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Power in Institutions: Interstate Negotiations of Incremental Agreements for the East and South China Sea Disputes

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Schultheiss, Christian 


Attempts of the disputing parties in the East and South China Sea to create institutions in a step-by-step process that reconcile single interests, incentivise cooperation and manage conflict are almost as old as the disputes themselves. This thesis analyses the disputing parties’ negotiation practice over the last three decades. It attempts to explain why claimant states reached and implemented agreements for issue-specific cooperation on fisheries, joint seismic research and oil and gas development, and conflict management in some cases, but negotiations ended in impasse in other cases. The thesis argues that the parties in the East and South China Sea disputes sought various cooperative institutions as useful remedies against escalatory risks. But the parties also regarded common institutions as a tool that a rival could leverage for the continuation of conflict behaviour with other means. Parties were unlikely to reach effective agreements when they feared that that a rival would gain power advantages as a result of a common cooperative institution. The thesis seeks to identify the mechanisms and institutional characteristics by virtue of which the institutions under consideration in the East and South China Sea could increase or decrease the parties’ bargaining power. The thesis builds on research about incremental or gradual approaches to conflict resolution. Using this research, it conceptualises types of agreements that originated in an international law tradition. The thesis also builds on scholarship about the theory of institutions that attributes two different broad roles to institutions. On the one hand, institutions restrain behaviour, overcome collective action problems and allow durable, coordinated and joint action in response to problems actors face. On the other hand, some institutions can also be sources of leverage and power that bring about vulnerabilities. The thesis discusses alternative explanations for the observable negotiation practice, among them the influence of domestic politics and nationalism and the impact of law-based entitlements and arbitration on bargaining processes. While the literature on the East and South China Sea referred to single cooperative agreements as models to move forward, there is no comprehensive analysis about the various attempts to reach agreements for the disputed maritime domain. This is the first comprehensive study that analyses how East and Southeast Asia’s middle powers negotiated with China and with each other about the creation of institutions in response to the challenge that China’s maritime claims and maritime outward expansion represents for maritime order.





Lin, KC
Weller, Marc


South China Sea, East China Sea, China, Asia, Security, International law, bargaining, institutions, Negotiation, conflict resolution


Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Friedrich Ebert Stiftung