China’s policy discourse power in oceans governance

My research seeks to have a better understanding of China’s ambition in oceans governance. In my reading of Chinese scholarly literature, the term ‘policy discourse power’ (话语权) seldom comes to my mind. In this blog post, I introduce few articles (all written in Chinese), which suggest how do Chinese scholars understand the concept and apply it in oceans governance.

Note: In the field, people regard most Chinese academic journals are unauthoritative or poorly written. They are either methodologically weak or consist of politicised arguments. However, the articles that I have selected are published in leading journals in China, which are relatively more reliable sources.

Article: The weakness of maritime discourse and China’s strong maritime power strategy

This article was published in Forum of World Economics & Politics, a leading international relations journal in China, in 2014. It is one of the earliest publications in China that discusses about China’s maritime strategy in relations to policy discourse power. The authors argue that the existing maritime order is monopolised by western sea power, predominantly the United States. As a result, China has been in a passive position in maritime affairs, especially in territorial disputes. Therefore, as a rising sea power, the authors suggest that China should have the capacity to shape mechanisms, rules and norms in oceans.

Here, the authors describe policy discourse power from a legal perspective – as in how to play around the rules in a game. They suggest that China should strive for its maritime power through legitimate platform. They discuss different aspect of it, including the right of speech in maritime affairs and the status in regional or international maritime institutions. Remarkably, they do not view policy discourse power as the core element of China’s maritime power. Instead, it accompanies with naval capability and China’s strong maritime economy. Overall, the article does not suggest what exactly the Chinese government trying to achieve, but it is more about raising the awareness of policy discourse power in the discussion of China’s maritime strategy.

Article: China-US strategic competition and its implications to China’s South China Sea policy discourse

Professor Feng Zhu is a well-known international relations scholar who researches on China’s South China Sea policy. This article was published in 2020 – somewhat at the ice point of US-China relationship. Zhu and his co-author discuss about China’s policy discourse power under the context of great power rivalry, using the South China Sea as a case study. They suggest policy discourse power as the capacity to promote China’s rationality, legitimacy (and legality) in maritime issues, particularly in the South China Sea. This is based on the assumption that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea is legitimate, but it does not gain support from the international community because China has always been framed as the villain by the United States. Therefore, policy discourse power helps China to gain better understanding from other countries, and thereby win their heart.

It seems that Zhu’s understanding of policy discourse power focuses on ‘discourse’ rather than ‘power’. Specifically, he looks at how China could better clarify its policy and persuade others. From his perspective, there is nothing wrong with China’s policy. Instead, it is more about how it is being framed and promoted. To many western scholars and countries in Southeast Asia, this has already been a poor assumption. However, we should understand his perspective through the lens of great power competition. More broadly, the article is written in order for China to be more equal to the United States in the international order.

Article: China’s role in reforming the global ocean governance system

This is one of the well-cited articles in China about oceans governance, published in 2021. The article does not particularly discuss China’s perspective on policy discourse power in oceans governance. Rather, it outlines limitation of existing oceans governance mechanism, such as being fragmented, the lack of implementation, outdated clauses, and power imbalance. Then, the author suggest how China can involve in reforming the system. Policy discourse power, apparently, is one of the tools for China to initiate those reforms.

Frankly, the author has made fair criticism to the global ocean governance system. In fact, Chinese scholars have studied international maritime laws and institutions very well. However, when they try to fix the problem, their suggestions are not as constructive. Many of them are making statements to align with the Communist Party’s rhetoric, and claim that they are oceans governance with Chinese characteristics.

This article has the same problem. The author has highlighted China’s important role as a reformer in oceans governance. However, how to achieve the goal remains unclear. For example, his use of Chinese concept of ‘good governance’ (善治) is rather normative. The suggestion of promoting communications and coordination in international maritime law making is also unconvincing. This limitation has affected the significance of the research.

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