The South China Sea Dispute: Navigating Diplomatic and Strategic Tensions

Authors: Ian Storey and Lin Cheng-yi, 2016

ISBN: 978-981-4695-55-8

Publisher: ISEAS Publishing

Year: 2016

Reviewed by Dr. R.Reviewed by Leo S.F. Lin, Ph.D. student, School of Social Science and Global Studies, The University of Southern Mississippi, USA.

The increased tension in the South China Sea has been a focal point in the Asia-Pacific region over the past decades. The geopolitical competition over natural resources, the modernization of military power, the rapid growth of the economy of regional actors, and the rise of nationalism, all have worsened the geopolitical rivalries among the involved countries and the great power – the United States. This book, titled South China Sea Dispute: Navigating Diplomatic and Strategic Tensions, is an edited volume by Ian Storey and Chen-yi Lin. This important work investigates key drivers of the South China Sea dispute and examines the main policies of the countries involved in the dispute.

There are twelve contributors in this book; all of them have a strong background in East and Southeast Asia issues. The two editors, Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and Cheng-yi Lin, research fellow at the Academia Sinica, Taiwan, are internationally renowned scholars in the field. ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, published this book in 2016. Yusof Ishak Institute, an established autonomous organization, focusing on the socio-political, security, and economic trends and developments in Southeast Asia from within the region.

This book is composed of thirteen chapters. The first two chapters offer overviews of the dispute. In the introduction chapter, Ian Storey and Cheng-yi Lin offer an overview of the central aspects of the South China Sea dispute. They made several important points in this chapter. First, they argue that the South China Sea dispute has geopolitical significance and the vast sea area has become a hot spot in US – China competition. Next, they posit that China’s behavior has been the key variable and the tensions have been rising. Third, the absence of a political will has been the roadblocks to a resolution. Fourth, the authors examine how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have attempted to reduce tensions and to build trust among the alignment countries, including the confidence-building measures (CBMs) and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC). Finally, they look at why the stagnant of the current situation would endanger the peace, stability and prosperity of the region.

In Chapter 2, to clarify “a most complex web of conflicting maritime claims” (p.21), Clive Schofied investigates the competing claims to maritime jurisdictions that exist in the Sea. He also reviews the existing maritime boundary delimitation agreements and joint maritime arrangements, which has made some incremental progress. He argues that there “there is a limit to how far the complex and conflicting web of South China Sea claims and counter-claims can be disentangled” (p.34). In the absence of a clear understanding of those claims to jurisdictions, it is challenging to negotiate settlements or joint development of resources in the South China Sea.

The next two chapters focus on China and Taiwan. In Chapter 3, Mingjiang Li reviews the ongoing debates within the PRC since 2009. This chapter analyzes three aspects of the debate: “the various schools of thought that have emerged regarding what China’s response should be, policy proposals about how China should respond to the changing dynamics, and areas of consensus and disagreement” (p.48). The Chinese official stance maintains that the regional states fail to respect China’s rights and interests in the South China Sea. Thus, it is less likely that China would change its policy on the dispute. Nevertheless, Li argues that China will refrain from confrontation and “the combination of non-confrontation and assertiveness is likely to characterize China’s behavior in the South China Sea for the foreseeable future” (p.67).

In Chapter 4, Anne Hsiu-an Hsiao and Cheng-yi Lin compare Taiwan’s main policy development towards the South China Sea during the 24 years between 1992 and 2016. They explain Taiwan’s evolutionary policy approach under three Presidents. President Lee Teng-hui established a legal mechanism to strengthen Taiwan’s claims. President Chen Shui-bian promote Taiwan’s role as a party to the South China Sea dispute by taking concrete but controversial actions such as ordering the construction of an airstrip on Itu Aba. President Ma Ying-jeou strives to foster an environment conducive to cross-strait energy and other function cooperation. They concluded that Taiwan faces “ the increasingly complicated dual challenge of protecting the Republic of China (ROC)’s sovereignty and interests as a claimant without undermining progress already achieved in cross-strait relations or hampering its relations with Southeast Asian claimants and the United States” (p.96).

Both Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 focus on the roles of ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries in the dispute. In Chapter 5, Alice D. Ba situates the issue within the overall context of Southeast Asia’s relations with China, or what she called “within a picture picture” (p.105). Ba first provides an overview of relevant states’ core interests and concerns regarding the tensions in the South China Sea. Then she identifies primary contradictions which bring about enormous challenges for ASEAN, especially during the period of growing US – China rivalry in the region centered on the maritime dispute. She concluded that those tensions in the South China Sea had prompted all the parties in Southeast Asia to reassess existing strategies, priorities and relations, especially with China and the US.

In Chapter 6, Ian Storey how ASEAN as an organization has responded to the South China Sea dispute, as well as how individual states have approached the dispute. For the former, the focal point is the ASEAN – China conflict management process and the initiatives proposed to cope with China, such as the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) and the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (CoC). For the latter, Storey examines how ten ASEAN members view and respond to the dispute. The responses include diplomacy, force modernization, international legal arbitration and silence” (p.155). He concluded that ASEAN could not resolve the dispute, and the individual responses “have yielded mixed results and failed to influence China’s behavior” (p.155). Thus, the dispute will continue in the foreseeable future.

The next three chapters (Chapter 7 – 9) emphasize the claimants of three countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. In Chapter 7, Aileen S.P. Baviera examines Philippine’s maritime claims and Philippine’s responses to protect its claims. Baviera first looks at Manila’s maritime claims and highlights the “deteriorating security seascape” (p.166) between China and the Philippines. In particular, China’s growing assertiveness and military posture have intensified its competition with the US. Baviera then assesses the impact on the Philippine security by looking at three different levels, including the impact of Sino – US competition, Philippine national interests, and the domestic drivers. To protect its territorial claims, economic rights and environmental concerns, the Philippines has relied on international legal arbitration and diplomacy due to its weak armed forces.

In Chapter 8, Hoan Anh Tuan argues that China has consistently increased assertiveness on its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea since 1949, attempting to dominate the entire maritime region. Nevertheless, China’s intention has increased tensions and complicated relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors. Tuan argues that China’s policy is counterproductive for the country’s long-term strategic interests. For Vietnam, it rejects China’s argument that the disputes are mainly bilateral. Instead, Vietnam views the disputes as “simultaneously bilateral, multilateral and international” (p.192). China’s assertiveness has caused severe distrust among ASEAN countries which in turn increases their defense budgets. Tuan posits that “China’s assertiveness has had consequences for Beijing’s strategic interests beyond Southeast Asia” (p.198), including its regional relationships, image and long-term national interests.

In Chapter 9, Elina Noor assesses Malaysia’s energy and geopolitical interests in the South China Sea. Energy resources are the primary driver behind Malaysia’s claim through the lens of geography and national security. Malaysia’s claim, as Noor argues, is “rooted in the normative conception of the post-Westphalian nation-state and its attendant principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity” (p.207). To move forward with its claim, Noor provides three options for Malaysia, including political, legal and diplomatic solutions. Politically speaking, Malaysia should not pick sides between the US and China, as it “would be strategic suicide for Malaysia” (p.217). In the legal aspect, Malaysia has to utilize international legal recourse. Diplomatically, Malaysia has to use both bilateral and multilateral negotiation mechanisms to mitigate the problem, both bilaterally with China and multilaterally with its ASEAN counterparts.

 The next three chapters (Chapter 10-12) assess the interests, roles and policies of the United States and Japan. In Chapter 10, Denny Roy provides the standpoints from the United States, where there are two “archetypal possibilities” (p.228): The first is a peaceful China that will conform to international norms and arrangements; the second possibility is that China will strive for regional hegemony. This dichotomy has affected the American policy towards the South China Sea disputes. The author argues that it can be expected that China will “demand a sphere of influence on its periphery and that these demands will grow stronger commensurate with China’s relative capabilities” (p.230). The U.S. has perceived China’s policy in the South China Sea as a threat to “freedom of navigation” (p.233), sharpening the strategic competition between the two countries. Roy concluded that China’s policy had challenged all the major American interests in South China Sea disputes, and this fundamental conflict of interests will antagonize bilateral relations in the future.

In Chapter 11, Yann-huei Song examines the impacts of the South China Sea dispute on the U.S. policy towards the region between 2009 and 2014. He first provides a discussion about ASEAN’s institutional approach and then discusses the US concerns and policy responses in the context of the development of US – ASEAN relations. Song posits that the dispute has served to promote closer ties between the US and ASEAN countries, and the US is committed to playing a major role in the South China Sea dispute dialogue process. Song concluded that the US has “benefited from rising tensions in the area, which from the perspective of ASEAN countries, is stimulated by growing Chinese assertiveness in the maritime domain and the rapid modernization of China’s armed forces, particularly the navy” (p.264-65). If the trend continues, Song argues, China’s national interests would be affected negatively in the future.

In Chapter 12, Yoichiro Sato posits that Japan, although it is not a party to the South China Sea dispute, is still an important player because of its strategic and economic interests in the region’s maritime domain. For Japan, the dispute would undermine its strategic and national interests as there is a “nexus” of the South and the East China Sea and Japan have territorial conflicts with China over the Senkaku/Diayu Islands in place. As for the economic perspective, Japan needs to secure the free flow of maritime trade and to prevent tensions from possible armed conflicts in the region. With its security commitments with the US, Japan keeps a close eye on the bilateral and multilateral solutions pertaining to the territorial and maritime boundary disputes in the South China Sea. Sato concludes that with the increasing Chinese assertive policies in the dispute, Tokyo opposes Beijing’s claim, primarily “based on a conventional interpretation of UNCLOS and is underpinned by the U.S. – Japan alliance” (p.284).  

In the concluding chapter Sotrey wraps up and identifies five common themes provided by the contributors in the previous chapters, which are “key to understanding the dispute and anticipating future developments” (p.291). First, all the contributors acknowledged that “the uninterrupted flow of seaborne commerce is vital for the economies of all countries in the region” (p.291). Second, many triggers are leading to the tensions, including rising nationalism over disputed atolls and waters, competition over the living and non-living resources, and the attempts by the various claimants to stake out extended continental shelf claims. The third theme is the growing power asymmetries between China and the countries of Southeast Asia. The fourth theme is the critical importance of the ASEAN – China conflict management process. Finally, the fifth major theme is “the complex legal dimension of the dispute and the importance that all parties abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)” (p.293). Storey concluded that “…if present trends continue, the geopolitical maneuvering between America and China could well determine how the South China Sea dispute develops over the next decade and beyond” (p.295).

To conclude, this book provides an overall pessimistic assessment in the South China Sea dispute, and the main reason is the assertive and bold actions taken by China under the decisive leadership by President Xi Jing-pin. Many authors have expressed concerns about the Chinese advancement of territorial and jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea, such as artificial island-building projects and the extensive infrastructure development on the islands.  

In the Asia-Pacific region, the South China Sea dispute is one of the most complex and critical issues shaping the regional security environment. After four years of publication of the book since 2016, the viewpoints presented in this book are still valid today. Although the relevant parties have attempted to find a solution to the long-standing problem, the result is less than encouraging. Many political, legal and security obstacles still thwart in front of the countries around the South China Sea, making it less possible to mitigate the dispute in the foreseeable future. In particular, the intensifying competition between the U.S. and China has made it unlikely, if not impossible, to make substantial progress on the South China Sea dispute. 

The Displacement of Borders among Russian Koreans in Northeast Asia

Author: Hyun-Gwi Park

ISBN: 978-90-8964-998-0

Publisher: Amsterdam University PressThe Displacement of Borders among Russian Koreans in Northeast Asia

Year: 2018

Price: $115.00

Reviewed by Rustam Khan, History Department, University of Hongkong, Pok Fu Lam, Hongkong

For many, the image of reeds on the cover of a book titled The Displacements of Borders Among Russian Koreans in Northeast Asia may seem to be an odd choice. Yet, for Hyun Gwi Park’s first monograph the image is part of a dualistic metaphor, along with the image of a huge rock, that frequently appeared to herself as well as to her study subjects. Namely, it symbolizes the way how many of her interlocutors remember the past and experience the present of being Koreans in Russia. The rock in their minds epitomizes sentiments associated with “heavy,” “immobile,” and “repressive,” thus referring to the state violence and forceful deportation encountered throughout the twentieth century. Reeds, on the other hand, cling to eye as something “supple,” “scattered,” and “lush,” and consequently embodied the idea of human adaptability to and hard labor in alien and unfriendly environments. Park focuses on and her argument flows out of the latter part of the metaphor. However, the choice was not merely an analytical move to bypass traditional scholarly debates on the relationship between the state and ethnic violence in the Soviet Union. Rather, readers are advised to abandon the perspective of seeing Koreans in Russia as a tight-knitted community, and linked to nicely delineated territories. And, consequently, to avoid viewing their history and social milieus as being penetrated by emotions of grief and anger for their historical displacements from Korea, the Russian Far East (RFE), and Central Asia. Instead, the main running thread that readers should glean from the chapters is to view past and present lives of Russian Koreans through the lens of kinship and family-based networks. In other words, it is their flexible “sociality” that hallmarks their interactions with each other, with the past, and many everyday experiences (from economic occupations to celebrating traditional rituals).

In her monograph, Park presents a historical and ethnographic inquiry into lives of a Korean community that was and is scattered across the aforementioned three regions. Besides the geographical differences, time created other divergences such as between generations and socioeconomic status. The book covers three distinct periods: the late 19th and early 20th century (when Koreans arrived in the RFE from the northern territories of the Choseon dynasty), the mid-1930s until 1956 (their Soviet forceful deportation to Central Asia), and the 1990s and early 2000s (when some but not all returned back to the RFE). Historicizing the lives of these people is not, however, the main goal of Park. Rather, the author explores how Korean kinship relations, identity, and memory over time have been shaped against the backdrop of state violence, nationality policies, the history of socialism and post-socialism, and new opportunities arising after 1991, with migration waves in between. Answers on these questions came from a number field trips after 2000, ethnographic observations, and some archival research.

The first chapter out of five provides a broad historical outline of the Korean question, namely the emergence of a loosely defined Korean community as a socio-historical phenomenon in Tsarist Russia, as well how different representations about them in the RFE began to emerge. Avoiding a traditional historical method, the author looks at how Koreans throughout times have closely been related to the loosening and tightening of the border regime in places where they lived in. Attempts by Tsarist administrators to restrict the ambiguous nature of its borders in the RFE were often set up in relation to the Korean question, such as categorizing ethnicities, providing regulations for settlers, and legal requirements for cross-border traffic. Erecting physical barriers was not enough, and was just one part of the bigger picture. Following the work of Nancy Munn and the concept of “somatic space”, Park tries to show how the governmental regulation of the Korean community was much more based on “interactions between bodily actors and terrestrial spaces.” (p. 58-59) As a side note, Park fetches sometimes interesting details to support her claims. So, for example, it turned out that many of the 19th and 20th Russian settlers in the region quickly came to see the RFE as a “sickly child,” to metaphorically describe the alien and harsh conditions for agricultural cultivation. For Koreans, however, the RFE was “the biological mother” and “an extension of the northern part of Korea from whence they had originated.” (p. 61)

The second chapter, then, seeks to unravel different aspects of migration waves occurring after 1956 (when travel restrictions on Koreans in Central Asia were lifted), but the stress is put on events happening during the 1990s and early 2000s. The author wants to understand how relationships between older and younger generations of Koreans, and socioeconomic opportunities have come to define one’s identity. In particular, she pushes back against the general tendency amongst academics and policy-makers to see migration as a unitary phenomenon with common denominators such as push versus pull factors, political versus economic, or structural versus personal. It would be better, Park argues, to leave aside the oppositional perspectives on migration, and rather take the kinship and family ties as central to understand “ethnic migration.” In particular, multiple differences existed in the timing, motivations (e.g. some returned to find a lost sense of belonging, others for employment prospects), and in the types of communities (i.e. there were Russian Koreans, Chinese Koreans, and seasonal workers). But the 1990s also proved to be seriously challenging, when migration and citizenship laws made permanent residence hard to attain, or when local Russians resented the arrival of Koreans through exclusionary practices and stigmatization.

The third chapter looks at how agricultural practices and mobility within the political economy during and after the Soviet era was a significant medium through which a transformation of self-identification amongst Koreans occurred. In particular, it starts off with a closer look at what it meant for many “to be hard-working,” a frequently-invocated identity trait amongst Russian Koreans. Thus, Park assumes that “hard working” became “the normative criterion for one’s behaviour or approach to life” and “how this trait of Koreans’ work ethic was naturalized within the historical specificity of Soviet socialism.” Park, following the recent work on Stakhanovite ideology, emphasizes how the appropriation of this self-identification was even more acute amongst those nationalities and communities in the Soviet Union that endured stigmatizations as “enemy nations.” The author’s mission in this chapter is, then, to understand how the Stakhanovite state ideology not only manifested itself amongst Russian Koreans, but also how it furtively consolidated itself through cultural devices (such as rice cultivation, or the gobonjil system). Park keeps away from assuming that the state doctrinairely and forcefully imposed such ideologies on its subjects. (p. 116-118)

Following up on new forms of subsistence economy that emerged at the end of the previous century, the next chapter examines how domestic livelihood activities too were imbued with kinship and gender realities. Departing from Levi-Strauss’ “house society” (an essential pillar to understand human societies), Park wants to demonstrate that the example of the “greenhouse” exemplifies a projection of the “male-gendered  person, which is an objectified form of the moral values of samostoiatel’nost’ of each household,” but it only when it too is connected to the “female centred indoor space of the house.” (p. 141-142) To put it otherwise, Park views in the cultivation of vegetables by Russian Koreans a manifestation of a moral code, centred on the male, who embodies the virtues such as making sacrifices for the family and the wider kinship circle. This also finds resonance in “inter-domestic spaces as manifested by acts of exchange in hospitality […] where women stand central.” (p. 178) The final chapter extends the analysis of Korean sociality within a spatial context, but puts public space central: the Korean House in Ussuriisk. Instead of looking at personal and domestic relationships, the Korean House is used a case-study to understand political changes in post-Soviet space, and how the meaning of Korean collectivity and diaspora politics have been articulated.

Despite its merits, certain drawbacks hamper the overall argument and presentation of the monograph. The title seems to be the most obvious one: while it refers to a study about Russian Koreans in Northeast Asia, it remains rather a Russia-centred study (not the least because the field research has been done in very particular places in the RFE). References to the Korean peninsula, Manchuria, and to a lesser extent Japan, make their occasional but unsubstantial appearances. Readers will find quite a bit of interesting information about the late 19th century and early 20th century, but the period between 1956 and 1990s is constituted by an awkward silence. Archival research the State Archive of the Primorksii Krai or the Russian Federal Archive of the Far East may have eased this. There are too some occasional transcription slips, though it is not clear whether on Park’s or her interlocutors’ part. Examples are po lichnoi prichine (not prichnoi) on p.103, semeynyi sovet (not semmonyi) on p. 89, or uslugi (not uslogi) on p. 104.

Based on this review, one may rightly feel that the first three chapters come in as the strongest because they provide a better sense of direction. Park shows in detail how “Koreans’ internal displacement resulted in a highly flexible economic life based on widespread mobile agriculture and collective, kinship-based temporary groups,” as well as how horizontal (over genealogical) and de-territorialized kinship relations have come to occupy a prominent place. The latter two parts, however, take a more nebulous position within the larger framework of the book. While they exemplify how earlier kinship observations play out in domestic and public spaces, they also show how many of Park’s lively insights are indeed interspersed over the five chapters. The issue here is that readers could fail to notice this monograph’s contributions, which does much to underscore the salience of kinship in social relations. It would be thus helpful if the author could have mentioned earlier in the book how kinship is specifically understood, employed, and how it connects her ethnographic and historical research. An overview of how her book fits within the longer trend of kinship studies and anthropology would surely have helped the reader to enjoy the intellectual ride. Finally, Park is clearly a prolific reader in Russian and English secondary literature and well-versed in various sociological, historical, and anthropological strands of scholarship (with names ranging from James C. Scott, Simmel, Bourdieu, and De Certeau amongst others). While advantageous in some respects, pulling the reader into multiple directions while not pursuing all of them entirely can sometimes have a disorienting effect for unacquainted scholars and general readership.

Nonetheless, readers will be thankful for its merits. Hyun Gwi Park’s monograph is a thought-provoking and welcome read for specialists and non-specialists alike. It introduces to us a history of and a present-day insight into the life of a transnational diaspora in places that have thus far been the field of (Russian-speaking) regionalists. Through its study of a seemingly peripheral Korean community in Russia, Park engaged with larger English historiographical debates, such as on the Soviet nationality policies, memory and life of (post-)socialist generations, and kinship studies in anthropology.

Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia (4th edition)

Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia (4th edition)

Editors: Joseph Chinyong LiowDictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia

Publisher: Routledge

Year: 2015

Pages: pp. 429

Price: £. 38.99 $59.95 (pbck)

ISBN: 978-0415625326

Reviewed by Kai Chen, School of International Relations, Xiamen University, China

Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia (4th edition) draws on a wide array of sources to provide a thorough list of important figures, organizations, and events in the political history of the Southeast Asian countries (i.e., Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam) since the Second World War.

In general, the dictionary is divided into two parts. The first part is composed of 11 essays, which outline the basic facts of each Southeast Asian country. Scholars and lay readers alike will find the essays useful, if their use of the essays is primarily to access brief summaries of the political dynamics of the Southeast Asian countries. The second part of the dictionary has over 350 entries, which would not only satisfy anyone who consults this dictionary, but also benefit both advanced scholars and students of Southeast Asian studies. Moreover, the list of further reading and index are also valuable.

There are no doubt more improvements that could be made to the dictionary, and the reviewer hopes that the editor will welcome any constructive suggestions or comments that reviewers and readers care to offer. To a Chinese reviewer, there is an omission in the dictionary. In page 189, the dictionary said, “China launched a punitive military expedition into northern Vietnam in February 1979”. frankly speaking, the term “punitive” is a misnomer and has inevitably gained a negative connotation. In 1979, China launched “self-defence actions” against Vietnam, when China’s “paramount national interests were involved” (Zhang 2005, p.862). The nature of the war was a “self-defensive counter-attack.” It was “limited in time and space,” and also limited to the ground fighting— similar to the Sino-Indian border war of 1962. No naval or air forces would be used (Chen 1983, p.240). if the editor would take the above-mentioned arguments into account, the entries related with China’s War Against Vietnam in 1979, would be more enlightened and inclusive.

Overall, however, Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia is a concise, and enlightening resource that captures the breadth and depth of the dynamics of Southeast Asian politics in modern era. It should be a valuable reading for anyone interested in the history of political history of Southeast Asian countries. It also deserves a place within the larger literature on Southeast Asian contemporary history. Readers should feel that there is much to learn. It would have a long shelf life, and certainly be helpful to have a copy on hand.

1. CHEN, K.C. 1983, “China’s War Against Vietnam, 1979: A Military Analysis”, The Journal of East Asian Affairs, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 233-263.
2. Zhang, X. 2005, “China’s 1979 War with Vietnam: A Reassessment”, The China Quarterly, vol. 184, no. 184, pp. 851-874.

China Engages Global Governance: A New World Order in the Making?

China Engages Global Governance

Author(s): Gerald Chan, Pak K. Lee and Lai-Ha Chan

ISBN:          978-0-415-55713-9

Publisher: Routledge

Year:          2012

Price:         $155,00

Reviewed by Jinhua Li, Lecturer, University of North Carolina Asheville, USA.

The implication and impact of the rise of China have become the center of both scholarly studies and popular media discussions since the beginning of the twenty-first century. China’s increasing involvement in global society is especially keenly felt when traditional world powers such as the United States and European Union are tarnished by economic recessions since 2009. With its rapid economic development and active involvement in international affairs, China is exerting a global influence that is influencing the existing world order in every aspect. It is beyond dispute, therefore, that China has firmly integrated itself into a world order that is in transition through its interactions with various international institutions.

The assessment and prediction on China’s role in an increasingly globalized world have been ambivalent, if not polarizing. One of the main contentions among China scholars and international policy-makers is to what degree is China powerful. In other words, although many economists cite China’s aggressive economic development in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) and annual growth rates, which have maintained above 9% in the past decade, as evidences for China’s superpower status, we must not forget that when we look at its per capita income, China shares nothing in common with developed countries. So, are we overestimating China’s prowess by regarding it as a developed country and imposing responsibilities and duties that are not compatible with its power status? To further complicate the issue of China’s global position, we must also acknowledge the rise of China and conceptualize how its ascension to international significance impacts the world order. That is, even when no consensus on China’s global power status has been achieved, there is little dispute that China has indeed become much more powerful than a few decades ago, and a world order without China’s active participation is unimaginable. Thus, what changes will a rising China bring?

Gerald Chan, Pak K. Lee and Lai-Ha Chan’s China Engages Global Governance: A New World Order in the Making? provides valuable insights on these questions with comprehensive and innovative investigation of China’s involvement in global governance, which is defined as “how global problems are handled and how global order and stability can be ensured, in the absence of an overarching authority or world government to regulate” (p.8). By taking China’s changed demands and aspirations as variables to the shaping of a new world order, this book breaks new grounds for future studies on China and globalism by moving away from previous scholarship’s focus on the bi-lateral dynamics of Sino-US/Sino-West relations and adopting an interdisciplinary method that bridges the fields of China Studies and International Relations. In particular, China Engages Global Governance seeks to understand the status and role of China in the contemporary world through its interactions with multiple transnational regimes and systems, on different levels, regarding issues of global magnitude.

Claimed to be the first scholarly endeavor that studies how China engages in global governance, this book sets out to solve two major questions surrounding this issue: “how powerful China is in terms of providing viable solutions to various global issues; and what the resultant world order would be in the wake of China’s rise” (p. 5). These two questions are in turn further broken down into three clusters of questions, the first of which sets up the parameters of this investigation by defining what global governance means and how to assess China’s involvement in global governance. The second cluster of questions looks into the opportunities and challenges that China faces as it aspires to be a stronger power in world affairs, and the last cluster deals with potential outcomes of China’s rise in the reconfiguration of world power dynamics. Together, these clusters of questions move from a theoretic framework within which China’s international status is examined to more specific and detailed studies on different aspects of China’s developments that determine its global engagement. They create a very effective structure that enables general readers as well as the experts to grasp how and why the study is conducted in such a manner. Specifically, the chapters are also arranged in a corresponding order: the first two chapters expound the concept of global governance and the Chinese understanding on it, and the following chapters each deals with one specific aspect of China’s activities in its security areas, both in the traditional realm, such as “peace and security, world trade and finance, human rights and humanitarian intervention,” and in relatively newer areas, including “environmental protection, public health, food safety, energy security, and transnational organized crime” (p. 7).

What is especially enlightening is Engages Global Governance’s lucid explanation on how China understands global governance. Exploring the Chinese perspective on global governance proves to be significant in several aspects. First of all, this provides a fuller picture in the current investigation, in the sense that the concept of global governance becomes mediated and constantly negotiated. It is crucial, therefore, for us to remember that there will always be disagreement and discrepancy between China and other international parties and organizations on many issues, and only when this is acknowledged can we seek common grounds in dealing with these issues. Secondly, understanding how China interprets global governance promises to explain how China imagines its involvement and assesses its participation in different areas. This enables a historicized exploration for China’s peaceful rising foreign policy, whose justification should be understood within the context of China’s long cultural tradition, which helps to explain China’s “concern about the ulterior motives behind the Western efforts to promote global governance” (p. 38).  Furthermore, this serves as a context and background on which the book’s analyses and assessments of China’s participation on global governance should be understood. For example, because “China’s approach to global governance remains fundamentally state-centric” (p. 37), it is typically reluctant to deal with non-government international organizations in equal footings with foreign governments in its handling of world affairs, so “China is often accused of intransigence” (p.38). Thus, this illuminating chapter is strategically structured to promote an unbiased and balanced study.

The eight body chapters, each of which examines one aspect of China’s engagement in global governance, adopt a comparative method that evaluates China’s participation and efforts through its relations with international governments and non-government organizations. Each chapter follows a very navigable structure that first explains the scope of the chapter and the focuses of the assessment and after careful examination and close analyses of relevant, up-to-date data and evidences, evaluations and assessments on China’s performance are included at the end of each chapter to summarize the findings. Thus, each chapter serves both as a separate investigation in their own right as well as a part of a much bigger study.

Just as the benefit of this structure is obvious, the inadequacy is also quite evident: each chapter works in relative isolation rather than as parts of an organic whole. In other words, while the issue of China’s engagement in global governance is multi-faceted, intricately inter-connected, and inter-dependent, these aspects are not discussed with a global vision within the scope of the book. For instance, both public health and food safety could be addressed vis-à-vis the situation in human rights and finance and trade, and humanitarian intervention is closely connected with transnational organized crime. These intersections of China’s global engagement could bring more in-depth exploration on China’s increasingly influence over a new world order that is gradually taking shape.

The assessment and evaluation on China’s participatory performance in these areas measure China’s benefits from its position within the global order against the amount of global public goods China provides. So, to put it in over-simplifying terms, if China gains more than it provides, then it does not fulfill its duty and responsibility as an increasingly powerful and wealthy nation. Drawing on the conclusion of the book, it is evident that China has yet to provide global public goods in all areas to fully measure up to its political and economic status. This is especially explicitly expressed in the area of public health, which receives the harshest evaluation among all examined areas. The chapter “finds China fails to support the developing world adequately in tackling the spread of HIV/AIDS” (p. 124). Specifically, it only “pays lip service to Africa’s calls for extending access to essential HIV/AIDS medicine to ailing patients in the continent” (p. 124). Thus, China is suspected of taking free-rides to global health, meaning that it enjoys the benefits of global public health cooperation without providing commensurate contributions to it.

China Engages Global Governance proves to be a timely study that illuminates China’s present globalization focus and efforts within an increasingly borderless world. Its focus on food safety serves as an excellent example of its well-timed publication. If one pays close attention to China’s recent socio-economic happenings, one would recognize food safety as one of the primary concerns in public health. In fact, it is mentioned in a prominent position in Chairman Hu’s report at the just closed eighteenth CPC National Congress. To further reveal the impact of this issue, China Engages Global Governance devotes an entire chapter on food safety to underscore the significance of this security area not only domestically, but also across national borders. As a result of increasing concerns over food safety and industrial standards, China creates the State Council Food Safety Commission at the highest administrative level and adopts a top-down approach in establishing laws and regulations. However, such a state-centric approach severely limits the involvement of other parties in a variety of levels, and “as a result of which its food governance is also primarily focused at the national level” (p. 140).

In conclusion, China Engages Global Governance expresses cautious optimism and modest hopefulness in China’s rise and its growing power in global governance, believing that they “should be welcomed as they may provide greater diversity and great stability in global development”, but such advantages might be offset by the danger of “a low level of global collective action” (p. 184). As China continues to seek greater say in global governance and exerts bigger influences in the rule-making process with international affairs, this conclusive remark reminds the readers that like it or not, China is already a part of global governance, but how significant its role is in the making of the new world order remains to be determined.

Suggested citation: 

Jinhua Li (2013). Review of “China Engages Global Governance: A New World Order in the Making?”, edited by Gerald Chan, Pak K. Lee and Lai-Ha Chan, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 6, no. 12 , Internet file: