Multilateral Constraints on Chinese Behavior in South China Sea Territorial Disputes

55 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2020

See all articles by Timothy R. McDade

Timothy R. McDade

Duke University, Department of Political Science

Date Written: March 10, 2020


Why have the bargaining strategies of the interested states in South China Sea (SCS) territorial disputes changed over time? To date, scholarship has analyzed states’ overall strategies towards the SCS, domestic determinants of bargaining strategies, and China’s remarkable growth and unique position in the world system. But what about international constraints on crisis bargaining? This paper will argue that China’s willingness to engage in restrained negotiating behavior during the bargaining process is constrained by the degree to which it is accountable to the international institutional status quo and the financial system that supports it. China’s decision to exercise restraint in bargaining passes through two analytical dimensions: an assessment of its power relative to neighbors and an analysis of the costs and benefits of defying multilateral institutions. My theory predicts unrestrained, more aggressive bargaining when relative power is high and the state in question is decreasingly accountable to international multilateral institutions. Using case studies and historical sources, this paper finds that restraint in bargaining behavior in the South China Sea from the 1970s to the present is directly related to relative power and the extent to which China’s behavior is constrained by its accountability to international multilateral institutions. These findings are applicable to academics and policymakers considering the engagement between countries and the world order.

Keywords: China, South China Sea, bargaining, multilateral, institution, international, order, territorial, disputes, claimant, UNCLOS, power, accountability

Suggested Citation

McDade, Timothy, Multilateral Constraints on Chinese Behavior in South China Sea Territorial Disputes (March 10, 2020). Duke Global Working Paper Series No. 19, Available at SSRN: or

Timothy McDade (Contact Author)

Duke University, Department of Political Science ( email )

Durham, NC 27708
United States

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