Limits of Realism in Understanding Chinese Land Reclamation

Joy (Zhiruo) Wang

Written for Prof. Steven David’s Contemporary International Politics class

Prompt: Realism was arguably the dominant approach in international relations during the Cold War. But is it still relevant in today’s world? Select an issue that threatens world stability today (e.g. terrorism, the spread of nuclear weapons, cyber warfare, the rise of China) and discuss how relevant Realism is in understanding that issue. Where Realism falls short, what other approaches would help?

Throughout human history, territory has remained one of the most fought over assets by nations and individuals alike. Indeed, nearly all warfare involves some form of territorial dispute or adjustment. The Thirty Years’ War, a religious war at its core, can also be viewed as a struggle for territorial domination between Protestant and Catholic states; the Cold War, though not a war in the traditional sense, to a large extent consisted of a race for incorporating unaligned territories into established spheres of influence.

Thus, given the political significance of territory, it is not surprising that, after China initiated its land reclamation projects in the South China Sea in 2014, the international community reacted with great anxiety and protest. According to the US Department of Defense, between early 2014 and mid-2015 China had reclaimed around 3,000 acres in the South China Sea.1 The large scale of China’s reclamation efforts not only exacerbated existing regional tension, as China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines lay overlapping claims to the islands in this area, but also provoked American objection on grounds of violation of international law.2 Considering the volumes of their GDPs, any conflict between China and the US has the potential to wreak havoc on global economy. In addition, if China engages in territorial wars with its neighbors, particularly the Philippines, the Mutual Defense Treaty may drag the US into war with China; the consequences of such a confrontation would be unimaginable given both countries’ conventional and nuclear capabilities. Therefore, China’s island building activities in the South China Sea pose a great threat to world stability. The following essay seeks to address the situation in a theoretical framework. I shall use realism to analyze the rationale behind China’s recent land reclamation and then offer alternative approaches where realism falls short. I shall conclude that while realism accounts for a large portion of China’s motivations, first and second level analysis, constructivism and feminism help explain the timing, magnitude and issue of alternatives of this event.

Since realism is an important analytical tool in this paper, I shall first introduce the basic tenets and assumptions of realism. Virtually all realists believe that humans live in a bleak world where might equals right—human nature is rotten and morality means little more than hypothetical naivete. According to Mearsheimer, realism has five fundamental assumptions about the international system: (1) the international system is characterized by anarchy (2) all states have some sort of offensive capabilities (3) states can never be sure of each other’s intentions (4) survival is the ultimate goal of states (5) states are rational.3 In a realist world interest is defined in terms of power, so regardless of their leaders, cultures, or internal structures, states facing the same power distribution will react the same way to the same stimulus. Because the international system is anarchic, meaning there is no such thing as a world government to arbitrate injustice, states can only rely on themselves for help, so security always remains their top priority.

Offensive realism sheds light on China’s mentality behind island construction. Offensive realism, as set forth by John Mearsheimer, argues that states will always seek to increase their power because only primacy guarantees security.4 It predicts that states will never cease to expand where expansion is possible since power is a zero-sum game. From an offensive realist perspective, China sees all other countries as potential threats as it can never be sure of their intentions and can only depend on itself. Thus, the best way for China to ensure its survival would be to become the most powerful state on the global stage, thereby both deterring and preempting attacks by hostile states. In this case, China does not pursue a limited regional goal but the ambitious aim of global hegemony. Empirical evidence attests to the validity of the offensive realist view. After the completion of land reclamation in the Spratlys in 2015, China claimed to have ended its island building activities in the South China Sea. However, recent satellite photos of the Tree Island and the North Island, both disputed territories, clearly demonstrate China’s unwillingness to curb its artificial island construction.5 Therefore, despite China’s official rhetoric of having concluded land reclamation three years ago, it still secretly seeks to enlarge its land holdings in the South China Sea and has shown no sign of ending such efforts. In addition, China’s continued expansion southward corresponds to its attempts at increasing its economic influence westward, as symbolized by the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, and at projecting its power in Latin America and Africa through loans and infrastructure building. One can argue that China’s continued push into the South China Sea is simply part of its grand scheme of global domination, which also fits the developmental trajectory prescribed by offensive realism. Thus, offensive realism offers insights into China’s continuous land reclamation by examining its fundamental insecurity in an anarchic world.

Defensive realism shares many of the same beliefs as offensive realism, but believes that excessive power will bring about the fall of the expanding state; the rationale, according to Kenneth Waltz, is that if a state becomes too powerful, other states would feel threatened and would band together to either destroy the aggressor state or restore it to its original power capacity.6 In this case, states do not expand unprovoked, but rather as a response to changing distribution of power since acquiring too much power and thereby upsetting the balance of power would only threaten their security more. Therefore, based on defensive realism, China’s push into the South China Sea was not self-initiated but simply a reaction to escalating security challenges in the region; it will cease expanding once it feels that it has gained enough power to counterbalance the new security threats. Broader historical context of the South China Sea disputes proves defensive realism to be on the side of truth. Contrary to popular assumption, China is in fact the latecomer to the land reclamation game. The Philippines had reclaimed on the Palawan Island and Vietnam has added to Sand Cay and West London Reef 21,000 and 65,000 square meters respectively since 2010.7 Increased territories in the South China Sea means increased military outposts and increased ability to claim more islands in disputed areas, which threatens China’s sovereignty. Therefore, given Vietnam’s island building in the disputed Spratly Islands, China perceived a rise in the relative power of its competitors and had to increase its own power in the region. Defensive realism predicts that China will eventually stop its expansion even though China has yet to slow down land reclamation. This is because as China builds up more capabilities in the region through the construction of airstrips and marine bases on the new artificial islands, so too do its hostile neighbors. Thus, China still feels insecure and will continue to expand until it restores the perceived balance of power to the previous status quo.

Omnibalancing, as developed by Steven David, agrees with realism on the prominence of interest and power, but argues that in a developing country the balance of power occurs not on the international level but on the state level. In the developing world, sometimes the biggest threats to the government are not from other states but rather from domestic dissent and unrest (e.g. military coup d’etat or riots). Therefore, to stay in power, countries leaders may choose foreign policies that are not in the best interest of the state but diffuse domestic tension.8 In the case of China, omnibalancing would contend that China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea is merely a diversion from domestic discontent with the government. China is an authoritarian regime without free election, so the only source of government legitimacy comes from its ability to keep the people satisfied. In a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2015, government corruption tops the list, with 84% respondents considering it a big problem and 44% a very big problem; more than 50% of people believe that air/water pollution, food safety, and income inequality will stay the same or get worse over the next 5 years.9 In 2010 alone, China witnessed 180,000 protests, demonstrations, and riots.10 These data reveal a low level of confidence for the government, so diverting domestic discontent with battling foreign encroachment on sovereignty — that is, the territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines — through island building would allow the Communist leadership to recover its image among the public. A survey in 2013 further confirms the validity of the omnibalancing argument: around 60% of people pay attention to China’s maritime disputes and the majority think that China’s claims are absolutely correct.11

However, despite its immense explanatory power, realism cannot account for the full story of China’s land reclamation. First, it does not explain the timing of the reclamation. Territorial disputes and “island squatting” have existed since the 1970s while Vietnam started land reclamation in 2010, so why did China suddenly decide to build artificial islands in 2014 as opposed to, say, 2011? Second, realism does not fully explain the magnitude of China’s reclamation efforts. Granted, China felt the need to catch up with its competitors, namely Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, in the game of artificial island construction, but the scale of China’s project dwarfed that of all the others combined: 100 acres over 45 years compared to 3,000 acres over 2 years.12 Defensive realism justifies China’s rationale for initiating and continuing land reclamation, but it does not tell us why China perceives such a big threat from its adversaries’ expansion of a mere 100 acres. Third, island building was not the only viable response for China; negotiations, binding treaties, UN arbitration, or international law were all possible alternatives. Admittedly, omnibalancing necessitates the creation of a common enemy, but asserting national sovereignty does not entail escalating tension; victory over the Paracel Islands in an international court would rally as much national sentiment as would through military buildup. Therefore, in the face of land reclamation by hostile states, why did China decide to resort to the traditional tools of power politics instead of the modern norm of peaceful resolution of conflicts? In the following sections, I shall explain how first and second level analysis, constructivism and feminism answer the questions that realism evades.

First level analysis focuses on the natures of individual leaders as the cause for historical events. In this case, it explains the timing of China’s island building activities. In 2013, China witnessed the ascension of Xi Jinping, arguably the most authoritarian and reactionary leader after Mao, to the presidency. Both a “princeling” and a “second-generation red” by birth, Xi Jinping had a very unusual upbringing that greatly shaped his view of China. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was among the first generation of Communist revolutionaries that fought alongside Mao and later became the vice premier of the PRC and secretary general of the State Council. As a result, Xi grew up in the exclusive “Zhongnanhai” with the children of other first-generation Communist leaders and with countless tales of the revolution.13 However, in 1962, Xi Zhongxun was purged on grounds of “acting counterrevolutionary.” At the height of the Cultural Revolution, the charge “counterrevolutionary” was such a taboo that the young Xi Jinping was automatically ostracized by virtue of his lineage. Thus, given his childhood immersion in Maoist ideals and teenage experience with brutal politics, it is not surprising that Xi Jinping later became the most authoritarian president after Mao. Foreign policy under Xi has been markedly more assertive than under previous leaders, especially in regards to Sino-Japanese relations and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.14 Therefore, Xi’s “election” to the presidency in 2013 explains why China suddenly turned to land reclamation, a gesture of increased assertiveness in the region, in early 2014.

Second level analysis posits states at the center of causation, citing states’ internal culture and structure as the reason behind particular outcomes. It addresses the issue of magnitude in both China’s island building activities and its perception of threat. It is true that the construction of artificial islands would strengthen China’s ability to project its military power at sea, thereby thwarting its adversaries’ attempts to occupy more disputed territories, but reclaiming over 3,000 acres of land seems to be somewhat of an overreaction given the comparatively insignificant size of the other countries’ reclamation projects. So, the question is, why did China perceive such a disproportionate threat from the small increase in territory by Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines? China, or in its native language the “Middle Kingdom,” had always been the absolute dominant power in East Asia until the 19th century. For many Chinese people, the memory of humiliation at the hands of foreigners is still fresh and evokes a strong sense of patriotism. A traditionally nationalist society, the Chinese people to this day still mourn the massive land concessions granted to foreign powers under the Qing Dynasty; a survey from 2013 showed that 83% of people in China see the South China Sea disputes as a continuation of the “Century of Humiliation.”15 As one can see, the Chinese people attach a special emotional significance to the concept of sovereignty, making them inflate the value of territory in an age where territory has been rendered less important by the advancement of technology. Thus, even though land reclamation itself may not carry so much strategic value as to be worth risking international condemnation and spending billions of dollars, the historical and cultural importance of upholding sovereignty makes the Chinese government willing to go the extra mile when it comes to territorial integrity.

According to Alexander Wendt, constructivism is an approach to world politics from a social perspective and has two fundamental claims: (1) the structures of international politics are social rather than purely material (2) these structures influence not only states’ behaviors but their identities and interests as well.16 Stripped to its essence, constructivism argues that states with different values and ideologies will perceive, or “socially construct,” the same reality differently and will therefore act differently. This explains why China resorted to land reclamation instead of other more peaceful alternatives when confronted with hostile expansion. China is an authoritarian regime that does not endorse liberal values such as tolerance, rule of law and peaceful resolution of conflicts in its domestic policies; rather, Chinese politics is characterized by purge of dissidents, forceful repression of demonstrations, corruption, abuse of power and ostracization based on lineage or association. The elements of violence, intolerance, distrust, and ruthlessness inherent in Chinese domestic politics shape the lens through which Chinese politicians see the international system, portrayed as a grim world where only old-school Realpolitik provides means of survival. Therefore, the pessimist values fostered by China’s domestic political system translate into its disbelief in modern liberal norms that advocate for international cooperation and resolution of conflicts through negotiation and compromise; the fact that China rejected completely the Hague Tribunal’s ruling on South China Sea disputes testifies the dominance of power politics over liberal international norms in Chinese foreign policy. Thus, given China’s realist ideology, expanding China’s military capability in the region would be the best response to its neighbors’ rise in relative power and land reclamation was deemed a viable option.

International relations is arguably a man’s world, dominated by masculine modes of thinking. This is certainly true given that in the US women had been barred from entry until very recently and sex discrimination still abounds.17 Feminist theory believes that women tend to define power in terms of the ability to cooperate (as opposed to the masculine definition of control over others) and discern more opportunities for toleration and coalition-building in spite of differences; this is because females often rely on persuasion and shared understanding in solving domestic disputes and are therefore socialized into a more contextual, narrative-based mode of analysis.18 As a result, feminists argue that global politics would look much different if women were national leaders. This feminist interpretation explains the magnitude and aggressiveness of China’s land reclamation. Despite its communist egalitarian ideals, China is in fact a deeply sexist society. Structurally, the mandatory retirement age for female government workers, including those employed in state-owned enterprises and public universities, is 50 or 55 while the male equivalent is 60.19 This differential treatment not only impedes women’s ability to achieve high leadership positions as most government officials only reach the highest ranks in their 60s, but also perpetuates the gender stereotype that women are less physically vigorous than men. As of now, there are no women in the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision-making unit in China, and only one woman in the 25-member Politburo, the next rung after the Politburo Standing Committee.20 Therefore, the lack of female contribution to policies can be construed as the reason why China chose to pursue a more militaristic response (island building) instead of seeking cooperation and a larger scale of operation since males tend to perceive more threats than females and to think in terms of sheer strength as opposed to persuasion.

Overall, realism explains a significant part of China’s rationale for land reclamation as relative power and military capability did factor heavily into its calculation. However, first and second level analysis, constructivism and feminism elucidate components that realism fails to incorporate: (1) land reclamation itself as a viable strategy (2) its timing in 2014 and (3) its tremendous scale. This is because realism fails to acknowledge the influence that a state’s culture, structure and history exert on shaping interests and identities and the lenses through which it receives and interprets external realities. Therefore, to fully understand the issue of land reclamation in the South China Sea, a simple look at the balance of power would not suffice; meticulous attention must be paid to the particular circumstances of the countries involved. Peaceful resolution of this conflict depends on an impartial synthesis of different approaches and one day we may hope to see a South China Sea characterized by tranquility and cooperation.


1. Terri Moon Cronk, “Pacom Chief: China,” U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, July 24, 2015, , accessed December 08, 2017.

2. ​Katie Hunt, “Showdown in the South China Sea: How did we get here?” CNN, August 02, 2016, , accessed December 08, 2017.

3. ​John J. Mearsheimer, ​The tragedy of Great Power politics(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 30-32.

4. John J. Mearsheimer, ​The tragedy of Great Power politics(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 21.

5. ​”Land reclamation photos show areas contested by China, Vietnam – Palace,” Cnn, , accessed December 08, 2017.

6. John J. Mearsheimer, ​The tragedy of Great Power politics(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 18-20.

7. Carl Thayer, “No, China Is Not Reclaiming Land in the South China Sea,” The Diplomat, June 09, 2015, accessed December 08, 2017.

8. ​Daniel W. Drezner, “Perspective | Trump, Russia and omnibalancing,” The Washington Post, June 15, 2017, accessed December 08, 2017.

9. ​Richard Wike and Bridget Parker, “Corruption, Pollution, Inequality Are Top Concerns in China,” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, September 24, 2015, accessed December 08, 2017.

10. ​Max Fisher, “How China Stays Stable Despite 500 Protests Every Day,” The Atlantic, January 05, 2012.

11. Andrew Chubb, “Nationalism and Chinese public opinion,” China Policy Institute: Analysis, February 03, 2015, accessed December 08, 2017.

12. Katie Hunt, “Showdown in the South China Sea: How did we get here?” CNN, August 02, 2016, accessed December 08, 2017.

13. Elizabeth Yuan, “Xi Jinping: ‘Princeling’ to China’s president,” CNN, March 14, 2013, accessed December 08, 2017.

14. ​Rush Doshi, “Analysis | Xi Jinping just made it clear where China’s foreign policy is headed,” The Washington Post, October 25, 2017, accessed December 08, 2017.

15. ​Eric Fish, “Why Does China Care So Much About Uninhabited Islands?” The Atlantic, July 11, 2016, accessed December 08, 2017.

16. ​Alexander Wendt, “Constructing International Politics,” ​International Security20, no. 1 (1995): 71-72.

17. Ann Tickner, “Hans Morgenthau’s Principles of Political Realism: A Feminist Reformulation (1988),” International Theory, 1995, 429.

18. Ann Tickner, “Hans Morgenthau’s Principles of Political Realism: A Feminist Reformulation (1988),” International Theory,1995, 432-34.

19. ​Yazhou Sun, “Why China has so few female leaders,” CNN, October 25, 2017, accessed December 08, 2017.

20. ​Cheng Li, “China’s new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee,” Brookings, November 28, 2017, accessed December 08, 2017.