Naming and Shaming China: America's Strategy of Rhetorical Coercion in the South China Sea.

AuthorQingli, Wendy He

Scholars of foreign policy and International Relations have routinely dismissed rhetoric as a form of posturing, disregarding its significant impact on the conduct of relations between states. (1) We contend, however, that to do so leaves an important gap in understanding the dynamics of interstate relations. In examining rhetorical exchanges, we seek to draw attention to the fact that rhetoric, narratives and the manner in which these are structured are not just tools or epiphenomena in power politics but are themselves power politics with significant capacity to influence interstate relations. (2)

The South China Sea dispute exemplifies this phenomenon well. Although the United States opted for a non-kinetic rhetorical strategy when tensions in the South China Sea began to rise in the late 2000s, much of the academic coverage of the dispute still revolves around the tangible, visible military build-up and manoeuvres to secure disputants' competing material claims in the South China Sea. In recent years, however, increasing attention has been paid to the rhetorical dimension of the dispute as the administration of President Donald Trump has intensified its critical rhetoric over China's actions and claims in the South China Sea. A systematic study of this rhetorical dimension is therefore not only important but timely in helping to understand not just the narrative dynamics at play, but also how these powerful narrative forces have influenced foreign policy outcomes.

The primary purpose of this article is to contribute towards the notion of "taking words seriously" in the study of International Relations and foreign policy. (3) It examines how and why America's strategy of rhetorical coercion has ultimately proven ineffective in countering China's assertiveness in the South China Sea. While much has been written about US-China strategic competition in the South China Sea, much less discussion has taken place regarding their use of rhetorical tit-for-tat strategies to gain the ideational high ground. Many of the studies on the South China Sea dispute have focused on making sense of the overlapping maritime claims, issues of lawfare, and examining the various states' materialist and institutionalist responses to rising tensions in the South China Sea. (4) While such analyses are useful in providing an overview and detailing the implications of the dispute, they may be of less value in explaining the processes by which these outcomes occurred. By adopting the causal-process methodology in examining the South China Sea dispute through the lens of rhetorical contestation, we endeavour to uncover "an insight or piece of data that provides information about context or mechanism". (5) While we acknowledge that causal-process tracing does pose a significant methodological challenge in terms of "how one might best identify, track and trace processes", we, nonetheless, see value in utilizing it for an analysis of the South China Sea dispute, (6) Through causal-process tracing, we hope to not only "narrow the list of potential causes" that have led to a specific outcome of China's build-up of island-bases in the Spratly Islands, but also to be more cognizant of the "alternative paths through which the outcome could have occurred". (7) By tracing the rhetorical tit-for-tat between Washington and Beijing in the South China Sea, we examine the ways in which one such potential cause--the framing of international law arguments--has facilitated unstable outcomes in the South China Sea.

This study, therefore, seeks to identify the critical rhetorical moments that can clarify why the United States has failed to prevent China from pursuing a more assertive policy in the South China Sea. Specifically, we analyse America's use of "naming and shaming" against China and argue that this particular rhetorical coercion strategy has been largely unsuccessful due to the ambiguous nature of the international law frame employed by the United States, and that the use of "naming and shaming" ultimately has not sat well among many of the littoral states of the South China Sea. (8) By "frame" we refer to how actors construct and present an argument to a target audience which in turn leads to its interpretation and meaning. (9) We contend that the United States has been ineffective in its rhetorical coercion because of China's ability to exploit the ambiguity of the international law frame and reframe the South China Sea dispute as a sovereignty issue. Moreover, in choosing to name and shame China, America has neglected to thoroughly consider whether such an approach would be palatable to its "audience", i.e. the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). At this point it should be noted that we do not engage in any value judgement of America's approach or China's efforts to challenge dominant narratives and established norms. In fact, throughout history, dominant narratives and norms in international politics have always been challenged, modified and shaped by rising powers to suit their own interests. (10) The South China Sea dispute is therefore not just an issue concerning international law, but also a contestation of the boundaries of international law and how the concept of sovereignty continues to feature as a central narrative in our understanding of international politics.

The article consists of five sections. We begin by discussing rhetorical coercion based on "naming and shaming" and unpacking the importance of framing processes in rhetorical contestation. We then lay out the inherent ambiguity of the international law frame deployed by the United States in the South China Sea dispute. In the third and fourth sections, we zoom into our case study by analysing various speech acts. We draw upon publicly available speeches, foreign ministry press releases, statements and reports issued by both the United States and China from 2010 to 2020. In doing so, we seek to examine closely the beginnings of America's rhetorical strategy of naming and shaming China under the Obama administration and the corresponding rhetorical counteracts by China, before analysing the US-China rhetorical contestation during the Trump administration. In the fifth section, we draw attention to the agency afforded to key actors who played an important role in determining the outcome of this rhetorical contestation--the littoral states of Southeast Asia. As the success of any rhetorical strategy is ultimately dependent on how the "audience" responds to the narrative, it is imperative for us to examine the role played by the littoral states as they witness the rhetorical contestation between the United States and China. Finally, we conclude by discussing the article's findings, the implications of the rhetorical manoeuvres and consider some alternative explanations.

Rhetorical Coercion, "Naming and Shaming" and the Framing Process

Why do states employ the rhetorical strategy of "naming and shaming", and how does it work as a type of rhetorical coercion? States, societies and individuals rely on the rhetorical strategy of naming and shaming to enact changes in the behaviour of a target--be it a state, an international organization, a non-state actor, a community or an individual. Often, the target is considered to have deviated from accepted norms and taken actions contrary to its publicly declared norms. (11) In naming and shaming a target, the coercer hopes to impose sufficient material or symbolic costs on the target, thereby pressuring it into conforming to "the standards of appropriate roles and conduct". (12) "Naming and shaming" is thus a specific form of rhetorical coercion that states use in international diplomacy to publicly expose a state deemed to have behaved in an objectionable manner by not abiding by customary norms and dominant narratives. In other words, "naming and shaming" relies on the public broadcast of illegitimate conduct to get targeted actors concerned about the erosion of their community or international standing as a result of their non-compliance with declared normative standards. (13) This threat to reputational credibility compels the target to adjust its behaviour and thus its policy actions. (14)

Extrapolating the workings of this rhetorical strategy, Ronald Krebs and Patrick Jackson propose a model of rhetorical coercion to account for outcomes in politics and international relations. (15) They highlight approaches that focus on "observable rhetorical contests, on narrative and language games" and how these rhetorical contests matter in understanding the outcomes of political struggles. (16) They define rhetorical coercion as the "skilful framing" of an argument that denies an opponent's ability to refute rhetorically. (17) Successful rhetorical coercion would thus see a target "talked into a corner", unable to counter with a viable rebuttal and compelled to accept the coercer's demands. (18)

The key to a successful rhetorical coercion strategy lies in both the framing of arguments to coerce the target and in persuading the audience impacted by the target's actions to support its interpretation and meaning. Frames are critical to the concept of rhetorical coercion as they not only provide the reference backdrop in which rhetorical contestation takes place, but also serve to inform the audience how to perceive the issue at stake. Framing can hence be understood as the way in which an argument is constructed and presented to a target audience, which in turn leads to the argument's interpretation and meaning. By framing "statements into opportunities for accountability politics" and by highlighting implications that "expose the distance between discourse and practice" of its target, the "naming and shaming" strategy aims to incite shame in the target that forces it to alter its modus operandi. (19) For rhetorical coercion to be successful in international relations, much depends on the...

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