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China's Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors

11 Dec 2014 10:00

'China will work with other countries to further promote a harmonious maritime order.' Even after years of studying the maritime tensions on China's periphery, I had to check that I had not misread the 9 December Xinhua dispatch quoting Liu Jieyi, China's Ambassador to the UN.

These reassuring words come on the heels of a position paper issued just two days earlier by China regarding the Philippines' appeal to international arbitration over South China Sea disputes. The position paper not only dismisses the grounds for the Filipino appeal; it also forcefully states that the arbitration case will not 'shake China's resolve and determination to safeguard its sovereignty and relevant maritime rights and interests.'

COMMENTS

12 Dec 2014 11:56

A 10,000 tonne Coast Guard cutter under construction in Shanghai. (Sinodefence Forum.)

The perfect storm for geopolitical instability: high emotions, high levels of resolve, and low levels of communication and coordination.

This characterisation applies to crises such as in eastern Ukraine and Syria. It may also describe a long-simmering dispute in the South China Sea which has the potential to escalate dramatically. Linda Jakobson's latest paper explains in particular how China, the central protagonist in this dispute, is experiencing rising nationalism, a deliberate doctrinal shift toward 'sovereignty' over 'stability', and inter-agency rivalry and even dysfunction. Given China's colossal resources and historical consciousness, it might only be a matter of time before these internal dynamics spill over to an external conflict:

COMMENTS

16 Dec 2014 11:51

While bureaucratic competition among numerous maritime actors is likely a factor that is contributing to tension and uncertainty in the South China Sea, as Linda Jakobson argues in her report China's Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors, it is probably not the biggest source of instability. Rather, China's determination to advance its sovereignty claims and expand its control over the South China Sea is the primary challenge.

Xi Jinping has clearly signaled that 'protection of maritime rights and interests' and 'resolutely safeguarding territorial sovereignty' are high priorities, which should be pursued even as China seeks to preserve stability and maintain good relations with its neighbors. At the recently concluded Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference, Xi additionally emphasised that China should not 'relinquish our legitimate rights and interests or sacrifice' China's 'core interests.'

COMMENTS

17 Dec 2014 15:08

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.

COMMENTS

12 Jan 2015 16:08

Linda Jakobson's recent report, China's Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors, is an important contribution for China watchers, especially for those who seek to understand the relationship between Chinese actions associated with its maritime disputes in Asia and its broader strategic approach to the region. This relationship is an important policy question because observers, including myself, worry that the past two years of assertive behaviour in the East and South China Seas foreshadows Beijing's approach its neighbourhood when 'fully risen'.

Anxiety about heavy-handed Chinese hegemon-like behaviour in the future has grown because many observers believe China's approach to maritime disputes is the product of a deliberate and systematic strategy carefully harmonised within China's party-military-civil structure. In short, what the region has been experiencing is a well thought out and superbly executed strategy.

Jakobson's report says 'not so fast,' at least with regard to maritime disputes.

COMMENTS

13 Jan 2015 11:47

I am grateful to several people for commenting on my Lowy Institute Report China's Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors. To date I have received detailed and substantive feedback in over 40 emails, more than I usually do after publishing. In addition, The Interpreter has published posts by Bonnie Glaser, Julian Snelder, Jingchao Peng and Michael McDevitt. Ryan Martinson wrote a detailed critique of the report for The Diplomat.

COMMENTS

15 Jan 2015 13:16

There has recently been a touch of disagreement on this site between Linda Jakobson of the Lowy Institute and Bonnie Glaser of CSIS about the motivations for China's actions in the South China Sea.

In short, Jakobson argues that China's decision-making can be explained by bureaucratic competition between China's various maritime agencies, whereas Glaser says it's the result of a deliberate, centrally organised policy of territorial expansion. While I genuflect before the long experience of both these analysts, I would like to suggest that we shouldn't get too bogged down in this debate. It seems to me that the resolution is obvious: both Glaser and Jakobson are correct.

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