Daniel W. Drezner

Is China becoming a sanctioning state?

The latest issue of The Washington Quarterly is just lousy with China essays — it’s like there’s a theme or something.  Andrew Scobell and Andrew Nathan tackle China’s (apparently overstretched) military, and Guoyou Song and Wen Jin Yuan review China’s response to the burgeoning Trans-Pacific Partnership. James Reilly has an essay on China’s use of ...

The latest issue of The Washington Quarterly is just lousy with China essays — it’s like there’s a theme or something.  Andrew Scobell and Andrew Nathan tackle China’s (apparently overstretched) military, and Guoyou Song and Wen Jin Yuan review China’s response to the burgeoning Trans-Pacific Partnership.

James Reilly has an essay on China’s use of unilateral economic sanctions that really caught my eye, however.  The overwhelming bulk of economic sanctions that have been threatened and used during the past century have been from the United States.  From a scholarly perspective this is somewhat disturbing, as general theories about economic statecraft become tough to distinguish from theories of U.S. foreign policy.  If another great power starts being profligate with its economic statecraft, there’s the promise of a lot of new data. 

China has deplored the use of economic sanctions in the past, but as Reilly notes, "Over the past few years, Chinese experts have begun to clear some of the legal, moral, ideological, and practical hurdles to Beijing’s use of unilateral sanctions."

So… how effective are they?  Well, at best, it’s a mixed bag.  Here’s Reilly’s key paragraph: 

Ultimately, China uses sanctions for the same reasons other countries do: they are a relatively low-cost, low-risk way to signal dissatisfaction, increase the costs to those who take undesired actions, and satisfy domestic demands to respond to those actions. Sanctions can assuage domestic criticism while not undermining broader economic and diplomatic interests. For all these reasons, China has increasingly resorted to unilateral sanctions in recent years on issues like Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, and maritime disputes.

If you read the article, it’s pretty clear that any concessions made by other countries have  been pretty modest –more modest than Reilly seems willing to admit (compare Reilly’s take on the 2010 Nobel Prize sanctions with, for example, Erik Voeten’s). 

But there are three caveats to this observation.  First, if China views the sanctions as mostly symbolic and for domestic consumption, then it wouldn’t be surprising that they’re ineffective.  Symbolic sanctions aren’t supposed to work, they’re supposed to be for show.  Second, Reilly notes that China likes threatening sanctions more than using them, and sanctions threats are more likely to work as a form of pre-emptive coercion and deterrence than actually compelling the actor in this particular case. 

Third, as with its economic statecraft more generally, China is just beginning to understand this foreign policy tool.  Indeed, as Reilly observes, the problem with issuing empty threats is that "the credibility of Beijing’s bluffs risk eroding over time."  It will be veeeery interesting to see how China’s approach to economic statecraft evolves over time. 

Developing….

 Twitter: @dandrezner
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