Webinar on “Weaker Claimants’ Responses to China’s Coercion in the South China Sea: A Comparative Analysis”

In this webinar, Dr Huynh Trung Dung presented a comprehensive and comparative study on how four Southeast Asian claimant states have responded to China’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea.


Thursday, 19th October 2023 — ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar titled “Weaker Claimants’ Responses to China’s Coercion in the South China Sea: A Comparative Analysis” presented by Dr Huynh Trung Dung, Lead Faculty member for Public Policy of the YSEALI Academy at Fulbright University Vietnam.

Speaker Dr Huynh Trung Dung (right) with moderator Dr Le Hong Hiep. The webinar attracted 77 participants. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Dung’s research drew from a dataset of 329 cases of Chinese coercion in the South China Sea against weaker claimants — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia — from 1970 to 2021. He gathered data on the target of coercion (islands, waters, vessels, governments), Chinese actors (government, navy, maritime law enforcement, and fishing vessels), and the use of force (no use of force, display/threat of force, limited force, and brute force). Dr Dung categorised the policy responses of South China Sea claimants into nine types: confrontation, military action, diplomacy, publicity, seeking great power backing, negotiation, foreign business engagement, reliance on international law, and no action.

Dr Dung began by discussing China’s strategy of coercion in the South China Sea. He observed an increasing trend of Chinese coercive activities against other claimants from 1970 to 2021. The primary locations of these activities were the Spratlys, the Paracels, and Vietnam’s continental shelf. Over time, the primary targets of coercion evolved, with a focus on islands between 1970 and 2000 and again in the late 2000s. Waters were consistently targeted. However, from 2010 to 2021, vessel targets became more prevalent, surpassing island and water targets.

China predominantly employed no force or used display/threat of force, with brute force used in selective cases. The use of limited force by China became more common after 2000. As for coercive actors, the Chinese government was involved in most incidents, while the navy played a significant role from the 1970s to the 1990s. Chinese maritime law enforcement and fishing vessels became more actively involved from the 1990s onward.

Dr Dung highlighted variations in the types and intensity of coercion used by Beijing against weaker claimants. Display/threat of force was most frequently used against Malaysia, followed by Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Brute force and limited force were employed most often against Vietnam, followed by the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The primary targets also differed among the claimants, with the islands claimed by Manila and Hanoi facing more frequent coercion than those of Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. Meanwhile, Indonesian and Malaysian waters experienced a higher incidence of coercion than Vietnamese and Philippine waters. Vietnamese vessels were more frequently targeted than those of other claimant states.

Regarding coercive actors, Hanoi bore the brunt of the Chinese government’s coercion. China’s navy was the primary coercive actor for Vietnam and Malaysia. Chinese maritime law enforcement was the key coercive actor for Indonesia and Malaysia, while Chinese fishing vessels were most frequently employed to exert pressure on Indonesia and the Philippines. These findings led Dr Dung to conclude that Beijing was pursuing strategic expansionism, characterised by both geographic and target expansion.

Dr. Dung then discussed and evaluated the policy responses of weaker claimant states. From the 1970s to the 1980s Vietnam’s responses ranged from military actions and seeking great power backing from the Soviet Union to diplomacy and publicity. From the 1990s onwards, publicity, diplomacy, confrontation and inaction became Hanoi’s dominant responses. The Philippines initially relied on great power backing from the United States before diversifying its responses to include confrontation, diplomacy, publicity, and military actions in the mid-1990s. Malaysia predominantly used confrontation, military actions or inaction, while diplomacy and publicity were employed less frequently. Indonesia took a hard line against China, with a high rate of military confrontation. Diplomacy and publicity only became more significant in Indonesia’s strategy starting in 2013.

Despite the absence of apparent consistent patterns in weaker claimants’ strategies in response to Chinese coercion, several common strategies could be observed. These include hedging, balancing, the use of multiple policy instruments, reliance on international law, and multilateralism. Diplomacy remained a consistent response throughout the five decades, while confrontation and publicity gained prominence in the late 1980s. Great power backing was prominent in the 1980s but declined until the mid-2010s, while military responses were sporadic.

Dr Dung observed that weaker claimant states often leveraged military and great power backing in cases involving island targets. Confrontation was their preferred response to Beijing’s coercion against waters targets. Meanwhile, diplomacy and publicity were used frequently to protect fishing rights and other vessels.

Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur were more inclined to use confrontation and military responses than Manila and Hanoi. Regarding publicity, Indonesia was the most vocal, followed by the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Malaysia engaged in diplomacy less frequently than the other three claimants. The Philippines was unique as it was the only claimant with a treaty alliance with the U.S. and a successful legal case against China.

Dr Dung then introduced an evaluation framework based on three determinants — loss, dispute position, and macro impact on context — to assess whether a response is effective or ineffective. Based on this framework, he concluded that there were 141 effective cases out of the total 329 cases, which means an overall success rate of 43 per cent.

Among weaker claimants, Indonesia demonstrated greater effectiveness in cases involving no force, limited force, and China’s navy. The Philippines outperformed others in the factors of display/threats of force, brute force, island targets, vessel targets, military, confrontation, and the application of law. Vietnam showed more success in cases involving government targets, water targets, negotiation, diplomacy, or publicity. Malaysia excelled in garnering great power backing and leveraging foreign business engagement.

Military actions proved effective for the Philippines while great power backing did not, despite Manila’s alliance with Washington. For cases involving island targets, great power backing appeared to be the most effective deterrent. For other targets, the most effective combination of policy instruments include publicity, diplomacy, confrontation, and great power backing. Overall, publicity, diplomacy, and confrontation were the most effective individual policy factors, especially when combined. Inaction was consistently ineffective.

During the Q&A session, Dr Dung addressed questions related to his research methodology, weaker claimant states’ policy responses and their effectiveness, potential Chinese reactions, the prospect of weaker claimant states resolving disputes among themselves, and the status of the South China Sea Code of Conduct negotiation.