Understanding China’s Territorial Claim in the South China Sea: Under Defensive Realism and Constructivism

Written by: GCS Analysts Ruichen and Sheryl

South China Sea territorial conflicts is a classic problem in the study of international relation in Asia. In the past few years, the conflict in South China Sea conflict involves claimants such People’s republic of China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines (Klaus Heinrich Raditio, 2019). China holds claim to a large territory claim on south China sea, which is also known as the nine-dash line (ShiCun WU, 2010). The nine-dash line covers a large portion of the South China sea. Historically, China didn’t take actual control of the territory it claims. From the Mischief Reef incident in 1995 to 2008 China started to take stronger control of its claimed territory (Emmers, 2007). Thus, the researcher will break the concept of the territorial claim into two parts, the first part is the claim on paper and the second is the claim in practice using the military. In this essay, the researcher will explain China’s actions of enhancing territorial claims in the East and South China Seas from realism and constructivism. The researcher will use the concept of security dilemma in realism to evaluate if China’s territorial claim is reasonable and examine the territorial claim under Chinese history and philosophy.

Realism for China’s claim in the South China Sea

The theoretical framework for explaining China’s claim in the south China Sea is the security dilemma, which is from defensive realism. The two key premises of defensive realism is the anarchy status of international relations and countries only seek security, not seek power maximizing (Waltz, 1979). Under the condition of anarchy, two defensive realist states without knowing each other’s intentions will use military expansion to enlarge their power for protecting their security (Tang, 2014). However, actions aimed at defense may also be used for offensive purposes. Thus, other neighboring countries might believe it is threatened, and it will take counteractions. This eventually turns into a feedback loop; all countries want to keep them in security by expanding their military of every country causing the opposite result (Leavelle and Herz, 1951). This entire process of countries falling into the feedback loop is known as the ‘security dilemma’ (Tang, 2009).

South China sea is crucial for China both economically and politically. China’s production of energy is heavily dependent and controlling the South China Sea may improve this situation. Since 1993, China become a net importer of oil (Wang, 1997). By 1996, China experienced a decreasing fossil fuel production and increasing energy consumption (Wang, 1997). Under the South China Sea, there are over 23-30 billion tons of petroleum resources and 16 trillion cubic meters of natural gas (Owen and Schofield, 2010). It is roughly one-third of China’s oil resources (Owen and Schofield, 2010).  These energies can make China more energy-independent, thus protecting energy security. What’s more, China heavily South China sea to import its oil. In 2019, 60% of China’s oil is imported by sea, and the number could increase to 75% by 2030 (US Department of Defense, 2014). A large proportion of this oil must travel through the South China sea (Xiao, 2016). If any country takes full control of the South China Sea. China could fall under energy shortage very quickly. Geopolitically speaking, the US is trying to restrain China by imposing the “first island chain” and the “second island chain” (Krepinevich, 2015). The first island chain was first proposed by US general MacArthur in WWII to defend Japan’s expansion (R. Holmes, 2014). It includes countries and regions such as Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The first island chain includes basically the entire South China Sea. If it is ever established, China’s maritime export and navy might be totalled trapped inside the South China sea (Yoshihara, 2012). Overall, the South China Sea is crucial for China’s national security.  

Despite there are many claimants of the South China Sea, the researcher will only discuss the role of Vietnam in the security dilemma with China. In the security dilemma with Vietnam, China becomes more active in consolidating its territorial claim in the South China Sea. As Vietnam is one of the first countries that caused the security dilemma in the South China Sea. For a very long time, Vietnam was the only Southeast Asian country that can have combat China in the South China Sea (Raditio, 2018). Vietnam faces the same problem with important energy with China, the South China Sea is as important to Vietnam as it is to China (Buszynski, 2012). In addition, Vietnam holds an overlapping claim on the South China Sea with China. Both China and Vietnam are uncertain if the other will use the control of the South China sea against each other if one takes over control of the South China Sea (Glaser, 2011). Due to this concern, both China and Vietnam started to be more active militarily in the South China Sea and consolidate their territorial claim in military practice (Blazevic, 2012). This is how the security dilemma first happens in the South China Sea (Blazevic, 2012). It acts like a dilemma, combined with other factors later caused a series of military races among the claimant of the South China Sea, forcing China to further consolidate its’ territorial claim in the South China sea.

Although China is only seeking its security, the rise of China and its rising influence in the South China Sea make other claimants concerned about their security. The raising military power of China as a whole and increase naval power in the South China Sea due to the security dilemma with Vietnam triggered a larger-scale security dilemma. What’s more, in the past few decades, China has been growing its military power at a faster pace than most neighbors (Raditio, 2015). China’s military budget has risen 800% in the past 20 years (Pilling, 2014). The expanding military is aiming for increasing national security (Lim, 2011). Considering its’ rapidly growing economic growth and massive population, China sees its increasing power to be reasonable and defensive (Lim, 2011). However, it is difficult to find the “reasonable amount” of military power, and China’s rising military power cause security concern in Southeast Asia (Raditio, 2015).  Subsequently, countries in Southeast Asia started to rise military spending for their national security (A. Bitzinger, 2010). Malaysia doubled its military spending since 2000 (Pilling, 2014). In 2014, the Philippines purchases 12 FA-50 fighters and 10 helicopters worth 671 million dollars from South Korea (Dancel, 2014). This arms race fits perfectly within the security dilemma that previously discusses. As many of these countries are part of the first island chain and have a close relationship with the US, China deeply concerns with its national security if the first island chain becomes true (Yoshihara, 2012). For China to protect itself, it must be more active militarily and continue to consolidate its territorial claim in the South China Sea. By doing so, it may break the first island chain (Yoshihara, 2012).

The researcher believes although China holds claims on paper toward the South China sea, it never put the claim into practice before it falls into a security dilemma. When China falls into a security dilemma and must fight for its economic and geopolitical security, it has no option but to put its claim into practice.

Constructivism for China’s claim in the South China Sea

Constructivism under international relation aim at understanding the behaviour of a nation by learning its history and norm of a nation (Reus-Smit and Snidal, 2010). The researcher will first examine China’s foreign policy in the south China Sea under Chinese philosophy and Chinese history. The researcher will then examine China’s territorial claim under Chinese history.

Under Chinese philosophy, foreign policy overall is similar to defensive realism that this research previously discussed. Confucianism believes war is necessary for diplomacy, however, it should be only used for defensive purposes (Waley-Cohen and Johnston, 1996). Under Confucianism, Expansionary foreign policies will illegitimate the ruler (Ikenberry and Wendt, 1999). Mencius once said that for those who started wars to fulfil their desire on expanding territory, not even death is sufficient for punishing their crime (Mencius and Hinton, 2015). This attitude matches perfectly with the defensive aspect of defensive realism. Historically, China created the tribute system to create an international order in east Asia. The most vital characteristic of the Chinese tribute system is the overwhelming power of China. China is advanced in economic, military, and soft power compared to all other states nearby (Jacques, 2008, pp.303–304). The more powerful China is, the more country will join the tribute system (Jacques, 2008, pp.304–305). This is very similar to realism in international relation as the relationship between countries isn’t equal but depend on their power. As Chinese foreign policy under constructivism is very similar to defensive realism, the analysis of defensive realism suit perfectly with explaining China’s claim in the South China Sea.

The Chinese government claims the nine-dash line of the South China Sea by the tradition of two thousand years; however, this claim may be questionable if look at the detail of Chinese history(Shi, 1975). According to the claim of the Chinese government, in 200 BC the Han dynasty already took control of the South China Sea (Huikang Zhang, Yi and Ye Fan, 1998). Since then, the South China Sea was included in the official territorial map (ShiCun WU, 2010). Thus, the Chinese government base the claim on the Chinese tradition rather than international law (Jacques, 2008, pp.330–332). However, for the past four hundred years, the government never impose any control in the South China Sea and hold a hostile attitude toward the Chinese in the South China sea. In 1716, the KangXi emperor stated “Since the Ming dynasty, there are many Han Chinese at the South China Sea. They are the source of pirates” He later imposed stricter regulations, banning most citizens from going to the South China Sea (ZhiTing Lee, 2020). For a long period of time, the Qing government placed the overseas Chinese in the South China Sea in a situation of “abandoning themselves from civilization”, and even regarded them as rebels who “had lost their conscience” (Han, 1992). In 1740, the Dutch conducted “Chinezenmoord”, a genocide toward the Chinese in Indonesia, estimated at least twenty thousand Chinese were killed (Somers Heidhues, 2009). The Dutch sent diplomats to apologize to the Qing government. The Qing government replied “those who got killed are born in civilized Han Chinese region but decided to abandon the civilized way of living. They deserve this.” (China First Historical Archives, 1990) Historically, the “civilized Han Chinese region” is usually only mainland China, the South China Sea is not included (Shuming Liang and Ming, 2021). The Qing government hold the same attitude toward any Chinese who don’t live in Mainland China. It is obvious that the Qing government never treat the South China Sea as its territory. It is a place with disobedient Chinese living there.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government’s claim on the South China Sea based on tradition is still valid to some degree. In 1909, The Qing government sent troops to measure the islands in the South China Sea and took records of Chinese citizens living in these islands (ShenBao, 1909). They also raise the national flag on two of the main islands to consolidate their territorial claim (Han, 1988). Using the information on islands they gather, the Qing government convinced the Japanese government that the South China Sea is part of the Qing empire (fu, 1990). After the Qing government sent troops to the South China sea, The France government in Vietnam also agreed that the South China sea belong to China (Han, 1988).

On the whole, China holds relatively weaker traditional claims than they have historically believed. However, Chinese philosophy on international relations is relatively similar to defensive realism, which helps to enhance the credibility of using realism to analyze the South China Sea.


This research identifies China’s territorial claim and occupation in the South China Sea are primarily driven by defensive realism in Chinese philosophy, which is stronger than traditional territorial interpretations. The security dilemma was begun with the fighting overall the control of the South China Sea between China and Vietnam for their national security. As more countries in Southeast Asia felt facing security threats from China, the security dilemma expands among all claimants of the South China Sea. China responded to the security dilemma by consolidating more territorial claims through the military in the South China Sea. The Chinese government’s territorial claims are based on tradition, but historically the Qing government was hostile to the people living in the South China Sea. Although the Qing government later reaffirmed China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea, in general, defensive realism was more powerful in explaining territorial claims in the South China Sea.


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