Shifting Tides of Power
: The Evolution of China's Naval Strategy in the South China Sea from Defensive Offence to Defensive Defence, 1974–2018

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis examines China's nuanced exercise of restraint in the South China Sea, juxtaposed against its significant military strength, through the prism of Constructivism and Defensive Realism. This framework captures the evolution of China's military posture, shifting from a defensive offence to a defensive defence strategy from 1974 to 2018. The central research question probes the rationale behind China's measured approach in the region, despite its burgeoning naval capabilities. The analysis tracks the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and its naval progression, assessing engagements with Vietnam, the Philippines, and the United States to elucidate its strategic claims. The thesis posits that China's conduct is informed by defensive realism, prioritising crisis management and the pursuit of amicable resolution of conflicts. Utilising Constructivism and Defensive Realism, the thesis offers an expansive framework to dissect China's transforming military actions in the South China Sea. It interrogates a spectrum of influences on China's military behaviour, spanning political, economic, historical, moral, cultural, and philosophical domains. The research also emphasises the influence of domestic politics on maritime strategy, highlighting the People's Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN) commitment to a principled yet adaptable operational doctrine. Furthermore, this work explores the concept of naval force posture, scrutinising the strategic deployment of maritime forces in response to geopolitical changes, regional security challenges, and shifts within the international security milieu. Ultimately, the thesis unravels the complexity of China's naval posture, depicting a strategic transition from an aggressive defence to a more reserved defence stance in the South China Sea. This shift is reflective of China's assessment of perceived security threats and its interpretation of its role and intentions as a military power, contributing to a more profound understanding of its status as a pivotal global security actor and its impact on regional maritime security dynamics.
Date of Award1 Apr 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorAlessio Patalano (Supervisor) & Kerry Brown (Supervisor)

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