conflict between China and the United States of America. However, in the midst of this lively debate over the future of global great power conflict, it is easy to lose sight of the equally significant scholarly dialogue concerning how other (South) East Asian states can, have, and should respond to China’s expanding regional hegemony. In this essay, I highlight some critical explanations as to how traditionally weaker (South) East Asian states can best promote their national interests vis-à-vis an expanding China. More specifically, I focus my analysis on strategies that these smaller states can adopt to defend their claims to sovereignty over maritime features contested by China. Though I exclusively consider maritime conflicts in the South China Sea (SCS), my findings can be applied more generally to any East Asian state engaged in maritime disputes with China.
Why were Vietnamese attempts to contest Chinese maritime claims in the 2014 HYSY 981 incident successful, whereas Philippine attempts to contest Chinese claims in the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff were unsuccessful?
In this paper I offer several complementary hypotheses which might answer my research question stated above. I test these hypotheses by conducting qualitative case studies of the HYSY 981 dispute of 2014 and the Scarborough Shoal incident of 2012. Within each case study, I draw from primary (in the form of contemporary news reports, government press releases, and official communiqués) and secondary (in the form of scholarly books chapters, journal articles, and case studies) evidence in my analysis.
The remainder of this paper is broken up into several sections. In the first section, I review the relevant scholarly literature surrounding resolve signaling, reputation, and maritime disputes in the South China Sea. In this section I also summarize the hypotheses which I later test, explaining the variables and causal mechanisms corresponding to each hypothesis. In the second section, I test each of my hypotheses and offer my empirical findings. I conclude by summarizing my research. Ultimately, I find that—in order to successfully coerce China in maritime sovereignty disputes—smaller states in the SCS must 1) signal resolve to escalate grey-zone physical pressure against China and 2) credibly demonstrate resolve and capacity to mobilize multilateral diplomatic pressure (especially involving the U.S. and ASEAN) against China.
Though I do not necessarily consider myself a strict adherent to any sub discipline of the realist school of international relations scholarship, this paper primarily builds upon several ideas associated with the realist school. In particular, I base my analysis on Thomas Schelling’s assertion that “issues are decided not by who can bring the most force to bear in a locality, or on a particular issue, but by who is eventually willing to bring more force to bear or able to make it appear that more is forthcoming”. Moreover, I argue that balance of resolve theories do not only apply to kinetic conflicts between equal powers, but also in grey-zone territorial disputes between states with vastly different military capabilities. I also draw from scholarship concerning coercion. Specifically, I center my analysis around what Daniel Byman and Matthew C. Waxman refer to as “denial” coercive strategies, exploring how these strategies may best be emulated by conventionally weak states against much more powerful adversaries.
I hypothesize that, whereas Vietnam consistently signaled escalatory resolve in the HYSY 981 incident, the Philippines failed to reliably signal similar escalatory resolve in the Scarborough Shoal dispute of 2012. Likewise, whereas China perceived that continuing to press its case in the HYSY dispute would provoke unbearable retaliation from Vietnam, it did not perceive that the Philippines was willing and/or able to incur similar costs. In response to the credible threat from Vietnam and the lack thereof from the Philippines, Beijing decided to cede limited effective control of disputed maritime territory to Vietnam but not to the Philippines. I break down this hypothesis into two observable sub-hypotheses, focusing on two prominent foci of resolve signaling.
In the first hypothesis—based on Shelling’s writings on the balance of resolve—I posit that Vietnam successfully compelled China because it credibly signaled resolve to escalate its naval presence near the Chinese rig and to directly damage Chinese physical assets. Likewise, I conceive that the Philippines did not compel China because it did not effectively signal that it was willing and able to increase its naval presence at the Shoal or to damage Chinese physical assets. The dependent variable in this hypothesis is the extent to which China abandoned control over disputed maritime features. The independent variable is the consistency with and methods by which Vietnam and the Philippines signaled naval escalatory resolve to China. The causal mechanism is the extent to which, by signaling escalatory resolve, Vietnam and the Philippines threatened to levy unbearable costs against Chinese naval assets. I generalize this hypothesis as the following:
H1: China will make limited concessions to SCS littoral states which credibly signal willingness to physically escalate their maritime sovereignty disputes with China.
In the second hypothesis, I presuppose that Vietnam successfully compelled China because it effectively signaled that it could credibly internationalize the HYSY 981 dispute, mobilizing international pressure against China. Conversely, I assume that the Philippines did not successfully compel China because it did not signal that it could credibly internationalize the Scarborough Shoal dispute. As with the first hypothesis, the dependent variable here is the extent to which China abandoned control over disputed maritime features. The independent variable is the consistency with which Vietnam and the Philippines threatened to internationalize the dispute and subsequently acted upon those threats. [JB1] The intervening variable is the extent to which international actors signaled commitment to Vietnam and the Philippines in response to their outreach efforts. This hypothesis operates under two discrete (yet complementary) causal mechanisms. The first causal mechanism builds upon Zhang Ketian, Li Mingjiang, Steve Chan, and others’ general assertion that China is a “cautious bully”—positing that, by internationalizing the dispute, Vietnam and the Philippines threatened diplomatic costs associated with geopolitical backlash against China. In response to the threat of sufficient geopolitical backlash, China will make limited concessions on sovereignty to preserve regional stability. The second causal mechanism draws on theories of external balancing and alliance signaling—implying that, by producing defense commitments or other statements of material support from powerful external actors, Vietnam and the Philippines threatened increased physical costs (potentially associated with kinetic force) against China. If Vietnam, the Philippines, and their allies can credibly threaten sufficient physical costs, China will make limited concessions to avoid excessive suffering. I generalize this hypothesis as the following:
H2: China will make limited concessions to SCS littoral states which credibly signal willingness and capability to invoke support from external actors in bilateral disputes with China.
I find that the Scarborough Shoal and HYSY 981 cases confirm both hypotheses. In fact, successful escalatory resolve signaling by small states (as described in the first hypothesis) appears to be contingent on one such state’s ability to reliably signal willingness to internationalize a dispute with a larger state (in this case China), and that small state’s ability to form broad, clear coalitions of support comprised of stronger state actors. As such, my analysis confirms that theories of external balancing apply to maritime disputes characterized singularly by grey-zone coercion.
This section is broken up into subsections corresponding to each hypothesis. Each subsection is broken up into sub-subsections corresponding to each case study.
Hypothesis 1: Signaling Naval Resolve
H1: China will make limited concessions to SCS littoral states which credibly signal willingness to physically escalate their maritime sovereignty disputes with China.
Case Study: Scarborough Shoal
The Sino-Philippine standoff over the Scarborough Shoal began on the morning of April 8, 2012, when a Philippine Navy reconnaissance aircraft reported that eight Chinese fishing boats were occupying the waters within the Scarborough Shoal. Already, Chinese and Philippine authorities offered conflicting accounts of the situation—while Chinese officials stated that these ships had temporarily taken shelter in the Shoal due to inclement weather, the Philippine National Coast Watch System had reportedly been monitoring the Chinese fishing vessels for weeks. In response to the Chinese presence in Philippine-claimed waters, the Philippine Navy directed its largest warship—the decommissioned US Coast Guard cutter BRP Gregorio del Pilar—to investigate the Chinese vessels stationed in the Shoal. Upon arriving at the Shoal on April 10, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar confirmed that eight Chinese vessels were present, and a Philippine boarding party reportedly found illegally collected marine wildlife aboard a Chinese ship. Before Philippine sailors could arrest the Chinese fishermen, two China Marine Surveillance ships—the CMS 75 and CMS 84—arrived and prevented the Philippine warship from entering the Shoal and apprehending the fishermen. The Chinese ships hailed their Philippine counterpart and demanded that the cutter withdraw from the Chinese-claimed shoal and the surrounding water. The crew of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar refused to leave, contending that the Chinese fishermen had been illegally operating within the Philippine EEZ. Later that day, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III ordered a coast guard ship to replace the BRP Gregorio del Pilar—which was a Philippine Navy vessel—[JB2] , effectively downgrading the Philippine presence at the Shoal. This decision to de-escalate seems to have been a calculated effort by Aquino and Philippine strategists to defuse the situation by reciprocating Beijing’s grey-zone strategy. Though China continued to pursue grey-zone strategies, it did not de-escalate its presence at the Shoal. On April 11, Beijing sent its most advanced fishery patrol ship to reinforce Chinese naval presence at the Shoal. Additionally, an unarmed Chinese Marine Surveillance aircraft patrolled the Shoal while initial talks occurred in Manila. Both sides continued to claim exclusive sovereignty, and talks reached an impasse.  China continued to respond to Philippine demilitarization by increasing its naval presence. On April 12, Manila replaced the BRP Gregorio del Pilar with the BRP Pampanga[AY3] [JB4] . Whereas the former was the country’s most advanced warship, the latter was merely a coast guard search and rescue vessel. As such, Manila de-escalated by downgrading its naval presence at the Shoal. In contrast, Beijing deployed the FLEC 303, a Fisheries Law Enforcement Command patrol ship with a deck-mounted gun.
Even during the earliest [JB5] days of the dispute, the Philippines inconsistently signaled escalatory resolve. By immediately sending the BRP Gregorio del Pilar to apprehend Chinese fishermen, the Aquino administration implied that it was willing and able to deploy the armed forces to defend Philippine control of the Shoal. This move signaled high levels of escalatory resolve since, as Zhang and De Castro point, Beijing and Manila had previously addressed issues arising from competing claims to the Shoal through diplomatic channels. As such, by applying military pressure to address an issue previously resolved through nonmilitary means, the Aquino administration signaled to Beijing that some unidentified force had made Manila more committed to preserving Philippine control of the Shoal. However, the Philippines almost immediately undermined its perceived resolve by voluntarily replacing its navy warship stationed at the Shoal with a single lightly armed coast guard vessel. By demilitarizing in the face of nonspecific Chinese threats and without concrete Chinese concessions, Manila indicated it lacked both the political will to maintain high levels of escalation in the Shoal and the diplomatic resolve to demand Chinese concessions in return for Philippine de-escalation. This pattern would continue throughout the dispute.
The period between April 13 and April 22 saw slight variation in the number of Chinese vessels and virtually no net increase in the Philippine presence at the Shoal. Though it did not increase its civilian naval presence at the Shoal, the Philippines held its annual “Balikatan” joint military maneuvers with the United States. Though these joint exercises could have been portrayed as a show of Philippine-U.S. unity in the standoff, a spokesperson for the Philippine military explicitly denied that these drills were related to the ongoing dispute. Furthermore, the scope of these drills seems to have been limited to “humanitarian assistance [and] disaster aid”. As such, the Balikatan joint exercises did not signal significant escalatory resolve by the Philippines.
On April 23, the Philippines made its most significant misstep to date [JB6] when, in response to a—seemingly good-faith—decision by Beijing to withdraw all but one vessel from the Shoal, it unilaterally escalated the dispute by sending an additional unarmed fisheries ship to the Shoal. Though Philippine officials accused their Chinese counterparts of lying—citing intelligence purporting that “at least seven Chinese vessels remained in the vicinity of the contested shoal”—Green et. al. highlight that Manila’s decision to escalate may have been based on simple assumptions of Chinese trickery. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, Manila’s decision to respond to Chinese de-escalation by unilaterally escalating yet again signaled inconsistent escalatory resolve by Philippine leaders. Furthermore, this episode suggested that the Aquino administration would not reliably respond in expected manners to Chinese threats and concessions.
Between April 23 and June 4, Beijing pursued a markedly more escalatory naval strategy at the Shoal. In addition to increasing the number of Chinese coast guard ships at the Shoal by a net total of seven, Beijing increasingly introduced more heavily armed vessels throughout this period. The most striking provocation by China came on the morning of April 28, when the Chinese FLEC 310 directly charged at the Philippine BRP EDSA II as it attempted to relieve the BRP Pampanga. The FLEC 310 swerved away before colliding with the BRP EDSA II, but Beijing had clearly signaled escalatory resolve in this incident. [JB7] By contrast, President Aquino explicitly ordered the Philippine naval forces to refrain from escalating in response to Chinese provocation during this period. In addition to this explicit signal that Manila was unwilling to physically escalate at the Shoal, the fact that the Aquino administration did not send additional vessels to contest the increasing Chinese naval presence at the Shoal after April 23 demonstrates that leaders in Manila adhered to this non-escalation directive.
On June 4, both parties reached an agreement to mutually withdraw government vessels from inside the Shoal. In exchange for this withdrawal, President Aquino promised to not internationalize the dispute further. On the surface, this development signaled hope for a mutually beneficial negotiated settlement. However, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario critically undermined Manila’s ability to issue coercive threats when he unilaterally ordered the Philippine ships to withdraw before their Chinese counterparts. By ordering Philippine ships to withdraw before Chinese vessels rather than at the same time, Secretary del Rosario signaled that Manila was willing to make wholesale concessions without holding Beijing accountable to its own concessions. As a result, this unilateral withdrawal of Philippine government boats signaled that the balance of resolve overwhelmingly favored China. This decision would have [JB8] disastrous consequences for the Philippines’ ability to assert its sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal. On June 15, two remaining Philippine government vessels withdrew from the Shoal entirely as part of a U.S.-negotiated settlement between China and the Philippines. Unexpectedly, the Chinese government ships did not reciprocate, instead remaining at the Shoal. Though Washington and Manila both claimed that Beijing had agreed to simultaneously withdraw its own coast guard vessels, Chinese officials maintained that there had been no such commitment. Regardless of the terms of the settlement, the Philippine withdrawal represented an unequivocal victory for China, as it alone now controlled the Shoal. Moreover, Manila once again proved it could not reliably demonstrate coordinated escalatory resolve in the dispute. As it had on June 4, the Aquino administration revealed that it was willing to make dramatic concessions without definitively securing and monitoring comparable Chinese concessions.
After the astounding diplomatic failure it experienced in mid-June, the Philippines could no longer make credible threats against China. On June 21-22 Philippine officials repeatedly threatened to redeploy coast guard ships to the Shoal, but these threats produced significant concessions from Beijing.
Though Manila maintained vessels at the Shoal throughout most of the dispute, it did not reliably signal that it was willing to escalate its nonmilitary naval presence in order to inflict increasing costs against China for its continued presence in the Shoal[JB9] . Moreover, the Philippines lost de-facto control of the Shoal after it unilaterally withdrew—a move which completely compromised its ability to signal escalatory resolve. As such, the Scarborough Shoal case confirms this first hypothesis.
Case Study: HYSY 981 Oil Rig
On May 2, 2014, Vietnam dispatched six Vietnam Coast Guard and Fisheries Resources Surveillance vessels to disrupt the operations of the HYSY 981 oil rig, to which China responded by sending a total of forty China Coast Guard, government ministry, civilian fishing and transportation, and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships to protect the rig. In stark contrast to the lack of physical conflict that characterized the Scarborough Shoal dispute, Vietnamese and Chinese vessels immediately rammed into one another, signaling that both parties were willing to impose physical costs on one another in the HYSY 981 dispute. In response to these initial skirmishes, both China and Vietnam increased their respective naval presences in the region over the five-day period of May 3through May 7. Chinese and Vietnamese naval forces continued to deliberately ram[JB10] opposing craft, and, in one instance, Chinese sailors found Vietnamese frogmen as close as 5 meters away from Chinese government ships.
During the first days of the HYSY 981 dispute, Vietnam signaled conventional escalatory resolve by deploying coast guard and government vessels to physically harass the Chinese oil rig. By ramming vessels into Chinese ships surrounding the rig, Vietnamese forces disrupted the rig’s oil procurement activities, thus denying the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) lucrative material value. In response to Vietnam’s increased presence in the region, China increased its own naval presence to prevent further disruption. As such, as part of a broader strategy of grey-zone denial, Vietnam raised the material and organizational costs incurred on China for maintaining its HYSY 981 rig in contested waters by damaging Chinese naval units and by forcing Beijing to increase its naval presence in the region.
On May 10, Vietnamese officials reported that China had expanded its defensive perimeter around the HYSY 981 oil rig to between ten and fifteen nautical miles. On May 12, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese ships by firing water cannons and ramming Vietnamese vessels with much larger Chinese craft. Despite these attacks, Coast Guard officials asserted that Vietnam would maintain its presence in the region. On May 14 China drastically increased its naval presence in the region, deploying two Yuzhao class amphibious transport docks armed with five guns and eight surface-to-air missiles [JB11] capable of carrying up to eight hundred troops and twenty armored vehicles. On May 16, the Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed that—despite China’s attempts to menace Hanoi into submission—as many as sixty Vietnamese vessels remained stationed near the oil rig. Moreover, Beijing suggested that these ships had been responsible for approximately five hundred collisions with Chinese vessels since May 2. Conversely, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh suggested that as many as one hundred Chinese naval craft remained near the oil rig and continued to harass Vietnamese commercial vessels. On May 22, the Vietnam Fisheries Resources Surveillance Force deployed its HP-926 ship to surveil the rig. Vietnamese reporters noted that Chinese forces had formed three concentric rings around the rig. The innermost ring consisted of two frigates. The second ring included People’s Liberation Army Navy ships. The outermost ring was made up of military surveillance, marine police, and fisheries surveillance vessels. Vietnamese and Chinese naval formations continued to come into conflict. On May 25 the Vietnamese Fisheries Resources Surveillance Department reported that China had moved the HYSY 981 oil rig 100 yards north of its original location. However, Chinese ships reportedly continued to harass Vietnamese fishing boats, even sinking one vessel on May 26. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang contradicted this account, instead arguing that the Vietnamese ship capsized after intentionally ramming into the HYSY 981 oil rig.
Throughout May, Vietnam continued to signal conventional escalatory resolve by steadily deploying more nonmilitary vessels to harass the HYSY 981 rig. By continuing to interfere with rig maintenance, Vietnam imposed additional costs on China. Most notably, they forced Beijing to deploy two combat-ready Yuzhao-class transport decks and adopt a three-ringed rig defense formation. The cost in this grey-zone arms race is clear: W[JB12] hereas Vietnam could consistently impede rig operations with a modest non-weaponized naval presence, China had to finance a more advanced asset defense operation. The cost of mobilizing two large transport decks, in addition to hundreds of PLAN and coast guard vessels arounda large, semi-immobile defensive objective is exponentially greater than mobilizing a loosely organized hit-and-run force of fewer than one hundred nonmilitary ships. As such, as the conflict continued, Vietnam leveraged increasingly steep costs against China and signaled that it was resolved to impose further costs by more aggressively harassing the Chinese rig.
On May 27, Chinese tugboats moved the HYSY 981 rig 23 miles northeast, albeit still within contested waters. The Chinese MFA claimed this move marked the second phase of the project, which would last from May 27 to August 15. The Vietnamese Coast Guard reported that approximately one hundred and twenty Chinese vessels of varying classifications were stationed near the newly positioned rig.
Months of conflict came to a resolution on July 15 when China National Petroleum Corp. announced that the HYSY 981 drilling project had reached its conclusion. Finished a month ahead of schedule, Chinese authorities relocated the oil rig [JB13] near China’s Hainan Island. At this point the rig left Vietnamese-claimed waters, resolving the short-term dispute. By removing the HYSY 981 oil rig from waters claimed by Vietnam, China implicitly conceded limited maritime territory to Vietnam. However, Chinese officials still publicly asserted Chinese sovereignty over the Paracel Island region. Moreover, in 2016 the HYSY 981 rig returned to waters subject to overlapping Chinese and Vietnamese territorial claims. Though China in effect ceded limited maritime territory to Vietnam after the 2014 HYSY 981 dispute, this limited concession did not resolve the long-term disagreements over naval sovereignty.
Since the beginning of the dispute, Vietnam consistently signaled that it was willing to send an increasing number of nonmilitary vessels to intimidate the Chinese ships protecting the oil rig stationed in contested waters. Moreover, leaders in Hanoi repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to direct Vietnamese ships to physically harass Chinese vessels working on the rig. As a result, Vietnam forced China to dramatically increase the number of ships it deployed to protect the oil rig, making it increasingly costly for Beijing to remain in the contested waters. Therefore, Vietnamese and Chinese actions confirm this first hypothesis, since Vietnam effectively coerced China into withdrawing the rig by demonstrating resolve to physically escalate the dispute.
Hypothesis 2: Signaling Internationalization Resolve
H2: China will make limited concessions to SCS littoral states which credibly signal willingness and capability to invoke support from external actors in bilateral disputes with China.
Case Study: Scarborough Shoal
On April 17, Manila officially announced that it would pursue international arbitration to determine which party had legitimate claim to the Scarborough Shoal according to UNCLOS guidelines. In response, Beijing denounced the move, rejecting arbitration as an attempt to internationalize the dispute. Likewise, Chinese officials accused the Philippine government of needlessly escalating the dispute, reiterating that both parties had agreed to settle the matter strictly through bilateral negotiations. This exchange signaled the start of a new strategy by the Philippines to undermine Chinese resolve by internationalizing the dispute, threatening a unified international response against China. Beijing responded effectively to Philippine threats to internationalize the dispute, adopting a “divide and conquer” strategy. On April 19, Chinese officials offered Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra several significant economic cooperation agreements. In exchange, she issued several highly complimentary public statements lauding China’s role in fostering economic growth, political stability, and shared prosperity within Southeast Asia. In a similarly amicable move, China released twenty-one Vietnamese fishermen who had been detained since March. Clearly recognizing that ASEAN unity with the Philippines against China would severely undermine the international legitimacy of Chinese maritime claims, Beijing undermined ASEAN unity by intensifying bilateral cooperation with individual members. Despite pressures from Beijing to not internationalize the Scarborough Shoal issue, the Aquino administration reaffirmed its commitment to bring the dispute to international arbitration unilaterally. In response, China again cautioned against international arbitration, warning that it planned to increase its naval presence at the Shoal.
On April 22, Secretary del Rosario publicly urged ASEAN to take a proactive stance against China in the Scarborough Shoal dispute. In a move which arguably further escalated the dispute, a U.S. lieutenant-general vaguely commented that the U.S. would “get involved” in the dispute to aid the Philippines, albeit without a clear indication as to what sort of aid the US would provide.
On April 23, the Chinese embassy announced that Beijing had withdrawn the CMS 84 and the FLEC 310, leaving only the CMS 71 at the Shoal. Government officials and Chinese state media explicitly indicated that the move was an attempt to signal China’s commitment to de-escalation and peaceful negotiation. This decision by China to unilaterally downsize its naval presence after the Philippines attempted to internationalize the dispute suggests that Chinese defense strategists actively feared that international intervention, particularly by the U.S., would severely weaken China’s coercive leverage over the Philippines. In this instance, Manila effectively produced Chinese diplomatic concessions by taking initial steps to internationalize the Scarborough Shoal dispute.
A 2+2 meeting on April 30 produced U.S. commitments to its Philippine treaty ally. As part of its commitment to establish a “‘minimum credible defense posture’” with Manila, Washington offered its partner intelligence assistance, $30 million in foreign military financing, additional equipment transfer, and more frequent U.S.-Philippine military exercises. However, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton neither clearly indicated that the Mutual Defense Treaty ensured that the US would directly intervene in the maritime dispute, nor explicitly stated that the US would endorse the Philippines’ arbitration bid.[JB14] Although Beijing lauded US neutrality on the sovereignty dispute, it criticized US interference in the Southeast Asian security disputes.
On May 13, the USS North Carolina—an American attack submarine—arrived at the Philippines’ Subic Bay for a routine port call. Though Washington might have intended to signal its commitment to defend its Philippine ally, Manila’s assertion that the arrival of the USS North Carolina was entirely unrelated to the dispute undermined this notion. The American submarine departed on May 19.
Perhaps responding [JB15] to the overwhelming Chinese naval presence, Secretary del Rosario appealed to the UN General Assembly on May 24, calling for international mediation of the Scarborough dispute. Though it is unclear if this call for multilateralism directly produced international support for the Aquino administration, it appears Manila calculated that it [JB16] could exert some pressure on Beijing by internationalizing the Scarborough dispute.
Despite some previous short-term gains throughout the dispute, internationalization—once Manila’s most potent coercive strategy—failed when, at the mid-July ASEAN summit, only Vietnam voiced support for a Philippine-backed initiative to denounce Chinese actions in the SCS. More embarrassingly, disagreements over whether to criticize China led Cambodia—the summit’s host—to refuse to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in ASEAN history.
Throughout the Scarborough Shoal standoff, the Aquino administration consistently signaled that it was resolved to 1) secure a clear U.S. commitment to militarily aid the Philippines in the event of a kinetic conflict at the Shoal and 2) amass regional support for its pledge to bring the maritime dispute to international arbitration. As such, the available evidence disconfirms this hypothesis’s assumption that the Philippines inconsistently signaled its resolve to internationalize the Scarborough dispute. Despite Manila’s consistent resolve to internationalize the dispute—which produced short-term victories for the Philippines—its threats to internationalize the dispute did not ultimately produce Chinese concessions in the long term. The eventual ineffectiveness of Manila’s [JB17] internationalization strategy can be directly attributed to the consistent lack of U.S. and ASEAN commitment to the Philippines. Though the U.S. provided assistance to Manila in the form of monetary and logistical aid, U.S. officials repeatedly refused to indicate that the U.S. would deploy kinetic force to help its Philippine treaty ally assert control over the Shoal. Moreover, China effectively employed a “salami strategy” in which it cultivated diplomatic ties with ASEAN states, compromising the Philippines’ ability to mobilize a unified ASEAN bloc against Beijing. As such, though the Aquino administration clearly indicated resolve to internationalize the dispute, it could not credibly threaten diplomatic and material costs against China as a part of this strategy. In this respect the Scarborough Shoal dispute partially supports this hypothesis insofar as the “cautious bully” and external balancing causal mechanisms both require that a smaller state be able to credibly threaten costs against China by producing clear commitments from external state actors.
Case Study: HYSY 981 Dispute
In contrast to the Scarborough Shoal case, the international community rallied around Vietnam in the HYSY 981 dispute—even without significant initial prompting by Hanoi. On May 6, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State [JB18] for East Asia voiced concern about the HYSY 981 conflict, urging both China and Vietnam to show restraint. In addition, he warned the two states against generating economic and regional instability for short-term gains. That same day, the spokesperson of the U.S. Department of State described Chinese involvement in the HYSY 981 affair as “provocative and unhelpful.”
Other regional actors in the SCS also began to interject in the debate over the HYSY 981 rig. On May 7, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Singapore urged all sides to show restraint and peacefully abide by established international law. That same day, a Vietnamese MFA official raised the possibility of bringing the HYSY 981 case to international arbitration, noting that no peaceful methods of resolving the dispute had been taken off the table. This comment suggests that the Vietnamese MFA had confidence that international law favored the Vietnamese position in the HYSY 981 conflict and, potentially more importantly, that Vietnamese officials perceived that the international community would largely support a Vietnamese attempt to internationalize the dispute. In later press briefings, spokesperson for the Vietnamese MFA Le Hai Binh informed reporters that on May 7 Vietnamese officials at the UN had circulated a note asking fellow member states to oppose Chinese involvement in the HYSY 981 affair. This action further suggests that Vietnamese officials believed the Vietnamese case in the HYSY 981 dispute would resonate with foreign governments, or else they would not have circulated the note. This confidence persisted through May 8, when Vietnamese officials promised to bring up the HYSY 981 issue at the next ASEAN summit in Myanmar. However, Philippine diplomats cast uncertainty on ASEAN’s willingness to intervene in the conflicts, suggesting that some states would oppose issuing a separate statement on the conflict between Vietnam and China. This statement reflects that, despite Vietnam’s confidence, many ASEAN states prioritized close ties with China and would avoid threatening those ties by making multilateral statements opposing Chinese action in the SCS. In contrast with some ASEAN states, the Japanese government proved more willing to side with Vietnam in the dispute. On May 9, Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio characterized the heightened tensions as the result of a series of provocative unilateral Chinese action in the South China Sea. European governments were initially more hesitant to take sides on the issue. On May 8, a spokesperson for the European Union High Representative issued a statement condemning both sides for their unilateral action and urging the Chinese and Vietnamese governments to exercise restraint and abide by the rule of law. Hugo Swire, minister of state for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom, later issued a statement agreeing with the EU position, adding that the UK had discussed the conflict with Chinese officials.
The United States continued to support Vietnam throughout the conflict. On May 8, Daniel Russel, assistant secretary for the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Vietnam, stressed U.S.-Vietnam cooperation in the region, implying that the U.S. would support Vietnamese attempts to bring the conflict to international arbitration. However, Russel refused to explicitly endorse either Vietnamese or Chinese claims to sovereignty in the region, instead recognizing that both parties held competing claims in the region and encouraging them to resolve disputes through peaceful channels. Moreover, Russel explicitly ruled out deploying U.S. vessels to monitor and police the region, again urging that the matter be resolved peacefully.
The most significant development thus far [JB19] came on May 10, when ASEAN ministers released a joint statement voicing serious concerns about the HYSY 981 dispute. Though the joint statement did not articulate explicit support for either China or Vietnam, it warned both states against undermining peaceful relations in the region and encouraged all participants in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) to work efficiently towards the completion of a Code of Conduct in the SCS (COC). Despite the rather neutral tone of the statement itself, its issuance represented a dramatic policy shift among important regional actors which had previously been unwilling to comment on the issue. Individual statements from ASEAN state officials revealed a growing base of support for Vietnam. After the summit, Philippine President Aquino highlighted his active involvement in securing a joint communiqué, stating that he had emphasized China’s tumultuous relationship with the Philippines. Aquino portrayed his strategy of highlighting a history of Chinese provocation as somewhat successful, claiming that one ASEAN leader described recent Chinese action as “’dangerous brinksmanship’”. Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a similarly accusatory statement, warning the Chinese government against “’gunboat diplomacy’”. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam issued more measured statements, arguing that ASEAN’s legitimacy as a force for conflict resolution depended on its ability to respond in a unified manner to the incident. Myanmar took the most pro-China stance of all attendees, emphasizing China and Myanmar’s history of friendship. Though the ASEAN communiqué made no direct reference to Chinese fault for the HYSY 981 conflict—a point reflective of many member states’ reluctance to alienate China—the fact that ASEAN ministers issued a joint statement on the conflict reveals that member states increasingly recognized China as a threat to regional stability since the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff. Furthermore, ASEAN’s willingness to issue a joint statement on the HYSY 981 dispute runs in stark contrast to its unwillingness to do so for the Scarborough Shoal dispute. As such, increased ASEAN unity in the HYSY 981 case threatened heightened diplomatic costs for Chinese belligerence. For its part, China dismissed the communiqué, arguing that the disagreement did not involve ASEAN and warning Vietnam against using the HYSY 981 dispute to undermine the relationship between China and ASEAN.
In addition to physically policing contested waters, Vietnam asserted its naval sovereignty vis-à-vis China by seeking international consensus against Chinese belligerence in the SCS. Vietnam directly appealed to the states it perceived as more sympathetic to its position—most notably the U.S. and the Philippines—to build a sense of burgeoning international consensus against China. As more states aligned with Vietnam—as seen in the ASEAN communique case—the more legitimacy this Vietnamese coalition gained as a means of balancing against Chinese naval hegemony. By threatening to take the dispute to international arbitration, Vietnam hinted that it could mobilize international support to incur political costs on China if it continued to contest Vietnamese sovereignty in the Paracel Islands region. If international arbitration were to rule in favor of Vietnam, Chinese maritime claims as indicated by the nine-dash-line would lose a certain amount of legitimacy within the international system. This threat only grew more credible as more states aligned with Vietnam.
As the dispute over the HYSY 981 oil rig intensified, more states voiced support for Vietnam. In separate May 13 meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly voiced his frustration with China’s role in the conflict. This was the clearest pro-Vietnamese comment a U.S. official had made up to that point, indicating the U.S.’s increasing willingness to spar with China. In response, the Chinese foreign ministry accused the U.S. of emboldening countries to pursue provocative claims to sovereignty in the SCS. On May 14, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade circulated a press release voicing support for ASEAN’s May 10 joint communiqué, though the Department refused to weigh in on the validity of either claim to sovereignty. On May 15, Hanoi again threatened to seek international arbitration to resolve the dispute, reflecting a broader strategy to amass international opposition to Chinese actions in the SCS.
After several days of violent exchanges between China and Vietnam, the international community grew increasing vocal in support of Vietnam. Between May 21 and May 22, The Philippines, the U.S., and Japan all condemned China and expressed explicit support for Vietnam. In addition, the United States and Japan both indicated they would provide material support to the Vietnamese Coast Guard. By forming a unified coalition against China, Vietnam increased the political cost incurred on China for its continued presence in Vietnamese-claimed waters. Moreover, the material support which Japan and the U.S. offered to provide to the Vietnamese coast guard would further increase the costs incurred by China, since it would have to increase its naval presence to defend against newly emboldened Vietnamese forces. By the time the rig withdrew on July 15, the material costs Vietnam—backed by the U.S., Japan, and other regional actors—threatened against China made further rig operation materially nonviable.
Much like the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal case, Vietnam consistently signaled its resolve to internationalize the dispute by forming an informal anti-Chinese bloc within the regional security community. Unlike the Philippines, however, Vietnam benefitted from clear international commitment, as seen in the material aid offered by the U.S. and Japan, and ASEAN’s issuance of a joint statement on the HYSY 981 dispute. As such, whereas the Philippines failed to internationalize the dispute because it only secured vague commitments from the U.S., Vietnam successfully internationalized the dispute because it formed an informal coalition of states both sympathetic to the Vietnamese cause and willing to provide material support to said cause. This coalition allowed Vietnam to threaten prohibitive diplomatic and material costs against China for operating the oil rig in Vietnamese-claimed waters. By contrast, the Philippines could not leverage substantial costs against China because it lacked a broad coalition of states willing to augment its meager diplomatic and material clout. As such, the HYSY 981 case confirms the second hypothesis.
When considered together, the Scarborough Shoal standoff of 2012 and the HYSY 981 dispute of 2014 generally confirm that 1) China will make limited concessions to SCS littoral states which credibly signal willingness to physically escalate their maritime sovereignty disputes with China and 2) China will make limited concessions to SCS littoral states which credibly signal willingness and capability to invoke support from external actors in bilateral disputes with China. Moreover, my findings largely indicate that China is a “cautious bully” that can be coerced by consistently belligerent smaller states backed by a coalition of more powerful tertiary state actors. As such, my findings reiterate calls by Fravel and others for SCS littoral states to pursue external balancing as a method of asserting naval sovereignty vis-à-vis China.
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 Daniel Byman and Matthew C. Waxman, “Coercive Mechanisms,” in The Dynamics of Coercion: American Foreign Policy and the Limits of Military Might, RAND Studies in Policy Analysis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 48–86.
 Schelling, “THE MANIPULATION OF RISK.,” 92-125.
 Ketian Zhang, “Cautious Bully: Reputation, Resolve, and Beijing’s Use of Coercion in the South China Sea,” International Security 44, no. 1 (July 1, 2019): 117–59, https://doi.org/10.1162/isec_a_00354.; Mingjiang Li, “China Debates the South China Sea Dispute,” in The South China Sea Dispute, ed. Ian Storey and Cheng-Yi Lin (ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, 2016), 47–73, https://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/1853213.; Steve Chan, “Embedding China’s Maritime Disputes in Generic IR Research,” in China’s Troubled Waters (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cabridge University Press, 2016), 1–37.
 It should be noted that neither Zhang nor Li (or any of the other authors I have consulted) indicate that China’s willingness to back down against international pressure is absolute. Though they do not provide an exhaustive set of conditions in which China will (and will not) make limited concessions in sovereignty disputes, both scholars indicate that China will stand up to international pressure in some situations.
 Renato Cruz De Castro, “The Risk of Applying Realpolitik in Resolving the South China Sea Dispute: Implications on Regional Security*,” Pacific Focus 27, no. 2 (2012): 262–89, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1976-5118.2012.01084.x.; M. Taylor Fravel, “Chapter 11: Things Fall Apart: Maritime Disputes and China’s Regional Diplomacy,” in China’s Challenges, ed. Jacques deLisle and Avery Goldstein (Philadelphia: DE GRUYTER, 2015), https://doi.org/10.9783/9780812291766-011.; Stephen M. Walt, “Balancing and Bandwagoning,” in The Origins of Alliance, ed. Robert Jervis and Robert J. Art, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), 1-35, : https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt32b5fc.9.
 Renato De Castro, “The Philippines Confronts China in the South China Sea: Power Politics vs. Liberalism-Legalism,” Asian Perspective; Seoul 39, no. 1 (March 2015): 71–100.; Michael Green et al., “CASE 3: SCARBOROUGH SHOAL STANDOFF (2012),” in COUNTERING COERCION IN MARITIME ASIA: THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF GRAY ZONE DETERRENCE (Washington, DC: Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2017), 95–123.; Andrea Chloe Wong, “The Philippines ’ Policy and Perspectives: A Shifting Strategic Strategy toward China,” in China and Southeast Asia in the Xi Jinping Era, ed. Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim and Frank Cibulka (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, an imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc, 2019), 171–91.; media reports and others.
 Willard Cheng, “China to PH: Stop Illegal Acts, Leave Scarborough,” ABS-CBN News, April 11, 2012, https://news.abs-cbn.com/nation/04/11/12/china-ph-stop-illegal-acts-leave-scarborough.; Tessa Jamandre, “China Sends Reinforcement in Standoff with PH Navy,” Yahoo! News, April 11, 2012, https://sg.news.yahoo.com/blogs/the-inbox/china-sends-reinforcement-standoff-ph-navy-021443120.html.; Green et al., “SCARBOROUGH SHOAL,” 100-102.; De Castro, “The Philippines Confronts China in the South China Sea,” 82-84.; “Philippine Warship ‘in stand-off’ with Chinese Vessels,” BBC News, April 11, 2012, sec. Asia, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-17673426.
 Green et al., “SCARBOROUGH SHOAL,” 102.
 Zhang, “Cautious Bully,” 145.; De Castro, “The Philippines Confronts China in the South China Sea,” 82-84.; Andrea Wong refutes this point, arguing that the Philippines regularly deployed military vessels during nonmilitary policing operations simply due to its lack of coast guard and surveillance ships. Though this may be true to a certain extent, Chinese statements criticizing the deployment of the warship in this case suggest that Beijing perceived some heightened level of resolve from Manila. For Wong’s argument in greater detail, see Wong, “Policy and Perspective,” 178.
 It should be noted that Philippine ships never outnumbered Chinese ships between April 13 and April 22. For a more detailed breakdown of which vessels occupied the Shoal throughout this period, refer to: Green et al., “SCARBOROUGH SHOAL,” 103-107.; De Castro, “The Philippines Confronts China in the South China Sea,” 84-85.
 Mike Meares, “Balikatan 2012 Officially Opens,” U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, April 16, 2012, https://www.marforpac.marines.mil/News/News-Article-Display/Article/530537/balikatan-2012-officially-opens/.
 Meares, “Balikatan.”
 “China De-Escalates Situation in Huangyan Island by Withdrawing Two Vessels – People’s Daily Online,” english.people.cn, April 23, 2012, http://en.people.cn/90883/7796638.html.; D. J. Yap, “7 Chinese Ships Still in Scarborough Area, Says Military Commander,” Inquirer.Net, April 24, 2012, https://globalnation.inquirer.net/34545/7-chinese-ships-still-in-scarborough-area-says-military-commander.; Green et al., “SCARBOROUGH SHOAL,” 107-108.
 Yap, “7 Chinese Ships.”; Green et al., “SCARBOROUGH SHOAL,” 108.
 Michael Green et al., “Counter-Coercion Series: Scarborough Shoal Standoff,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, May 22, 2017, https://amti.csis.org/counter-co-scarborough-standoff/.
 Jerry Esplanada, “PH to ‘Stand Ground’ in Scarborough Shoal,” Global News, accessed December 27, 2019, https://globalnation.inquirer.net/35253/ph-to-%e2%80%98stand-ground%e2%80%99-in-scarborough-shoal.
 “Philippines Plays down Chinese Military Threat,” Angence France-Presse, April 29, 2012, https://www.rappler.com/nation/4511-philippines-plays-down-chinese-military-threat.
 Green et al., “Counter-Coercion Series.”
 Wong, “Policy and Perspective,” 178.; De Castro, “The Philippines Confronts China in the South China Sea,” 91.; Green et al., “SCARBOROUGH SHOAL,” 117-119.
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 Green et al., “OIL RIG STANDOFF,” (208-209).
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