Costs of Coercion: Predicaments of Chinese Statecraft in the Asia-Pacific
By Maximilian Ernst, February 2021
SSN 2464-9929, Global Politics Review 7, no. 1-2 (2021): 6-17.
China’s security environment in the 21st century is highly complex and constrained by its geopolitical exposition. Its vast borders with 14 countries, territorial disputes on land and at sea, as well as U.S. allies and partners along the first island chain complicate Beijing’s ambitions to become a regional great power and deny U.S. power projection into the Western Pacific and onto the East Asian mainland. If confronted with a security challenge, China has increasingly resorted to coercion. This has been seen as a sign of China’s growing military and economic power. However, this view neglected the strategic costs of coercion: the diplomatic backlash, the disintegration of the peaceful rise narrative, and the balancing behavior by the target state in response, plausibly in coalition with the United States. Conversely, this essay argues that Beijing’s decisions to coerce are best understood as the choice between two bad options: accepting a regional state’s challenge to China’s national security or attempting to coerce it into a change of behavior, with the likely side-effect of alienating the regional state, prompting closer cooperation with the United States. Hence, observable coercion hints at an underlying grave threat to China’s national security that warrants the costs of alienating regional states.