Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Beijing's South China Sea objective is clear: To extend control

Beijing's South China Sea objective is clear: To extend control

Within China's bureaucratic system, sometimes it is in an agency's interest to compete with others, rather than coordinate, in order to advance its own bureaucratic power and receive more funding.

Linda Jakobson's recent Lowy Report, China's Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors, highlights this phenomenon between maritime agencies. Such a bureaucratic shortfall could explain to some degree China's behavior in the South China Sea, particularly why China's maritime enforcement agencies are increasingly ready to confront vessels of other claimants in disputed waters. 

Jakobson's report argues that China lacks a grand strategy in the South China Sea. However, I would argue that competition or lack of coordination among government agencies is not incompatible with the existence of an over-arching strategy. China's maritime agencies do appear to take actions independent of each other, but they do not aim to contest or alter Beijing's overall strategic objective. That objective is clear, which is to advance Beijing's control of the ocean to the best of its capacity.

This suggests that we should be less concerned about the complex interaction among government agencies and more concerned with understanding the very nature of Beijing's claims. [fold]

Beijing claims a 'historical right' over waters within the nine-dash line. It claims all the features within the nine-dash line as Chinese sovereignty. So far there is no sign that China would compromise these claims for a peaceful resolution with other claimants, even though Chinese leaders have on different occasions acknowledged the existence of disputes and the need for a peaceful resolution.

Additionally, China rejects third-party arbitration. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs position paper on the South China Sea arbitration initiated by the Philippines asserts that it will not shake China's 'resolve and determination to safeguard its sovereignty and maritime rights and interests'. As pointed out by Jakobson, China is evidently building up naval capacity and ramping up civilian enforcement equipment.

Perhaps the best evidence of a grand strategy is that China's domestic legal framework is being constantly updated to expand de facto jurisdiction over the water and features within the nine-dash line. This is likely to embolden Chinese maritime enforcement agencies to take even more resolute actions against other claimant's vessels in the future. 

Jakobson's report is a very good reminder of how China's internal politics run. Often, institutional defects intervene in China's foreign policy-making, and make it difficult to predict China's actions. As Jakobson rightly points out, not every action taken by the government agency rightly reflects the will of China's leaders, even when it's done in the name of protecting China's national interests. This creates problems at a tactical level for Chinese policymakers and may have foreign policy consequences they might not want. But China's leadership does not hide the fact that it has strategic objectives in relation to the nine-dash line, and none of the actions by China's maritime enforcement agencies we are seeing now seem to be at odds with these.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user yuan2003.

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