Anders Corr: Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Game in the South China Sea

Book Review

Reviewer: Imane Hmiddou

Publisher: Naval Institute Press ISBN: 978-1682472354
Author's page: Anders CORR

Anders Corr: Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Game in the South China Sea

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China is accused of not respecting International Law by illegally taking islands in the South China Sea. This implies that the country profits from all the goods in the area and consequently, neighbour states are directly affected by this act. PRC is legitimizing its acts by historical narratives which are not accepted by neither the neighbouring countries nor the international community. The international reactions toward China’s acts in South China Sea are following the diverse strategies conducted in the region. Global powers not directly affected by the expansion are also involved in the conflict.

Great Powers, Grand Strategies: the new game in the South China Sea was published by Naval Institute Press in 2018, a collaborative book produced by a number of specialists and edited by Anders Corr. The editor is a specialist in international politics and he is known for multiple works regarding the South China Sea. The aim of this book is to analyse the global states’ economic, military and diplomatic strategies in the South China Sea and how they are related, in order to come up with a macro vision of the conflict and observe how these strategies affect or influence the conflict. 

The book is presented in ten chapters, with each chapter produced by a different author. It is rather a collage of articles which their authors do not often adopt the same opinions. Although it is true that different approaches and perspectives enrich the reader’s knowledge, it creates a disconnection between the book’s ideas, and sometimes they lead to contradictions within the book.

The first chapter explains the reasons why China is expanding in South China Sea, and how this idea has been transformed from an abstract claim to concrete assets. In the sense of Bill Hayton, these islands are, explicitly, a matter of territorial integrity for China. It is a national priority for the PRC to ensure its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights. China is also deeply worrying about the large presence and assertiveness of Japan and the US in the area. Therefore, the country claims sovereignty on the Islands in the South China Sea and uses historical narratives as an argument to legitimize it, in order to maintain its power in the region.

The second chapter discusses the evolution of China’s grand strategy in the South China Sea. China’s strategy has been changing in correlation with its military, political and economic developments. The rise of China’s power at the regional level changed its position regarding the South China Sea from considering it a “lost territory” to the state’s” core interest” in 2010.

The third chapter is about China’s maritime sovereignty campaign. In 2004, China’s presidential discourse revealed China’s new foreign policy based on wiping off the ‘Chinese shame’ due to historical foreign occupations. The country worked on strengthening its maritime sovereignty - its ambitions aren’t only economic related, but also strategic and military.

These three chapters bring a global view of China’s strategy in the South China Sea, however I think that the authors point of views are, as a whole, influenced by the  Western perspective, especially when it comes to drawing a diabolic image of China and an innocent icon of the West (US and EU). The authors described in detail China’s bad behaviours in the region while only briefly mentioning its economic wealth and its positive acts there.

The conflict over the South China Sea is also negotiated at the international scale, many countries and regional institutions are involved. The US, Russia, india, the ASEAN countries and the EU have reacted differently to China’s expansion in South China Sea. The fourth chapter recalls the way the conflict is perceived, discussed and managed in the ASEAN region, where directly involved countries are represented: Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. At the ASEAN level, the main problem is the different strategies that the major powers, the US and Japan, are adopting in the South China Sea adding to China’s escapement of ASEAN regulation proposals.

I think that the US influence is making the consensus inside the ASEAN hard to achieve and consequently delaying the diplomatic negotiations and thus possible solutions. I believe that the neutral countries, which are not economically dependent on China, are enough to create a balance inside ASEAN, and the US position merely complicates the conflict resolution.

The fifth and sixth chapters are about the strategies adopted by the US in the region and how the state calculates its actions in the area. The US has adopted five different strategies in the South China Sea that differ according to the political situation in the region. In addition, the US bases its diplomatic realm on different factors related to China’s behavior in the regional institutions from one side. From the other side, the US calculates the profit from using enforcement tools on China in order to allineate its foreign policies with international law. Moreover, the US has been working on the diplomatic, economic and military rebalancing in the region in order to maintain its power there.

In my perspective, the authors discussed US involvement excessively and talked about all these US strategies in the region without even questioning its legitimacy. The authors criminalise China’s acts, while discussing the US role as an innocent one, even if the country is militarising China’s neighbouring countries and indirectly encouraging a possible war in the region. If China is becoming a military power, and the neighboring countries involved in the conflict are also become militarized, this will create a security dilemma in the region. Consequently, it will raise the degree of militarization on both sides of the conflict, increase power and decrease the security aspect. As Bremer argued in his paper “Dangerous Dyads: Conditions Affecting the Likelihood of Interstate War”, if the state invests more in militarization, it implies that the country is aiming to do war, so its enemy states will feel less secured.[1] The image drawn of US as “the” country that will solve the issue is totally wrong because it is rather leading to an escalation of war. The neighbouring countries are asking the US to help them in achieving a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, nevertheless the United States is using this situation to triumph its power and to implement and mediate the international law concept that it had created.

The seventh chapter is about the position of Japan regarding China’s expansion in South China Sea. Japan is highly interested in the South China Sea; the country considers China as a threat and it keeps building relations with ASEAN member states in order to maintain its diplomatic power at the regional level. Japan adopts three main dynamics in the South China Sea conflict. It is always on the US side and it will never raise the pressure on China just because of this conflict in order to keep its sovereignty on the East China Sea. Finally, Japan will maintain its bilateral relations with China and generate profit from its development .

 The last three chapters are about three international actors not directly affected by the issue and their different reactions based on their diverse positions. India is reacting to China’s expansion by adopting diplomatic means. India’s trade is mainly based on sea trade, so it could lose access to South China Sea if China decided to do so. Russia is a powerless country in the region - the member states of ASEAN do not consider it as an actor that can balance the powers in Asia and compete with China. The country lacks strong tools to achieve its target regarding ensuring security in Asia.

For me, ASEAN doesn’t even need another position. In the fourth chapter, the author mentioned that one of the obstructions of the conflict negotiations is the diverse positions into ASEAN. Adding a Russian perspective will even further complicate the situation. It will not help in achieving a balance of power, because ASEAN will come up with 4 different positions: the US, China, Russia and neutral. This is one of the contradictions present in the book due to a lack of coordination between the authors’ ideas.

The EU is the third international actor. From one side, the EU doesn’t have any security issues with China, which gives it the ability to criticise China’s behaviour freely. It can also adopt strategies in the area and implement sanctions collaborating with the US. However the European Union seeks neutrality and relies more on the international law argument when it comes to judging China’s expansion in the South China Sea for three reasons: 1) preserving the economic benefit generated from China’s trade, 2) lack of enforcement means and 3) the absence of one common threat to mobilize all its member states .   

My question is: why should the EU intervene? The international intervention will just make the conflict a cold one without resolving it; it is better to let the directly affected countries manage the conflict and negotiate it without any external intervention. As Luttwak argued in “Give War a Chance”, it is more efficient to let the concerned states solve the problem on their own, either diplomatically or by violence, because the international intervention only delays the process .[2] Each global power is just serving its own interests and generating economic benefits when it has the opportunity to do so rather than helping in solving the problem, therefore the international intervention is not efficient.


[1] Stuart A. Bremer, ‘Dangerous Dyads: Conditions Affecting the Likelihood of Interstate War, 1816-1965,’ Journal of Conflict Resolution, 36:2, 1996. pp. 309-341.

[2] Edward N. Luttwak, ‘Give War a Chance,’ Foreign Affairs, 78:4, 1999. pp. 36-44. 

2020 - Volume 14 Issue 2