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Performing Panda: Chinese Economic Coercion in the Era of Xi Jinping

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Katherine Onstad, USAF
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This paper provides an original contribution to the literature of economic coercion, based on empirical analysis of signaling from China to the United States from late 2012 to late 2022, President Xi Jinping’s first two terms. I argue that Xi has expressed more assertive economic coercion toward the United States because he wants to build China’s reputation as a powerful state to both foreign and domestic audiences; these coercive actions, however, have been largely performative because of interdependence. I present a theory of reputation-building and provide a 2x2 typology that helps us understand why China has changed how its economically coerces the United States over this period. One dimension is the means of coercion. Over this period, China changed its means from informal methods that gave the government plausible deniability to formal acknowledgment by the Chinese Communist Party with a corresponding legal framework. The other dimension is the target; China changed from targeting nonstate actors (US corporations) to states (US government entities and officials). State actors have a lower likelihood of bending to China’s will and represent stronger resolve from China by attempting to coerce them. These two dimensions combine to explain high, medium, or low reputation-seeking actions from China. Through comparative qualitative analysis of 52 events, I found that, early in Xi’s tenure, China displays low reputation-seeking actions based on coercing firms via informal means. By the end of the studied period, China displays high reputation-seeking behavior by constructing a legal framework of sanctions and signaling these sanctions to the United States. These moves are frequently in reaction to similar moves from the United States, however, and are without much bite because of possible blowback, leaving economic coercion as largely a performance to domestic and international audiences.


Author(s)Lt Col Katherine Onstad, USAF
AU Press CodeKP-08

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