Article Review 134 on “Cautious Bully: Reputation, Resolve, and Beijing’s Use of Coercion in the South China Sea.”9 min read

Scholars and policymakers are increasingly focused on understanding how coercion can take place in non-military domains. At the same time, China’s expanding military and economic clout has drawn greater attention to its use of coercive measures.[1] Against this backdrop, Ketian Zhang provides a timely contribution toward understanding the conditions under which states decide to use coercion and which coercive tools they choose to employ, with particular application to understanding China’s use of coercion.

H-Diplo | ISSF Article Review 134

Review Editors: Diane Labrosse and Seth Offenbach
Production Editor:  George Fujii

Ketian Zhang.  “Cautious Bully: Reputation, Resolve, and Beijing’s Use of Coercion in the South China Sea.”  International Security 44:1 (Summer 2019): 117-159.  DOI:

Published by ISSF on 9 April 2020

Review by Audrye Wong, Harvard Kennedy School

Scholars and policymakers are increasingly focused on understanding how coercion can take place in non-military domains. At the same time, China’s expanding military and economic clout has drawn greater attention to its use of coercive measures.[1] Against this backdrop, Ketian Zhang provides a timely contribution toward understanding the conditions under which states decide to use coercion and which coercive tools they choose to employ, with particular application to understanding China’s use of coercion.

Presenting a “cost-balancing theory” (119), Zhang argues that countries weigh the need to establish a reputation for resolve—which favors the use of coercion—against the costs of coercion, namely economic losses and geopolitical backlash. In short, a state is likely to coerce when there is a high need to establish a reputation for resolve and economic costs are low; and a state will prefer to use non-militarized tools of coercion when geopolitical backlash cost is high. Zhang finds that China has used coercion relatively infrequently, and, despite its growing material capabilities, has tended to turn to economic rather than military coercion. This provides a valuable corrective to general assumptions of China’s increasing military assertiveness, while establishing a systematic framework for evaluating when and how a rising power such as China might actually coerce other actors.

Conceptually, Zhang’s theoretical framework adds significant value in bringing together economic and security variables, both in terms of the nature of coercion and the factors influencing the choice of coercive tools. Such an approach is ever more crucial as the term “geoeconomics” is increasingly discussed but still relatively poorly delimited, and adds to a growing body of work bridging the traditional divide between international security and political economy.[2] Additionally, the framework highlights the importance of thinking about coercion as a multi-player game: multiple players outside of the target and coercing states can influence the coercer’s need to establish a reputation for resolve, and affect the costliness of geopolitical backlash.

Empirically, the article triangulates multiple sources of evidence in support of its arguments. These include a range of primary-source Chinese-language documents, extensive field interviews, and original data on China’s coercive actions over maritime disputes in the South China Sea. It also clearly articulates a set of indicators to systematically measure and operationalize the variables at hand: a need to establish a reputation for resolve, economic costs, and geopolitical costs. The article then examines how changes in these variables led to temporal variation in China’s coercive behavior in the South China Sea from 1990-present. This is complemented by a detailed case study that process-traces China’s non-military coercion of the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed area in the South China Sea in 2012.

Geopolitical backlash costs are conceived here as arising primarily from military coercion, which heightens threat assessments, thus inducing balancing or retaliation by the target and/or other observing states (126). As a result, non-military coercive tools, such as economic or diplomatic sanctions, are seen as preferable to minimize associated costs (127). However, it also seems plausible that economic coercion, for instance, could still spark significant geopolitical backlash, suggesting a topic for future research. China is seen as increasingly leveraging its economic clout in efforts to compel other actors to change their behavior or to deter them from undertaking certain actions, from consumer boycotts and tourism restrictions against South Korea after Seoul agreed to the deployment of a U.S.-led missile defense system, to the suspension of business partnerships with the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets after the team’s general manager tweeted support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. Given the growing scrutiny of the security implications of China’s economic activities in the United States and many other countries, and shifting perceptions that economics may now be a realm of geopolitical competition rather than cooperation, it is conceivable that in the long run, repeated use of non-military coercive tools will also itself consolidate perceptions of China as a multi-dimensional threat, ultimately inducing broader backlash and balancing.

Additionally, the author logically presents economic costs as “the most critical factor for whether a state uses coercion” (127). Such costs could, however, also affect the choice of military versus non-military coercion. Low economic costs would suggest that the coercer has greater economic leverage and could thus employ economic coercion with greater efficacy and lower costs than military coercion. Even if geopolitical costs are low, a state may not necessarily turn to military coercion. As a result, both economic and geopolitical costs could factor into a state’s decision over which kind of coercive tools to use. On the flip side, considering both kinds of costs also raises an interesting question for further research: what mode of coercion might a state choose in a situation of high economic and geopolitical costs, assuming a high-stakes issue where the need to establish a reputation for resolve is also high?

Comparing the periods 1990-99 and 2007-2019, the article shows how low geopolitical costs facilitated China’s use of military coercion in the 1990s while non-military coercion became more prevalent after 2007 due to increased geopolitical costs. At the same time, the overall numerical frequency of coercive actions in the 1990s was lower than in the post-2007 period. This points to some interesting implications of Zhang’s argument. First, non-military coercion can be more easily and frequently employed relative to military coercion. Second, and consequently, this produces a paradox of decreased military conflict but increased lower-level, non-military conflict under conditions of higher geopolitical costs.

How might the perceived need to establish a reputation for resolve change over time? As the article argues convincingly, this is a function of the number of challenges from other states to the coercer’s national security as well as the international visibility and salience of such incidents, as measured through media coverage (129). At the same time, this perceived need could remain sticky over time, accumulating with each related incident, thus making it more difficult to return to a situation in which the coercer feels little concern over potentially looking weak. Especially for rising powers such as China, perceptions of the need to establish a reputation for resolve could also spill over to multiple issue areas, resulting in a greater use of coercion overall and suggesting perhaps a more pessimistic outlook for international conflict (without foreclosing the likelihood that many coercive actions could be non-militarized).

As mentioned earlier, Zhang draws on an impressive array of Chinese-language sources, including official documents and statements from different government agencies, semi-official reports from government-affiliated think tanks, semi-authoritative media editorials, the writings of Chinese leaders, and scholarly analysis. For example, the Philippines case study provides interesting and detailed evidence for Beijing’s concern over establishing a reputation for resolve. The article cites quasi-official government media editorials that explicitly emphasized being “resolute” and rebutted any “sign of weakness,” and corroborates the importance of resolve with elite interviews in China. These interviews demonstrate how the government felt pressured to “establish resolve” and deter the Philippines and other countries from taking advantage in the future (149-150). Drawing on internal documents and field interviews, the case study also traces how an assessment of potential geopolitical costs—Beijing’s fear of U.S. military involvement, alongside perceived U.S. reluctance to intervene because it did not want direct conflict with China—led the Chinese government to employ non-military tools of coercion.

One question is the extent to which primary sources might sometimes reflect the Chinese regime’s chosen foreign policy strategy, rather than inputs into the policy. For example, economic benefits (and hence potential costs) could have been highlighted in the early-to-mid 2000s as a result of broader policy shifts promoting neighborhood diplomacy toward the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and putting territorial disputes on the backburner. Might an alternative story include greater agency by the coercer, for example that the Chinese government decided to start pursuing a non-coercive, cooperative foreign policy toward its neighbors, thus emphasizing economic importance in tandem with reducing the salience of the South China Sea and the number of incidents initiated by other countries, which in turn reduced the need to establish a reputation for resolve? China’s relatively strong performance in the wake of the global financial crisis could have fed into a Beijing that was more confident in pursuing its foreign policy interests (in tandem with lowering perceived economic costs), thus increasing the use of coercion. But this potential line of thinking does not take away from the overall well-triangulated and comprehensive nature of the evidence marshaled in this article.

As Zhang writes, “For rising powers such as China, coercion can be a cost-effective way to stop a target state from taking undesired actions while deterring other states from taking similar actions in the future;” at the same time, “China has always been a risk-averse bully and is less belligerent than previous rising powers” (157). As scholars and policymakers attempt to decipher the drivers of China’s foreign policy, along with the consequent implications for U.S.-China relations and the future of international order, Zhang’s article will become required reading.


Audrye Wong is a Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, with additional postdoctoral affiliations at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Program and at the An Wang China and the World Program at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. She received a Ph.D. in Security Studies from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, where she was also a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Wong’s research focuses on the use of non-military tools for geopolitical influence, and her current book project examines the strategies and effectiveness of economic statecraft.

©2020 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] See, for example, Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman, “Weaponized Interdependence: How Global Economic Networks Shape State Coercion,” International Security 44:1 (Summer 2019): 42-79; Peter Harrell, Elizabeth Rosenberg, and Edoardo Saravalle, “China’s Use of Coercive Economic Measures,” Center for a New American Security, June 2018.

[2] See, for example, Michael Mastanduno, “Economics and Security in Statecraft and Scholarship.” International Organization 52:4 (Autumn 1998); Jean-Marc F. Blanchard, Edward D. Mansfield, and Norrin M. Ripsman, eds., Power and the Purse: Economic Statecraft, Interdependence and National Security (London: Frank Cass, 2000); William J. Norris, Chinese Economic Statecraft: Commercial Actors, Grand Strategy, and State Control (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016); Rosella Cappella Zielinski, How States Pay for Wars (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016); Michael Beckley, Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018).