Calculating Bully – Explaining Chinese Coercion

Since 1990, China has used coercion for territorial disputes, foreign arms sales to Taiwan, and foreign leaders’ meetings with the Dalai Lama, despite adverse implications for its international image. China is also curiously selective in the timing, target, and tools of coercion: most cases of Chinese coercion are not military coercion, nor does China coerce all states that pose the same threats to its national security. My book manuscript, Calculating Bully – Explaining Chinese Coercion, examines when, why, and how China coerces states when faced with threats to its national security. It asks two central questions: when and why does China coerce, and – if coercion is chosen – what tools does China use? Contrary to conventional wisdom and in contrast with historical rising powers, my book manuscript demonstrates that China is a cautious bully, does not coerce frequently, and uses military coercion less as it has become stronger, resorting mostly to non-militarized tools such as gray-zone coercion. I identify the centrality of the reputation for resolve and economic cost in driving whether states coerce or not. States coerce one target to deter others – ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkey,’ treating coercion as a signalling tool. At the same time, states are constrained by the imperative of developing the domestic economy and the potential of losing the target state’s markets and supply.

Ketian Vivian Zhang is an Assistant Professor of International Security in the Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University.