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Correspondence: Is China a Cautious Bully?

By Tongfi Kim, Andrew Taffer, Ketian Zhang - International Security (2020) 45 (2): 187–193.

Ketian Zhang’s article is an important contribution to the literature on Chinese foreign policy and coercive diplomacy. Her research design, however, is not best suited to demonstrate the key findings of her study: China is a cautious bully; it employs coercion only infrequently; and as it grows stronger, it uses military coercion less often.1 For reasons discussed below, it is premature to conclude that China’s “decisions about when to pursue coercion and which tools to use cannot be explained by focusing on material capabilities” (p. 119).

First, Zhang’s decision to develop “a theory of coercion … in response to national security threats” means that every instance of coercion discussed in the article is a result of China’s failed deterrence against a challenge from another state (p. 119). Zhang mentions but does not analyze cases of proactive coercion; therefore, her findings about Chinese coercion apply only to China’s reactions to what Beijing considers to be provocations. A bully can get what it wants by using brute force or proactive coercion, but Zhang chooses to exclude these aspects from her analysis—for example, China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea (pp. 133–134). If, without provocation, China were to occupy disputed maritime features or to threaten a military attack to expel other disputants, Zhang’s operationalization would exclude this action from her analysis because it would be considered brute force or proactive coercion.

Second, Zhang argues that “China has not used brute force in any of its territorial disputes in the South China Sea” since the 1990s, but I disagree with her use of the term “brute force” (p. 134). Indeed, China has refrained from using military violence since the 1990s in the South China Sea, whereas it fought against South Vietnam in 1974 and against Vietnam in 1988. Nevertheless, I argue that China has continued to use brute force, because scholars who study the use of coercion should distinguish brute force from coercion according to its purpose; in Thomas Schelling’s words, whose work Zhang extensively cites, there “is a difference between taking what you want and making someone give it to you.”2 China took control of the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and has been engaged in island-building and base-construction activities in the South China Sea, not so much to threaten or inflict punishment (coercion), but to get its way (brute force).3

Third, Zhang claims that “when … [China] … becomes stronger, it uses military coercion less often, instead resorting to mostly nonmilitarized tools,” but this finding seems to be a product of her operationalization of key variables (p. 119). Other things being equal, a state is less likely to engage in reactive coercion as it becomes stronger and its general deterrence increases in effectiveness. Moreover, because Zhang distinguishes military coercion from gray-zone coercion by focusing on which instruments of physical violence China employs (pp. 121–122), she places similar maritime activities by the Chinese navy in the 1990s and by nonmilitary Chinese government agencies since 2007 in starker contrast than is warranted.4 A simple explanation for the trend Zhang observes is that China no longer needs to rely on its navy to repel other claimants’ vessels because China’s nonmilitary government agencies have increased their maritime capacity.5

Finally, Zhang overlooks a consequence of China’s increasing economic power for disputes in the South China Sea. ASEAN’s trade dependence on China was low in the period when China used military coercion. The improved efficacy of China’s diplomatic and economic sanctions resulting from its increased material capability explains the government’s recent inclination to use nonmilitarized coercion. Thus, China’s rising material capabilities have played an important role in its use of coercion and brute force in the South China Sea.

Tongfi Kim

Brussels, Belgium

To the Editors (Andrew Taffer writes):

In “Cautious Bully,” Ketian Zhang argues that China is “more likely to use coercion when the need to establish a reputation for resolve is high and the economic cost is low.”1 While Zhang’s analysis is an important contribution to the study of Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, it overstates the role of economic costs, overlooks variation in China’s coercive practices, and understates the importance of geopolitical costs.

First, Zhang’s analysis does not demonstrate the centrality of economic costs to China’s decisions on when to use coercion. In the one period (2000–06) in which Zhang argues that economic costs were key in restraining China’s use of coercion, Beijing’s concerns are said to have stemmed from its negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to establish a free trade zone (FTZ). China, however, negotiated the FTZ bilaterally with each ASEAN state, and the notion that these states might have banded together to impose economic costs on China—to say nothing of collectively withdrawing from the FTZ—strains the imagination.2 Half of ASEAN is not party to the South China Sea disputes; the member states maintain very different relations with China; and consensus between them is famously difficult to achieve. Furthermore, China’s experience in the 1990s, when it did coerce its South China Sea rivals, provides little indication that Beijing would have been concerned with economic costs in the early 2000s. Trade with ASEAN exploded over the 1990s, and imports and exports with the states that China coerced the most rose dramatically without any sign of economic penalties imposed on the country.3

Second, by analyzing her variables in the aggregate, Zhang obscures critical variation in China’s coercive practices between its two principal rivals, Vietnam and the Philippines. Zhang’s admirable dataset illustrates that China has been far more tolerant of Hanoi’s escalations than it has been of Manila’s. Despite Vietnam having posed nearly four times the number of challenges to Chinese interests in the South China Sea (the dataset records 130 Vietnamese and 35 Filipino challenges), China used coercion against both countries an equal number of times (10 each). This disparity is striking, but it understates the extent of China’s comparative reluctance to coerce Vietnam, because the figures account for variation neither in the escalatory extent of the rivals’ challenges nor in China’s responsive use of coercion. In short, while Vietnam’s challenges have been more escalatory than those of the Philippines, China has nonetheless punished Manila more severely. For example, from 2008 to 2015, Vietnam reclaimed land on fifteen of its occupied features—expanding and fortifying its position—yet Beijing never sought to prevent or punish the challenge. Although her dataset shows no comparable instance of Filipino reclamation, when Manila sought merely to repair its decaying ship on Second Thomas Shoal, a yearlong confrontation ensued during which Zhang records three instances of Chinese coercion. Beijing’s conduct in this episode applied pressure on the occupational status quo, and in two other instances (in 1995 at Mischief Reef and in 2012 at Scarborough Shoal), China used coercion against the Philippines to establish control over features within the latter’s exclusive economic zone. In the post–Cold War era, there is no record of China coercing Vietnam to even attempt to change the occupational status quo. Although Zhang might suggest that this variation can be explained by a lack of publicity associated with Vietnamese challenges, Hanoi’s escalations have been well covered in the worldwide English-language media.4

Third, Zhang uses the geopolitical costs associated with Chinese coercion only to explain Beijing’s selection of coercive tools; however, differences in the potential geopolitical costs of coercing Manila and Hanoi can explain much of the variation highlighted above. As Zhang notes, a major potential cost of coercion is that it can “trigger a military alliance” (p. 127). The Philippines’ enduring alliance with the United States, however, renders such a cost largely inapplicable. To be sure, the strength of the U.S. Philippines alliance has varied since the early 1990s, and China’s coercive behavior in the South China Sea has at times contributed to its reinvigoration. But given the Philippines’ limited military capabilities, its marginal contributions to U.S. and allied power have been minimal. Vietnam’s unaligned status, on the other hand, has meant that for most of the post–Cold War era, Chinese coercion has had the potential to push Vietnam into an ever closer partnership, and even a de facto alliance, with the United States. Not only is Vietnam a respectable military power, making its marginal contributions to a U.S.-led coalition more substantial, but because it shares a lengthy land border with China, it would also present Beijing with a new, distracting, and potentially costly continental security challenge. And although it has become clear that the Philippines and the United States are unlikely to forcibly resist nonmilitarized Chinese coercion, Vietnam has demonstrated a greater willingness to do so, challenging China to escalate in ways that risk alarming and alienating regional states.5

Because Beijing has been observably more tolerant of Vietnamese challenges, the data suggest that, rather than “coerc[ing] one target to deter others,” China has established separate deterrence postures for its two principal rivals and that these postures have been tailored according to the different geopolitical costs associated with coercing them (p. 120).

Andrew Taffer

Vienna, Virginia

Ketian Zhang Replies:

I am grateful to Tongfi Kim and Andrew Taffer for their thoughtful responses to my article, which examines when, why, and how China employs coercion against other states in disputes in the South China Sea. I argue that China uses coercion when its need to establish resolve is high and the economic cost of doing so is low, and that it uses nonmilitarized coercive tools when the geopolitical backlash cost is high.1 Kim and Taffer disagree with various points in the article, and I address their specific arguments below. First, however, it is important to note the context in which I was writing. The article is part of an ongoing book project in which I examine China’s decisionmaking on the use of coercion across a variety of issue areas, including territorial disputes, Taiwan, and foreign leaders’ reception of the Dalai Lama.2 My response to the letters by Kim and Taffer addresses the conceptual, theoretical, and empirical aspects of the article.

Conceptually, Kim takes issue with my definition of coercion, arguing, for example, that the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident is a case of brute force, not coercion. I disagree. As I stated, the end goal of brute force is to take territory, not to make the target state do something that it does not want to do, which is in line with Thomas Schelling’s definition of brute force (p. 121).3 In other words, intention is a crucial component of the concept of coercion. Also, I provided ample evidence to show that, in this case, China’s goals went beyond taking over the Scarborough Shoal: Beijing wanted to force the Philippines to return to bilateral talks and to stop other states from engaging in actions that threatened China’s interests in the South China Sea (p. 147). As such, this case is an example of Chinese coercion.

In addition, Kim states that my article mentions, but does not analyze, proactive cases of coercion such as China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea. Because of space limitations, this is true. I explained in the article, however, that I examine this form of proactive coercion in my ongoing book project.4 Readers are more than welcome to take a look.

Regarding theory, Taffer claims that my article overstates the role of economic costs and understates the importance of geopolitical costs. The article argues that economic costs and the need for resolve are the major factors influencing when states decide to use coercion, whereas geopolitical cost affects when states escalate to militarized tools of coercion, for two reasons. First, economic indicators are crucial for determining whether leaders will remain in office, be it in authoritarian or democratic states. This prioritization should be especially acute in developing states, with economic development being their most pressing concern, which seems to be the case for states such as China, Brazil, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Because the core concern of these states is to develop their economies, economic factors are their primary concern when making foreign policy decisions. Indeed, concerns about geopolitical costs exist precisely because such costs may thwart domestic economic development.

Second, the reason why geopolitical backlash cost is more likely to affect a state’s choice of coercive tools is that greater geopolitical pressure could suggest that a military alliance will be triggered, potentially leading to military confrontation. In this sense, geopolitical backlash cost is more relevant when states contemplate whether to escalate to military coercion. After all, moderate use of economic sanctions is unlikely to trigger alliance obligations. The theory is a simplified representation of reality, aimed at teasing out the most crucial factor when it comes to influencing coercion decisions. It is not that geopolitical backlash cost is unimportant, but rather that geopolitical cost is more critical for explaining the choice of coercive tools.

Kim argues that consideration of China’s concerns about geopolitical backlash is unnecessary when explaining its preference for using nonmilitary tools in the South China Sea in the post-2007 period. I disagree. Internal and publicly available primary evidence demonstrates that geopolitical backlash cost is a major concern for Chinese foreign policy elites when choosing coercive tools to target South China Sea claimants (pp. 142–145). Moreover, in another ongoing project, I examine China’s use of coercion against India in border disputes and compare it against Chinese coercion in the South China Sea.5 Given the low geopolitical backlash cost, much of this coercion after 2007 was militarized. For example, during the most recent confrontations between China and India along their disputed border in the summer of 2020, it was the Chinese military that was directly involved, not China’s civilian law enforcement organizations.6 In short, China’s rationale for when to use coercion is not merely a question of capability, as Kim suggests. Behavioral and speech evidence must also be considered when conducting empirical research.

Next, Kim states that I do not discuss the consequences of China’s economic power, whereas Taffer argues that I do not sufficiently emphasize economic costs. My article does stress that economic cost is one of the two major factors that determine China’s coercion decisions and demonstrates that economic cost changed from low too high to low in the 1990–2015 period. Taffer suggests that China’s negotiations of the free trade zone (FTZ) with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are strictly bilateral. This is untrue. China engaged not only in bilateral negotiations but also in multilateral talks, as demonstrated by the 2002 “Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation between ASEAN and China.”7 As I discuss in the article, there is ample speech evidence from Chinese leaders and policy analysts involved in these multilateral negotiations that indicates their concerns about the potential failure of an FTZ (pp. 141–142). That is, economic costs related to the potential failure of multilateral negotiations on the FTZ and its future success featured prominently in Chinese decisionmaking.

Finally, Taffer argues that my article does not consider cross-national differences and that China coerces the Philippines more than it does Vietnam. In my ongoing book project, I do examine such differences, comparing China’s treatment of Malaysia against its treatment of Vietnam and the Philippines.8 It is important to note, however, that China’s differential treatment of the Philippines and Vietnam is much smaller when compared with Malaysia. Although the ratio of coercion to incident is higher for the Philippines than it is for Vietnam, China’s use of coercion against Vietnam tends to be of a greater magnitude, which I analyze in my book project.9 In other words, China uses harsher coercive measures against Vietnam, especially regarding gray-zone coercion. Thus, Taffer’s mere counting of cases of coercion is insufficient. My follow-up interviews with Vietnamese diplomats also indicate that Vietnam is well aware of what happened to the Philippines, and that Hanoi believes that China treats it the way it treats Manila.10

In sum, China’s decisionmaking regarding when and how to use coercion in the South China Sea is only a fraction of the entire universe of cases of Chinese coercion in the post–Cold War period. The theory laid out in the article is applicable beyond the South China Sea. In general, China considers the economic cost and its reputation for resolve when deciding when to coerce and geopolitical cost when choosing which coercive tools to use.

Ketian Zhang

Arlington, Virginia


1.Ketian Zhang, “Cautious Bully: Reputation, Resolve, and Beijing’s Use of Coercion in the South China Sea,” International Security, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Summer 2019), pp. 117–159, at p. 119, Subsequent references to this article appear parenthetically in the text.

2.Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 2.

3.See, for example, Ronald O’Rourke, “U.S.-China Strategic Competition in South and East China Seas: Background and Issues for Congress” (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, March 13, 2020),

4.See Zhang’s online appendix 2 at

5.See Andrew S. Erickson, Joshua Hickey, and Henry Holst, “Surging Second Sea Force: China’s Maritime Law-Enforcement Forces, Capabilities, and Future in the Gray Zone and Beyond,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 72, No. 2 (2019), pp. 11–25,

1.Ketian Zhang, “Cautious Bully: Reputation, Resolve, and Beijing’s Use of Coercion in the South China Sea,” International Security, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Summer 2019), pp. 117–159, at p. 119, Further references to this article appear parenthetically in the text.

2.JianYu Wang, “International Legal Personality of ASEAN and the Legal Nature of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement,” paper presented to the Symposium on China’s Relations with ASEAN: New Dimensions, December 3–4, 2004, pp. 1–10,

3.Over the 1990s, China’s exports to and imports from ASEAN increased by four and five times, respectively, and bilateral trade with Vietnam and the Philippines outpaced these rates. “Forging Closer ASEAN-China Economic Relations in the Twenty-First Century,” October 2001, ASEAN-China Expert Group on Economic Cooperation, p. 7,; and Nguyen Thi Bich Ngoc, “Vietnam-China Economic Relations and Recommendations for ASEAN-China Cooperation,” in Young-Chan Kim, ed., Chinese Global Production Networks in ASEAN (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2016), p. 191.

4.A Factiva search from 1990 to 2015 on “Vietnam and (South China Sea or Spratlys) and offshore and oil” yields 546 Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, and Reuters stories. On Vietnam’s land reclamation, see David Brunnstrom and Ben Blanchard, “Images Show Vietnam South China Sea Reclamation, China Defends Own,” Reuters, May 7, 2015,

5.“China Ships ‘Rammed 1,400 Times by Vietnamese Vessels,‘” BBC News, June 9, 2014,

1.Ketian Zhang, “Cautious Bully: Reputation, Resolve, and Beijing’s Use of Coercion in the South China Sea,” International Security, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Summer 2019), pp. 117–159, Subsequent references to this article appear parenthetically in the text.

2.Ketian Zhang, “Calculating Bully: Explaining Chinese Coercion,” Ph.D. dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018,

3.See Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966).

4.Zhang, “Calculating Bully.”

5.Ketian Zhang, “Chinese Military Coercion in Sino-Indian Border Disputes,” working paper, 2020, George Mason University.

6.Walter Ladwig, “Not the ‘Spirit of Wuhan’: Skirmishes between India and China,” May 21, 2020, Royal United Services Institute,

7.ASEAN, “ASEAN-China Free Trade Area: Building Strong Economic Partnerships,” For the full agreement, see ASEAN, “ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreements,”

8.Ketian Zhang, “Calculating Bully.”



Author interviews with anonymous Vietnamese diplomats on May 28, 2018, in Palo Alto, California, and on December 10, 2019 in Arlington, Virginia. The diplomats wish to remain anonymous.

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