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Pragmatic Offensive Realism in the South China Sea

Fig. 1. South China Sea map. Credits: National Maritime Foundation.


The South China Sea (SCS) represents a strategically important body of water. Around 21% of global trade and 10% of global fish stock take place in the area, which also holds bountiful natural resources (Ernst, 2022). However, the SCS is subject to several territorial disputes between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, which puts states in an "unrelenting struggle for survival, advantage, and often dominance" (Blazevic, 2012; Jervis, 1999, 45). China unilaterally imposed the 9-dash line in 1947, claiming that 90% of the SCS should fall under its jurisdiction on historical grounds (Zhao, 2017). As the world’s second largest economy, China's unrelenting claim over the SCS is also motivated by its geopolitical and economic importance. The SCS is vital to transporting 85% of China's imported oil and 50% of exported goods, contributing to the country’s economic development and constituting a vital pillar for the legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Zhang, 2022). However, in 2016, the arbitral tribunal of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled that China's claims had no legal or historical validity and reiterated that nations have sovereign rights over 200 nautical miles extending from their borders, their so-called Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (Baviera, 2017). China continues to reject the ruling, and territorial disputes over territorial allocations continue to pose threats to global security and stability.

Confrontations between claimants, artificial island-building, militarisation, Sino-American strategic competition, and the US’s pivot to Asia increase fears about conflict escalation (Ernst, 2022). Many academic contributions argue that China is demonstrating offensive realist behaviour and aiming to undermine the international liberal order (Alenezi, 2020; Liff, 2017; Mearsheimer, 2021). In contemporary international relations theory, Mearsheimer's offensive realism theory assumes that great powers adopt aggressive foreign policies and military defences to ensure survival. Consequently, the scholar perceives China's rise as an authoritarian government "as the most immediate threat to the United States (US) supremacy" (Jalil, 2019, 41) and assumes that China's aggressive and expansionist behaviour will inevitably lead to major conflicts and a global power shift (Mearsheimer, 2001). However, a significant gap in offensive realism remains: states are not naturally revisionist and can derive benefits from mutual security. Fravel (2010, 50) admits that the "strategic necessity to balance US power" can also explain instances where China engaged in compromises, but he does not develop this argument. Seeking to fill this gap, the guiding research question is how, despite Mearsheimer's offensive realist prediction, can the absence of overt conflict in the SCS be explained?

Against the Western mediatised narrative that China primarily aims to overthrow the US’s hegemony, this paper has as its central thesis that China’s leader Xi Jinping follows a pragmatic offensive realist approach to maintain the status-quo and prioritise regional stability and security rather than maximise its power as a revisionist state. Xi Jinping's pragmatic policy approach demonstrates his ability to make concessions and cooperate to maintain a balance of power.

Firstly, this essay will outline the central tenets of offensive realism before analysing how Xi Jinping reflects pragmatic offensive realist tendencies in his SCS strategy. Finally, the conclusion summarises the key findings.

Theoretical framework

Offensive realism is part of the structural realist assumption that under anarchy, no supranational authority exists, making states responsible for their security. Offensive realism assumes that as states can never be sure of each other's intentions under anarchy, offensive military capacities prevail (Mearsheimer, 2001). Furthermore, states are defined as revisionist actors since anarchy forces them to maximise power to ensure security. This cycle will not end as one cannot "define a satisfying minimum level of security" (Lim, 2011, 303). Thus, anarchy and the subsequent perpetration of "pervasive wariness" (Lim, 2011, 300) create a security dilemma. Jervis (1978) defines a security dilemma as existing when a state's attempts to strengthen its security come at the expense of that of other states. This willingness to increase security has the potential to escalate into conflict and competition (Ibid.).

Offensive realists assume that revisionist states, under this anarchic self-help system, would encroach upon weaker states to undermine transparency and cooperation and engage without a clear expression of intentions in uncontrolled threats by using military force (Balzevic, 2012; Jervis, 1999; Zhang, 2022). Indeed, unlike his predecessors, Baohui (2014) argues that Xi Jinping's Chinese Dream of national revival is a dream for a powerful military (Xi, 2012). Emphasising military power reflects a realist understanding of normal state behaviour in an anarchic international system (Garnaut, 2013). The 2008 defence budget amounted to 58.8 billion USD, increasing to 215 billion USD in 2016 (Tian et al., 2018). According to Mearsheimer (2001), China is a revisionist power attempting to change the balance of power in its favour to ensure security. Security requires power and more power leads to more security (Baohui, 2014). However, interpreting China's rise solely through a military perspective would be an oversimplification, as well as an exaggeration of reality. The following analysis will demonstrate how Xi Jinping is navigating the security dilemma and shows pragmatic offensive realist tendencies to maintain regional stability while choosing to cooperate with claimant states to maintain a balance of power.


Current leader Xi Jinping reveals inclinations towards an offensive realist approach, as a crucial modification of China's grand strategy rhetoric resides in Xi's recognition of the equal importance of a prosperous economy and a strong military. The realist approach argues that a state's relative power defines its foreign policy, explaining Xi's more assertive role in international relations as the world's second-largest economy. China possesses a certain level of bargaining power, allowing it to push an ideological agenda (Chen & Wang, 2013). Meanwhile, Xi Jinping's declaration of a ‘Chinese dream’ coupled with the pursuit of military power in the South China Sea (SCS) demonstrate that increased international "assertiveness is the logical extension of China's active defence strategy" (Mastro, 2014, 157). However, in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, China, which grew to be the second-largest economy worldwide, advocated development initiatives such as the Belt-and-Road-Initiative (BRI), which are appealing alternative models for developing countries. Consequently, China's confidence led to more assertive behaviour, which strained relations with neighbouring states and saw a renewed interest in Asia by the US's strategic 'pivot to Asia.' Despite Xi asserting a stronger will to defend China's core interests, he also proved his ability to pursue pragmatic diplomacy to sustain peaceful international relations. This section will assess Xi's potential as a pragmatic offensive realist.

While offensive realists determine that "power maximisation is necessary to enjoy security," the theory is limited in accounting for the counterbalancing effect (Raditio, 2015, p.309). This means that military build-up and power-maximising efforts from other states can be expected in retaliation (Lobell, 2017). Xi Jinping understands that assertive autocratic ambitions of maximising power are counterproductive and "compel neighbours to join a US-led balancing coalition" (Li, 2015, 2). This counterbalancing can create a hostile and more insecure environment and undermine China's potential to create division between ASEAN states (Baviera, 2013). Baviera (2017, 208) argues that this power asymmetry can be "a double-edged sword, as weak states standing on their own may refuse to engage at all." Considering the multilateral international system, gaining too much power is a taboo, as it would expedite insecurity and counterbalance coalitions (Zhang, 2022). Playing power politics and engaging in predatory expansionism would increase regional hostility, destroy alliances, and strengthen US counterbalancing efforts, leading to conflict escalation, and threatening economic development, an essential legitimacy pillar for the CCP (Kuhn, 2021; Li, 2015). Thus, as less assertive and offensive strategies are favourable to avoid such spirals of hostility, since 2003, China has emphasised the 'peaceful development' narrative instead of 'rise' (Zhang, 2022). This narrative adjustment confirms Walt's (1987) assumption that China is tweaking its portrayal to avoid being misunderstood as aiming for aggressive expansion. Consequently, China understands the pitfalls of excessively assertive behaviour and has endorsed international cooperation efforts to contribute to a benign environment and ensure regional stability and security (Zhang, 2022).

Further consolidating the pragmatic offensive realist understanding is China's engagement in the international multilateral order to promote coalitions and pursue pragmatic and amicable relations with claimant states (Li, 2015). Indeed, China is an active member of multiple international organisations such as WTO and UN, which demonstrates that it is a status-quo power showing compliance and willingness to engage in the liberal, Western-dominated international institutions system (Jalil, 2019). In 2002, China demonstrated well-intentioned diplomacy and signed, together with ASEAN, a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOCP), followed by the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2003, which stipulates that SCS disputes cannot be solved through military actions (Raditio, 2015). Nowadays, China is part of the ASEAN+3 process covering 20 areas of cooperation and 16 bilateral currency swap and repurchase agreements of the Chiang Mai initiative (Hong, 2018). Such collaboration strategies highlight China's goodwill to engage and accept international rules in a multilateral setting. Additionally, due to economic development being intrinsically linked to global systems and financial markets, even if China wanted to "undermine and replace the existing liberal international order, the constraints on doing so are overwhelming" (Ikenberry, 2018, 27).

Figure 2. 2nd RCEP summit. Source: ASEAN.

Following the logic of offensive realism, when revisionist powers cannot dominate the region, they have to hinder the extension of foreign influence (Friedberg, 2012). In this respect, Xi adopts a more pragmatic and collaborative approach (Acharya, 2014). As Southeast Asian nations have been traditionally reluctant to enter formal alliances with the US to protect their autonomy and flexibility, Xi Jinping is engaging in this international system by introducing the 'Asia-for-Asian' regional order in 2014 and being a signatory to the 2020 Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) (Acharya, 2014; Li, 2015). The RCEP represents 30% of the world's GDP and population and groups 15 states, including all SCS claimants (Mie, 2020). These collaborative initiatives contribute to strategic manoeuvring against US preponderance and encourage closer strategic cooperation among Asian states to support China's peaceful rise (Ernst, 2022). Indeed, China considers "cooperation a feasible means of self-defence" and deterrence (Raditio, 2014, 8).

Additionally, despite more assertive behaviour through island-building in the SCS, China is demonstrating pragmatic efforts for cooperation in joint resource exploration. In 2016, Filipino President Duterte sought a bilateral solution with China on the dispute. Consequently, China allowed fishery access to the Chinese-controlled Scarborough Shoal within the Philippines’ EEZ and expressed support for joint hydrocarbon development projects (Ernst, 2022). Moreover, as part of the BRI, both countries agreed to combat unconventional security threats such as piracy, which reflects pragmatic offensive realism as China promotes cooperation rather than unilateral action (Zhang, 2022). Thus, China seeks to initiate mutually lucrative partnerships to incentivise claimant states to eventually acquiesce to China's territorial claims and offers concessions in exchange for states' cooperation in limiting and counteracting US influence in the region (Ernst, 2022; Li, 2015).

In conclusion, China follows a balance-prevention logic: under the security dilemma, any attempt at security maximisation will cause other states to feel threatened and retaliate (Jyalita, 2021). Thus, cooperation with international organisations helps cultivate a benign environment that can contribute to building mutual security (Jyalita, 2021; Lim, 2011). Coined by Goldstein (2003) as a neo-Bismarckian strategy, China effectively pursues its interests while continuing friendly engagement and mitigating anti-China rhetoric to avoid counterbalancing coalitions. Xi himself asserted that "we all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap" (Wang, 2015). Thus, China reflects pragmatic offensive realist tendencies as it aims to maintain the status-quo and prioritise regional stability and security through concessions and cooperation rather than maximise its power as a revisionist state.


The China threat narrative is gaining prominence among offensive realists despite the SCS being a complex geopolitical chessboard and requiring the navigation of delicate diplomatic tightropes. Contrary to the offensive realists’ argument that China is becoming more assertive and its potential conflict escalation with the US , this essay contends that Xi Jinping is mitigating the dangerous offensive realist assumption that conflict is inevitable by engaging in more pragmatic policy approaches to maintain regional stability rather than upsetting it, understanding that "aggressive expansionism would lead to counterbalancing activities" (Jalil, 2019, 57). Xi Jinping's pragmatic policy approach demonstrates his ability to make concessions and cooperate to maintain a balance of power.

This essay contributed to a relevant, nuanced understanding of Xi Jinping's strategy as pragmatic offensive realist given that predatory containment and encirclement policies launched by the US and dangerous narratives about China escalating disputes to overt conflict "would amount to a self-fulfilling prophecy where the conflict would materialise" (Jalil, 2019, p.58). Mearsheimer's theory underlines his pessimism about China's rise by demonstrating that revisionist powers will inevitably cause instability and conflict in an anarchic system. However, the scholar’s theory presents some discrepancies. China's survival is not jeopardised, and engaging in unnecessary conflicts would threaten its core interests (Stanislav, 2018). Offensive realism is not an analytical straitjacket. If correctly interpreted, the theory provides a plausible framework to assess China's inclination for restraint and assertiveness (Li, 2015). Empirically, the paper demonstrates that Xi balances against US predominance by relying on pragmatism and offering avenues for cooperation. China's rise is not necessarily and proportionally accompanied by the US's decline. Xi's assertion that "we all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap" (Gardels, 2013) confirms China's focus on mutual regional development rather than on displaying aggressive hegemonic behaviour.

Finally, China must balance cooperation and confidence-building measures, as coercion can be self-defeating and exacerbate the counterbalancing coalitions and US-China rivalry (Li, 2015). While China seems to understand that "the balance of power that arises out of international anarchy punishes aggressors" rather than reward them, it remains to be seen whether the offensive realist narrative will prevail, and conflict will become inevitable (Smith & Snyder, 1993, 11).


Caroline Seil is currently pursuing the Advanced Master of International Relations and Diplomacy at Leiden University and the Clingendael Institute. During her Bachelor, she dedicated her academic and professional pursuits at the University College Maastricht to studying international relations and international law. Her focus on Chinese Foreign Policy stems from her exchanges to Shanghai and Hong Kong. She will be interning at the Permanent Mission of Luxembourg to the UN in New York where she hopes to gain valuable insights into the current global dynamics and how issues are addressed at the international level.


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