Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Securing Unity and Reverence: Chinese ontological security across its maritime and frontier disputes

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Version 1 2021-11-15, 08:55
posted on 2021-11-15, 08:55 authored by Curtis, Henry

This thesis draws on the Constructivist school of International Relations, applying the theory of ontological security to explain diverging patterns of behaviour by China across its maritime and frontier territorial disputes. Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, these patterns have seen China consistently interact with states adjacent to its frontiers to settle disputes peacefully, with occasional instances of conflict. Conversely, in its maritime disputes, though varying in its levels of aggression and cooperation, China has resolutely refused to settle with disputant states. In examining these varying behaviours, it is argued that differences derive from the differing ability of China to secure its national identity between the two types of dispute. Analysing the examples of the Sino-Indian dispute and border war, the Burmese border agreement, and the ongoing South China Sea disputes, periods of conflict and settlement in these disputes are compared to changing manifestations of Chinese national identity. What results is an illustration of frontier border settlement contributing to the security of China’s identity as a unified, pluralistic nation state. The absence of national minority populations in relation to maritime disputes alternatively sees continued interaction in these disputes as securing China’s identity as the superior ‘Central Kingdom’ relative to peripheral South East Asian states, while offering little incentive for settlement. Both types of dispute can be viewed as contributing to the biographical narrative of China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’. This thesis presents a significant departure from existing studies of China’s disputes, predominantly undertaken from a Realist perspective. Additionally, it expands on existing Constructivist literature by demonstrating how national identity can result in a range of behaviours across a range of differing disputes, further validating the emerging ontological security approach within International Relations scholarship.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

International Relations

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of International Relations

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Bukh, Alexander