Stirring up the South China Sea (I)
Asia Report N°223
23 Apr 2012
The conflicting mandates and lack of coordination among Chinese government agencies, many of which strive to increase their power and budget, have stoked tensions in the South China Sea. Repeated proposals to establish a more centralised mechanism have foundered while the only agency with a coordinating mandate, the foreign ministry, does not have the authority or resources to manage other actors. The Chinese navy’s use of maritime tensions to justify its modernisation, and nationalist sentiment around territorial claims, further compound the problem. But more immediate conflict risks lie in the growing number of law enforcement and paramilitary vessels playing an increasing role in disputed territories without a clear legal framework. They have been involved in most of the recent incidents, including the prolonged standoff between China and the Philippines in April 2012 in Scarborough Reef. Any future solution to the South China Sea disputes will require a consistent policy from China executed uniformly throughout the different levels of government along with the authority to enforce it.
China’s maritime policy circles use the term “Nine dragons stirring up the sea” to describe the lack of coordination among the various government agencies involved in the South China Sea. Most of them have traditionally been domestic policy actors with little experience in foreign affairs. While some agencies act aggressively to compete with one another for greater portions of the budget pie, others (primarily local governments) attempt to expand their economic activities in disputed areas due to their single-minded focus on economic growth. Yet despite the domestic nature of their motivations, the implications of their activities are increasingly international. Other factors – both internal and external to China – have also been responsible for increasing tensions, but they are beyond the scope of this study. Regional dynamics, including arms build-ups, competition for resources and increasing nationalist sentiment in other claimant countries are the subject of a separate report.
Effective coordination of actors is also hampered by a lack of clarity over precisely what is supposed to be defended. China has yet to publicly clarify the legal status of the so-called nine-dashed line that appears on most Chinese maps, encompassing most of the South China Sea. While the foreign ministry has taken steps to try to reassure its neighbours that Beijing does not claim the entire South China Sea and has at least partially justified its claims on the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the government cannot easily back down from claims to significant portions of the sea that are based on historical presence in the region. Local government agencies take advantage of this lack of legal clarity when engaging in activities in disputed areas.
Beijing has deliberately imbued the South China Sea disputes with nationalist sentiment by perpetually highlighting China’s historical claims. This policy has led to a growing domestic demand for assertive action. While Beijing has been able to rein in nationalist sentiment over the South China Sea when it adopts a specific policy, this heated environment still limits its policy options and its ability to manage the issue.
In mid-2011, as tensions in the sea led to neighbouring countries seeking closer military ties with the U.S., China adopted a less assertive approach. While Beijing’s overall emphasis on maintaining the status quo still includes a preference for bilateral negotiations, it is strengthening regional relations through high-level visits and multilateral engagement by signing with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) the Guidelines for the Implementation of the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) in the South China Sea.
Internally, China has taken measures to calm nationalist sentiment and discourage aggressive actions by local agencies. However, China’s current approach remains characterised by numerous ministerial-level actors and law enforcement agencies with no effective coordinating authority and no high-level long-term policy. While repeated and failed attempts to establish a centralised mechanism on maritime management show a lack of political will to address the coordination issue, Beijing might also see benefit in ambiguity. As long as this situation exists, however, its new conciliatory approach is unlikely to be sustainable. Ultimately, the ability to manage relations in the South China Sea and resolve disputes will present a major test of China’s peaceful rise.
Beijing/Brussels, 23 April 2012