25 July 2016

The Scholar as Portent of Chinese Actions in the South China Sea

Ryan D. Martinson, “The Scholar as Portent of Chinese Actions in the South China Sea,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), 25 July 2016.

Chinese leaders, like leaders elsewhere, rely on the advice of outside experts—academics and other professional scholars—to help them cope with the myriad challenges of international politics. Statesmen and scholars, however, come from very different worlds. When leaders craft foreign policy, they place a premium on secrecy. Scholars, by contrast, have powerful motives to share their views and tout their influence.

For those studying an opaque state like the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it is therefore very tempting to regard the “influential” Chinese scholar, who writes and speaks without reserve, as a proxy for the shy statesman he serves. The lure of this approach is especially strong in the case of the South China Sea, where authoritative—and reliable—statements of PRC intentions are particularly scarce. In the aftermath of the recent ruling of the [Arbitral Tribunal] (Case No. 2013-19), the writings of Chinese scholars will no doubt be closely scrutinized for insights about the PRC’s likely response to this desolating blow to its South China Sea claims.

But is this a wise approach? 

We must immediately distinguish the advisor from the propagandist. Both have direct connections with the state. Indeed, an individual scholar may serve both functions. As a propagandist, the scholar justifies past and current policy; as an advisor, she seeks to shape future policy. Studying the work of the propagandist has merits: we learn what the PRC wants domestic and international audiences to believe. The statements of the advisor, however, are potentially much more rewarding, for they may suggest future actions. Knowing what a state may do allows one to engage in proactive diplomacy and prepare countermeasures. 

Given the legal and strategic complexities of the issues at stake, Chinese scholars have an important advisory role to play in South China Sea policy. However, among the dozens (hundreds?) of Chinese scholars researching the law and politics of the South China Sea, the vast majority will never speak to or have their work read by men and women in positions of real authority. Thus, if one’s aim is to conjecture about the direction of PRC policy, the works of only a tiny number of Chinese scholars—i.e., those with demonstrable influence—are worth considering.

Researchers at the Hainan Center for South China Sea Policy and Law (海南省南海政策与法律研究中心) fall into this category. Examining this institute—and the work of one scholar in particular—allows us to explore what can and cannot be learned from the writings of “influential” Chinese scholars.

OTHER GREAT WORKS FROM THE RYAN MARTINSON BOOKSHELF:
Ryan D. Martinson, “Panning for Gold: Assessing Chinese Maritime Strategy from Primary Sources,” Naval War College Review 69.3 (Summer 2016): 23-44.

Ryan D. Martinson, “The Courage to Fight and Win: The PLA Cultivates Xuexing for the Wars of the Future,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief 16.9, 1 June 2016.

Ryan D. Martinson, “Shepherds of the South Seas,” Survival 58.3 (2016): 187-212.

Ryan D. Martinson, “The 13th Five-Year Plan: A New Chapter in China’s Maritime Transformation,” Jamestown China Brief, 12 January 2016. 

Ryan D. Martinson, “Deciphering China’s Armed Intrusion Near the Senkaku Islands,” The Diplomat, 11 January 2016.  

Ryan D. Martinson, “China’s Great Balancing Act Unfolds: Enforcing Maritime Rights vs. Stability,” The National Interest, 11 September 2015.

Ryan D. Martinson, “From Words to Actions: The Creation of the China Coast Guard,” a paper for the China as a “Maritime Power” Conference, CNA Corporation, Arlington, VA, 28-29 July 2015.

Ryan D. Martinson, “East Asian Security in the Age of the Chinese Mega-Cutter,” Center for International Maritime Security, 3 July 2015. 

 Ryan D. Martinson, “China’s Second Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 141.4 (April 2015). 

Ryan D. Martinson, “Jinglue Haiyang: The Naval Implications of Xi Jinping’s New Strategic Concept,” Jamestown China Brief  (9 January 2015).

Ryan D. Martinson, “Chinese Maritime Activism: Strategy Or Vagary?” The Diplomat, 18 December 2014. 

Ryan D. Martinson, “The Militarization of China’s Coast Guard,” The Diplomat, 21 November 2014. 

Ryan Martinson, “Here Comes China’s Great White Fleet,” The National Interest, 1 October 2014.

Ryan Martinson, “Power to the Provinces: The Devolution of China’s Maritime Rights Protection,” Jamestown China Brief 14.17 (10 September 2014).