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South China Sea: Jakobson and Glaser are both right

South China Sea: Jakobson and Glaser are both right

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.

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