The South China Sea is home to one of the world’s most contentious territorial disputes. Sovereignty of overlapping parts of the Sea is contested by seven littoral states, and the United States maintains an influential naval presence. Rich in fish and hydrocarbons and militarily valuable for power projection, the South China Sea is strategically important. One-third of global trade passes through the South China Sea annually. This paper looks to uncover what the South China Sea conflict indicates about Chinese strategic outlook and approaches the topic through three theoretical lenses: constructivism, realism, and disaggregation. This paper concludes with an assertion that Chinese actions in and regarding the South China Sea are indicative of a strategic outlook based on the principles of offensive realism. Aggressive rhetoric, backed up by naval modernization, island building, a willingness to upset the status quo, and a lack of meaningful institutional cooperation indicate that Beijing is concerned primarily with accruing power and an eventual transition of power in the Asia-Pacific. Though offensive realism sees structural circumstances in the international system as the primary causal mechanism of this outlook, this paper sees national history and identity as factors that have made Beijing more inclined to adopt this offensive strategic viewpoint.

First Advisor

Dr. Bradford Dillman

Degree Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts in International Political Economy

Date of Award

Spring 5-13-2018