Beyond Paradigms

Date01 July 2018
Published date01 July 2018
DOI10.1177/0020881718794527
Subject MatterArticles
Beyond Paradigms:
Understanding the South
China Sea Dispute Using
Analytic Eclecticism
Salvador Santino F. Regilme Jr1
Abstract
Why did claimant states in the South China Sea (SCS) dispute, especially China,
recently increase its militarization activities, in unprecedented ways that were
relatively absent in the previous decades? Espousing an analytically eclectic
explanation rather than using one single International Relations (IR) paradigm,
this essay demonstrates three key exploratory arguments. First, the enduring
Chinese military insecurity from American dominance in Southeast Asia has
been recently amplified by the confluence of China’s economic rise, and more
importantly, the power struggle in the current Xi Jinping-led regime. The article
offers a domestic politics-oriented approach in explaining the strategic resolve of
Beijing to militarize the disputed SCS region. Second, although many countries in
the region uphold a ‘hedging foreign policy strategy’, which refers to their stra-
tegic engagement both with China and the USA, the Southeast Asian countries’
patterns of foreign policy behaviour and identity politics suggest that their long-
term aspiration still relies on the USA as their primary security guarantor. Third,
notwithstanding such perception of Southeast Asian states towards the USA, this
article demonstrates that Washington’s long-term commitment of upholding its
security guarantees to its Southeast Asian partners is hindered by the US inter-
est to strategically engage with Beijing on broader issues of global governance.
Keywords
United States, China, Southeast Asia, analytic eclecticism, foreign policy analysis,
international relations theory, South China Sea
Article
International Studies
55(3) 213–237
2018 Jawaharlal Nehru University
SAGE Publications
sagepub.in/home.nav
DOI: 10.1177/0020881718794527
http://journals.sagepub.com/home/isq
1 Tenured University Lecturer of International Relations, History and International Studies,
Institute for History, Leiden University, The Netherlands.
Corresponding author:
Salvador Santino F. Regilme Jr, Institute for History, Leiden University, PO Box 9500 2300 RA Leiden,
The Netherlands.
E-mail: s.s.regilme@hum.leidenuniv.nl
214 International Studies 55(3)
Introduction
One of the greatest puzzles in the academic study and contemporary practice of
international politics is whether the rise of China, as an emerging global power,
would be peaceful amidst the expectation of a declining US-led global govern-
ance (Christensen, 2006; Mearsheimer, 2006; Monteiro, 2014, pp. 122–126;
Regilme & Hartmann, 2018; Regilme & Parisot 2017a; Starrs, 2013). Considered
as the ‘most important rising power’ (Hameiri & Jones, 2015, p. 3), China and its
increasing influence in world politics will ‘undoubtedly be one of the great dra-
mas of the twenty-first century’ (Ikenberry, 2008, p. 23). Despite the countervail-
ing discourses from some Chinese political elites who advocate a more pacifist
tone, some Western scholars, pundits, and policymakers warned that China’s
political ascendancy is inevitably dangerous (Mearsheimer, 2006). This sense of
insecurity is felt more increasingly in East Asia, most especially in the Southeast
Asian region, where many of the smaller countries have traditionally depended
upon the US leadership and security guarantees. Indeed, the South China Sea
(or the SCS hereafter)1—a marginal sea area that is partially surrounded by
Northeast (China and Taiwan) and Southeast Asian countries (Vietnam, Malaysia,
the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam)—has become one of
the most visible symbols of conflict in the region.
The SCS is economically significant for the global economy primarily because
more than 50 per cent of the annual world trade output passes through this mari-
time area. American interest in the dispute is largely about ‘ensuring freedom of
navigation’, considering that ‘half the world’s commercial shipping passes
through the SCS—$5 trillion a year—and US warships regularly transit the region
on their way to and from the Persian Gulf, Southwest Asia and the Indian Ocean’
(Spitzer, 2012). Indeed, the SCS dispute is a ‘regional flashpoint’ that has ‘the
potential for political and military conflict’ (Fravel, 2014; Mastanduno, 2014).
The significance of the SCS dispute is not only limited among political and eco-
nomic elites but also among the majority of the domestic publics in the Asia-
Pacific region.
This article addresses the following key puzzle: Why did claimant states, espe-
cially China, recently increase its militarization activities in the SCS region, in
unprecedented ways that were relatively absent in the previous decades? Three
preliminary and exploratory propositions are explored. First, the enduring Chinese
military insecurity from American dominance in Southeast Asia has been recently
amplified by the confluence of China’s economic rise, and more importantly, the
power struggle in the current Xi Jinping-led regime. In other words, the article
offers a domestic politics-oriented approach in explaining the strategic resolve of
Beijing to militarize the disputed SCS region. Second, although many countries in
the region uphold a ‘hedging foreign policy strategy’, which refers to their strate-
gic engagement ‘both’ with China and the USA, the Southeast Asian countries’
patterns of foreign policy behaviour and identity politics suggest that their long-
term aspiration still relies on the USA as their primary security guarantor. Third,
notwithstanding such a perception of Southeast Asian states towards the USA,
this article demonstrates that Washington’s long-term commitment of upholding

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