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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.'

This dual-track approach of China to the tensions in its near seas has become the norm. China constantly sends mixed signals. On the one hand, China assures the outside world of its intentions to promote a peaceful settlement of maritime disputes. On the other hand, China upsets its neighbours by provocative actions in disputed areas. These include new land reclamation projects, light houses, piers, fishing bases, rescue centres, tourist attractions and resource exploration.

Part and parcel of this dual-track approach is messaging. A ferocious propaganda war rages over the disputes in the East and South China Seas. [fold]

As I argue in a new Lowy Institute Report about China's maritime security actors, each government with a claim tries to manipulate perceptions, apply psychological pressure and publicise 'legal' arguments to assert its claims to resources and territory. A key aim is to convince domestic and foreign audiences that rival claimants are acting unlawfully. Governments are aware that 'Twenty-first century warfare — where hearts, minds and opinion are, perhaps, more important than kinetic force projection — is guided by a new and vital dimension, namely the belief that whose story wins may be more important than whose army wins.'

In this regard Vietnam and the Philippines – though at a disadvantage militarily – have proven to be a good match for China diplomatically and on the propaganda front. The Philippines put Beijing on the defensive in 2013 by filing a case against China at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague (China's 9 December position paper was a response to this case). Manila seeks a ruling to confirm its right under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to exploit the waters in its Exclusive Economic Zone, which China contests because it has a counter-claim to maritime rights in parts of those waters.

Vietnam, in turn, caused China a loss of face in May this year by its all-out effort to shame Beijing internationally after China's HYSY 981 oil rig was parked near the disputed Paracel Islands at a location about 120 miles off Vietnam's coast. Several Chinese interlocutors interviewed for the Lowy report, including government officials, were of the view that China miscalculated the strong resistance by the Vietnamese; and that was why the rig was withdrawn ahead of schedule. The interviewees also said that Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan have all been more skillful than China in garnering international support for their position.

The claim that some Asian governments have been on a 'blame and shame' campaign that demonises China as an arrogant and dangerous bully is partly accurate, although China does not do itself any favours with some of it actions. As I say in the conclusion of the Lowy report: 'The more outsiders perceive China as a bully, the more difficult it is for anyone to write objectively about the maritime disputes in China's vicinity.'

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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:

All of these actors (local governments, law enforcement agencies, the PLA, resource companies, and fishermen) stand to gain from China's defence of its maritime interests, including commercially, or through increased government funding, or in terms of prestige. Many actors push the boundaries of the permissible, using the pretext of Xi's very general guidelines on safeguarding maritime rights. They grasp every opportunity to persuade the government to approve new land reclamation projects, fishing bases, rescue centres, tourist attractions, larger and better-equipped patrol vessels, resource exploration, and legal instruments to codify claims. Xi relies on these actors to maintain the unity of the Communist Party. In the present nationalistic political atmosphere, Xi cannot denounce an action taken in the name of protecting China's rights.

Jakobson's paper has intriguing insights into the personal workings of China's supposedly monolithic political system. The unification of nine maritime agencies ('nine dragons stirring up the sea') into the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) has been riven by disharmony. Today the SOA has a dual-command structure (one civilian and one military) that will practically guarantee confusion. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as she has pointed out before, is neither the unitary decider of foreign policy nor even a particularly powerful one. The bulking up of Sansha (Woody Island) is partly at the initiative of local authorities, encouraged by corporate interests and probably the military, who will be happy to commandeer its extended airport runway. [fold]

Of the three dynamics — emotion, resolve, coordination — at work here, it is the middle one that is the most problematic. It can be argued whether China is more 'emotional' about its maritime interests than before. And while the apparently decentralised and confused conduct of Chinese actors is surprising, it is also possible that Beijing encourages their conduct, distancing itself with 'plausible deniability.'

What is crystal clear from Jakobson's paper, however, is the shift in stance from restraint to resolve, signaled from Xi Jinping down. She quotes an official: 'In contrast to the past, when wei wen (upholding stability) was paramount and our law enforcement agency vessels were ordered to withdraw from any stand-off in disputed waters, wei quan (safeguarding rights) now takes precedence over wei wen. This allows (Chinese) vessels to act resolutely.'

That is worrying. There is a debate going on in the US, I believe quite correctly, about the need for moderation in foreign policy after the adventurous excesses of the last decade. This formulation of grand strategy is aptly summarised in Barry Posen's book Restraint. Restraint is difficult: it requires discipline, patience and wisdom to achieve long-term objectives. China itself has been a masterful practitioner in recent decades. A reader of Jakobson's paper would rightly question if China is now deviating from this 'hide and bide' path. Incentives are clearly asymmetric today for any Chinese actor to escalate matters for the sake of national honour. He/she is unlikely to be punished, but likely would be lionised.

It is possible that China will back up its words militarily by reinforcing its vast and relentless 'white hull' fleet with 'grey hulls over the horizon.' Still, Beijing would do well to consider further consequences of a determined pursuit of its 'rights.' Even a restrained America may proliferate alliance bases and places along the littoral, wielding the same kinds of 'A2/AD' systems (mobile anti-ship missiles) that China itself is so keen about. Nearby Palawan's archipelago has immensely more strategic depth than Fiery Cross Reef, and US Marines are already present all over Palawan. We should hope the ongoing lawfare contest Jakobson describes as a 'propaganda war' stays that way. 

Her paper understandably limits its scope mainly to the South China Sea and the dynamics inside China's polity. It would be useful to understand if the other claimants — Japan in the East China Sea obviously comes to mind — are likewise experiencing their own domestic transitions in emotion, resolve and coordination. If storm clouds are brewing, Linda Jakobson's continued contributions to our understanding will be priceless.

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.'

As Jakobson relates, uncoordinated actions by local entities have occasionally created policy confusion, for example by releasing competing maps of the nation's South China Sea claims. However, China's most assertive and destabilising actions have appeared to be well coordinated, including the placement of the HYSY-981 oil rig in waters disputed with Vietnam earlier this year and extensive land reclamation projects that are underway in the South China Sea.

In the case of the dredging activities that are rapidly transforming tiny reefs into artificial islands, Jakobson states that these are 'likely to be a tool of legal warfare, intended to solidify China's claims to maritime rights based on so-called land features, rather than an attempt to militarise the South China Sea as some have claimed.' It is likely, however, that China is pursuing both objectives simultaneously.

Beijing is not satisfied with the status quo in the South China Sea and it is amassing capabilities to gradually change the situation to its advantage. It is carefully avoiding the use of force and thereby hopes keep the US at bay. Some experts describe China's strategy as 'tailored coercion.' Others have used the term 'salami-slicing.' Whatever terminology you prefer, the evidence is mounting that Xi Jinping does have a grand strategy. Strengthening China's control over the South China Sea is part of his 'China Dream' of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user James Vaughan.

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.

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.

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.

She argues, persuasively, that there is no evidence that China's recent actions in the maritime domain are part of a grand strategy China is pursuing to coerce its neighbours in a tailored way aiming towards a pre-defined goal. Her research convinces her that in China there is enough policy implementation flexibility for institutions with maritime interests (eg. local governments, law enforcement agencies, the People's Liberation Army, resource companies, and fishermen) to push their own agendas — particularly in the South China Sea. This results in more visibly assertive activity not specifically directed by Beijing. In short, Jakobson does not find an organised top-down structured 'salami-slicing' strategic approach to China's maritime sovereignty disputes.

I found Jakobson's discussion of the interests of different Chinese entities (party, state, provincial, law enforcement, commercial plus the media) helpful, and whether or not one agrees with her conclusions regarding the absence of a comprehensive strategy, those seeking a clearer understanding of the various Chinese institutional interests involved in the maritime domain should read this report with care. I am working on a project related to President Xi Jinping's call for China to become a 'maritime power,' and found Jakobson's work extremely useful. [fold]

Based on my own experience in the US Government, I find Jakobson's argument credible that various entities in China are pushing their own maritime interests while remaining within broad, and often vague, policy guidelines established by Xi. That is what good bureaucrats do. Within the US security establishment, hitching one's bureaucratic interests to authoritative Administration policy guidelines is normal procedure.

But in the US, if one goes too far and causes embarrassment or a political dust-up, it can be professionally damaging. Jakobson seems to suggest that Xi and policy makers at the highest level in China find it difficult to discipline entities that announce or execute embarrassing or counterproductive stances associated with 'safeguarding China's sovereignty in the maritime domain.' I am not sure this argument holds up, given what Xi is willing to take on in his anti-corruption campaign.

But whether Jakobson is right or wrong, detailed plan or no detailed plan, China's actions in the East and South China Seas have had strategic effects. China has changed facts 'on the water' to its advantage and at the same it has riven ASEAN on South China Sea maritime issues. And it has apparently gained wide public support with its tough stance on sovereignty claims.

However, from my perspective an argument can be made that the biggest strategic effect has been negative for Beijing. It has energised the Obama Administration's security relationship with the Philippines and encouraged most of China's neighbours seek closer ties with the US. It has reawakened Indonesia's concerns about the nine-dash line as well as its maritime frontier, and allowed Malaysia to become a new favourite of the Obama Administration, signing it up as a 'comprehensive partner.'

So if Jakobson is right, will Xi and the Politburo Standing Committee come to the judgment that greater centralised control over its South China Sea actors is necessary to redress the adverse strategic effects of China's approach? In other words, will Beijing follow the first rule of trying to get out of a hole and stop digging?

Perhaps the digging has already stopped. The regional policies announced by Xi at November's APEC and G20 summits suggest it may have. If the current smile campaign with Southeast Asian neighbours continues, this would suggest that Jakobson's analysis is correct, and the centre is cracking down on counterproductive activities.

Will this last, and is it a tactical or strategic change of policy aimed at assuaging concerns raised over the last two years of assertive maritime policies?

My bet is on tactical, because I think Xi and company are not all that worried about relations with China's neighbours. The realities of geography, military and vast economic power yield China essentially permanent advantages over its near neighbours. They are always going to live in the shadow of China, and their economies will continue to be become more closely integrated with China's. China's neighbours will always need Beijing more that it needs them. This leverage means that over the long term, whether control is centralised or not, China's strategic approach to maritime issues will leave little room for compromise.

Photo by Flickr user Coast Guard News.

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.

I will here comment on the posts by Glaser, Peng and McDevitt (I hope to later respond to Martinson separately). It appears that my differences with Glaser and Peng boil down to terminology. In fact, many comments I have received focus on my use of 'grand plan' and 'grand strategy'. It is evident that I should have from the outset defined the terms.

In the report I write that there is no evidence of a central government-approved 'grand plan' that mandates different actors coercing other claimants in a tailored way towards a mutual goal. The report's executive summary states the same thing but uses the term 'grand strategy'.

Glaser and Peng both acknowledge that bureaucratic competition and lack of coordination among various maritime security actors contribute to tension and uncertainty in the South China Sea, but they question my argument about the lack of a grand strategy. From my point of view they – and others who have sent feedback privately – have misunderstood my text.

Of course I am to blame if I have failed to convey my meaning. I can only repeat that I have not found evidence of a central government-approved grand plan or Xi Jinping-approved grand strategy which spells out, step-by-step, how various actors should behave, using coercion or any other method, to reach a clearly defined goal.

I have not stated that Xi Jinping's long-term and overall goal – if he could decide the course of history single-handedly – is not for China to dominate the South China Sea. So I agree with Glaser's concluding sentence: 'Strengthening China's control over the South China Sea is part of (Xi's) "China Dream" of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.' I also endorse Peng's argument that 'Beijing's overall strategic objective is to advance Beijing's control of the ocean to the best of its capacity.' The expression 'overall strategic objective' best captures Xi's intention, in my view. I didn't use that term in my report or discuss what China's strategic intentions are because that is the focus of my next report in the MacArthur Foundation-funded research project, a co-authored piece with Rory Medcalf. [fold]

In fact, I recently said at the 14th Stockholm China Forum that in the long run, and if China is not deterred, and if its rise continues (three conditions), China can be expected to persistently, reef-by-reef and shoal-by-shoal, strengthen its position in the South China Sea until one day in the distant future its dominance will simply be a fact. (Chinese colleagues dismiss my concern that at that point China would dictate the terms of resource extraction, saying that from a position of strength China will negotiate with others on co-developing resources. I have my doubts.)

Back to the lack of a grand plan or strategy: barring the confusion over terminology, I stand by my argument that, at this point in history, vaguely formulated guidelines from the central government are what lower levels of government and innumerable other non-government maritime security actors have to go by when they decide on concrete actions and policies. Xi has shown the direction (his 'overall strategic objective'), but he has not spelled out specific guidelines about how stability must be maintained while at the same time safeguarding sovereignty. This gives many kinds of actors with many kinds of agendas quite substantial maneuver room to decide on the course of action and the kind of policies to pursue. For reasons I lay out in the report, there are both political and financial motivations for various actors to staunchly advocate protecting maritime rights and strengthen 'rights consciousness'. Hence, China's actions in the maritime domain will continue to be unsystematic and organic, and not part of a well thought-out 'grand strategy.'

I do want to emphasise, however, that the word 'chaos' or 'chaotic' does not appear anywhere in the report. I do not view Chinese maritime security decision-making as chaotic.

This brings me to an observation made by Michael McDevitt. On the basis of Xi's willingness to make politically 'courageous' moves in his anti-corruption campaign, McDevitt questions my argument that Xi and other top leaders find it difficult to publicly disagree with officials or entities that announce or execute counterproductive stances associated with 'safeguarding China's sovereignty'. This is an important and possibly a valid point, which I have contemplated while watching one senior official after another being investigated. Nevertheless, on the basis of discussions this past September and November in Beijing about the anti-corruption drive, I came to the conclusion that there are different dynamics at play. The 'rights consciousness' movement (which Xi himself has spurred on) is so strong that it does at least to a degree deter Xi from going against the tide on matters involving sovereignty. Obviously, time will tell if I am mistaken.

Finally, I do not claim that China's maritime actors can behave in any way they choose. Xi's guidelines box them in. As I have written in The Australian, it is entirely possible that Xi approves of most (or all) of the actions taken in China's name. My point is that Xi is not deciding on myriad actions; numerous maritime actors are.

Photo by Flickr user Global Panorama.

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.

During the research for my book The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, it became obvious to me that the main driver of the dispute is China's sense of ownership of the South China Sea. This is something inculcated in school geography lessons and asserted without nuance or doubt in Communist Party schools, national media and – we can assume – Politburo meetings.

In my book I show how this sense emerged only in the early 20th century through the agitation of nationalist educationalists and some serious misreading of Southeast Asian history. The argument can be summarised as follows: because the Sultanate of Sulu once sent tribute to the Chinese court, all the water between Sulu and Beijing belongs to China. This is clearly nonsense but that doesn't seem to stop a billion Chinese believing it. This is the foundation for China's actions in the Sea. Glaser is right; for the past 40-plus years there has been a determined effort to assert China's sense of entitlement in ever more concrete forms. [fold]

Jakobson's argument (which is one that I have also developed) is that specific actions such as long-range fishing expeditions, oil drilling adventures and military base construction are the result of a desire for state patronage and subsidy by the various agencies involved. This also seems verified by the evidence, particularly from the past 12 months.

Jakobson offers evidence that these agencies make use of patriotic arguments to win subsidies and patronage. There's a symbiotic relationship between those agencies who argue that 'the state must subsidise us to claim the resources that are rightfully ours' and patriots who argue 'we must assert our claim in the Sea because it is rich in resources'. The South China Sea has become a 'political piñata'. Every time Hainan province or CNOOC or the Coast Guard wants some extra subsidy, all it has to do is whack the issue and out pour the goodies.

So let's praise the combined 'Glaser-Jakobson' model of China's South China Sea policy-making. Everything China is doing in the Sea is founded upon a profound sense of ownership and there appears to be a deliberate policy to assert this through various state agencies. At the same time the agencies are trying to milk the system for all they can and pulling patriotic strings to win the resources they seek. Anyone seeking solutions to the South China Sea disputes will need to take both sets of motivations into account.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

COMMENTS