Public Ph.D. Defense of Maximillian Ernst: Why China Coerces Asia-Pacific Secondary States: Chinese Balancing Strategies in the Context of the Sino-American Competition

Thursday 27 April 2023, 15:00 to 17:00
Auditorium I.0.02

Why China Coerces Asia-Pacific Secondary States: Chinese Balancing Strategies in the Context of the Sino-American Competition

It is China’s declared objective to achieve regional hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. The main obstacle and reference point for China’s military-strategic ambitions is U.S. military power, aided by the U.S. network of allies and partners in the Western-Pacific. Concurrently, U.S. military power stands in the way of China’s ambition to break out of the first island chain and replace the United States as preeminent power in the Asia-Pacific. In the past, Peaceful Development policies enabled Beijing to accumulate economic and military power without triggering counter-balancing alliances against its rise. The allure of access to China’s market and the promise of growing economic integration was universally attractive and incentivized even democratic U.S. allies, that were not swayed by the Beijing Consensus, to hedge, and to stay out of the emerging Sino-American strategic competition. This, in brief, is the success story of China’s charm offensive directed at Asia-Pacific secondary states. It allowed China to deactivate the threat of counter-balancing coalitions. However, in the past decade, China has increasingly resorted to a host of coercive measures, including diplomatic-, economic-, gray-zone, and military coercion, which fundamentally undermines the credibility of China’s Peaceful Rise and seriously complicates China’s strategic calculus. After all, secondary states that are the targets of Chinese coercion are alienated and more likely to abandon their hedging position and to intensify security cooperation with the United States to protect themselves against future Chinese aggression. 

In the present dissertation, I demonstrate through two case studies of Chinese coercion targeting the Philippines in the context of the South China Sea dispute, and South Korea in the context of the THAAD dispute, that coercion is to be understood as but one external balancing option against a secondary state challenge. Wedge strategies allow the conceptualization of both inducements and coercion as two forms of external balancing that however pursue the same strategic objective of weakening a secondary state’s alignment with the United States. If the secondary state acts in a way that weakens China’s military-strategic position relative to the United States significantly, and if inducements have not sufficed to persuade the secondary state to change course priorly, then China will coerce the secondary state. The dissertation advances theories of wedge strategies in confirming that coercion is the least-favored wedge chosen by dividers and, further, conceptualizes the condition in which coercion is still chosen. The greater the challenge to China’s military-strategic position, the more intense and multifaceted China’s resort to coercion will be. China coerces if it is confronted with a significantly grave challenge to its strategic objective of regional hegemony, and if that challenge originates from a secondary state that, at that point in time and on the issue in question, aligns, formally or informally, with the United States. If China’s demands are met, it will stop coercion and engage the secondary state with inducements again. There is furthermore supporting evidence that, if both external balancing options fail and neither inducements nor coercion led to the target state’s discontinuation of the challenge, China may invest in additional military capabilities to internally balance the challenge to its military-strategic position.