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Nine Dragons Stirring Up The Sea

Much attention has been focused on China’s confrontational actions and attitudes in the South China Sea. Less attention is given to the internal political dynamics that shape these actions and attitudes. A report released this week by the International Crisis Group lays bare the competition between government agencies within China for influence in the South China Sea, perhaps for the first time.

China’s policies in its “backyard lake” are not the result of coordinated doctrine. Maritime policy circles reference the old Chinese legend of “nine dragons stirring up the sea” to describe the various government agencies involved in the South China Sea. There are actually more than nine, and it’s a complicated field. The “dragons” include maritime police bureaus, the national navy, fisheries departments, coastal state governments, energy companies, the foreign ministry, and other bodies. Competition among these actors for a bigger share of the budget pie, and influence within and without China, is intense.

The South China Sea borders China in the provinces of Hainan, Guangdong, and Guanxi. The sea off their shores is a vital economic interest for the governments of these provinces. To meet demands on GDP growth, provincial officials are especially eager to expand their economic activities at sea, including in shipping, tourism, and fisheries. This eagerness has brought these provinces into confrontations with each other and countries like Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

National oil companies are enormously influential within China, and are often the leading face of China’s policies abroad. So far, their activity in the South China Sea has been limited ownership of any offshoreenergy reserves is unclear. But their eagerness to exploit these resources, and their usefulness in claiming these waters for Beijing, is growing. CNOOC (China National Offshore Oil Corporation) is the only one of China’s oil companies that possesses the machinery required for deep-sea drilling, and last year it started taking bids on developing energy reserves near the disputed Paracel Islands.

What role is played by China’s Foreign Ministry? As the ICG report notes,

Given that the disputes are an unambiguous matter of foreign policy and require bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, the foreign ministry (MFA) should be playing a principle role advising and coordinating many of these actors. But it lacks sufficient authority due to the structural environment in which it operates: almost all of the other relevant actors are at the same level of authority and enjoy significant autonomy. Because organs at the same level structurally cannot force one another to do anything, these agencies resent being advised and coordinated by the MFA. Another reason for this lack of authority is that domestic issues, such as sustaining economic growth and political stability, still far outweigh foreign policy on the leadership’s priority list.

There are other actors, including the PLAN (Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy), various maritime security bureaus, fisheries administrations, law enforcement commands; the list goes on.

As a result, China is stuck. Officials can’t coordinate a legal framework on how to approach the Sea, and are left without any good policy options. In reality, Beijing has no means to dislodge neighboring countries from the atolls and islands over which they already have de facto control without sparking a real war, and can’t push its neighbors too hard because they’ll just run under Washington’s protective umbrella. Yet, having already made this a central national security issue and inflamed nationalist sentiment, China can’t easily back down. Any compromises would appear as though China were giving in to foreign interests or surrendering territory.

One growing possibility is simply kicking the can down the road: “The idea of leaving seemingly intractable problems to the next generation – first proposed by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 in relation to the East Sea dispute – is now being applied to the South China Sea.”

If kicking the can down the road becomes de facto policy going forward, we can expect business as usual: a few verbal barbs that claim the Sea for China and dismiss the rival claims of its neighbors, periodic confrontations between fishing and patrol vessels, and the occasional diplomatic frenzy. Certainly from the US point of view, that is the best possible result. (The prime US interest in the South China Sea is freedom of navigation in a vital sea lane through which many important international trade routes pass; China’s claims of sovereignty over what the US considers international waters amount to a territorial dispute as explosive as any of the others. Postponing final resolution of the dispute means keeps the sea lanes open.)

But if the can is kicked down the road, what happens to the oil and gas under the seabed? China’s need for energy resources, and the attractiveness of resources that are close at hand, drive both China and its neighbors toward a tougher stance over the South China Sea.

The question may be whether some kind of amicable arrangement can be made that divides energy resources in a pragmatic way acceptable to all parties while setting aside the more volatile and emotional question of boundaries. If that can be managed, the South China Sea may not be so much of an international flashpoint; if agreements can’t be reached, the hunger for resources will drive a chaotic struggle with unpredictable consequences for all.

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  • Anthony

    “One growing possibility is simply kicking the can down the road.” Definite possibility but the giant lumbers and knows that nothing is certain in South China Sea and no law is fixed. So, controlling the options may be in hands of the nine dragons WRM – consequences yet to be detected.

  • Hutcher

    “The question may be whether some kind of amicable arrangement can be made that divides energy resources in a pragmatic way acceptable to all parties while setting aside the more volatile and emotional question of boundaries.”

    As you note, Professor Mead, the issue is less about boundaries than resources; but either must inevitably entail considerable volatility and emotion. Therefore the sovereign entities with interests in the South China Sea will be highly unlikely (given the history of this part of the world) to accede to any “amicable arrangements” reflecting some sort of “pragmatic way”. As one of our best-informed scholars of the history of sovereign interests, you must surely realize that the above quote posits an extremely unlikely outcome. My bet is on the “international flashpoint” scenario, which as a resident of Malaysia gives me no little cause for concern. Our only hope is that the US Cavalry (preferably not the 7th regiment) is still able to ride to the rescue when the time comes.

  • Hutcher

    The other issue at hand, as mentioned by the International Crisis Group, is the lack of a clear line of authority within China as regards the SCS. This suggests a vacuum, which historically has been readily filled by the military. An example is Imperial Japan, where the Army instigated the Manchuria Incident in 1931 and thus took the initial step in establishing the catastrophe known in Japan as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    In recent decades a greedy and grasping China has had border disputes on literally every one of its borders. It is clearly the bully here and like every cowardly bully will back down when confronted. China’s neighbors have been pulling the US into covering their ass position in anticipation of throwing down with China, and throw down they will. I expect China to over-reach in the near future, and then be forced to back down by the US Navy which China lacks the power challenge.

  • Kenny

    Hutcher @#3 is correct.

    This sounds eerily similar to the situation with the Japanese military up to and during WWII.

    Then, the Japanese had no real central control.

    Army officers were like war lords, where militant junior officers in some districts plotted against their seniors, even assassinating them. Fact.

    And the Army treated the Navy with indifference if not outright hostility.

    Each little Japanese center of power pursued its own narrow agenda.

    No wonder Japan lost the war so relatively easy …. and no wonder they got into the mess in the first place.

    Pity China if they stumble into a war with the U.S. It’s one where they will get their clock cleaned but fast.

  • Luke Lea

    @ “the foreign ministry (MFA) should be playing a principle role advising and coordinating many of these actors. But it lacks sufficient authority due to the structural environment in which it operates: almost all of the other relevant actors are at the same level of authority and enjoy significant autonomy.”

    For some insite:

  • Luke Lea

    Lack of the rule of law is at the root of it all. It is a cultural thing which we in the West naively take for granted:

  • Luke Lea

    But, perhaps, all is not lost:

    Ancient Roots of Chinese Liberalism

    Liu Junning, an independent scholar in Beijing, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “What we now call Western-style liberalism has featured in China’s own culture for millennia. We first see it with philosopher Laozi, the founder of Taoism, in the sixth century B.C. Laozi articulated a political philosophy that has come to be known as wuwei, or inaction. “Rule a big country as you would fry a small fish,” he said. That is, don’t stir too much. “The more prohibitions there are, the poorer the people become,” he wrote in his magnum opus, the “Daodejing.” [Source: Liu Junning, Wall Street Journal, July 6, 2011]

    For Mencius, a fourth-century B.C. philosopher and the most famous student of Confucius, a kingdom would be able to defend itself from outside attack if the king “runs a government benevolent to the people, sparing of punishments and fines, reducing taxes and levies. . . .” When asked by the King of Hui, “What virtue must there be to win the unification of the world?” Mencius replied, “It is the protection of the people.” [Ibid]

    Much later we find the writings of Huang Zongxi (1610-1695), known as “The Father of Chinese Enlightenment.” A fierce critic of despotism and the divine rights of sovereigns, Huang once rhetorically asked, “Is it that the heaven and the earth with all their magnitude are destined only in favor of one person or one family among all the people?” His “Waiting for the Dawn: A Plan for the Prince,” it should be noted, was written more than 50 years before John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government.”

    These are only a few of the many Chinese thinkers and intellectuals who over the centuries have investigated the nature of political power and the obligations owed by a ruler to a country’s citizens. Note that Laozi and other classical thinkers also drew a connection between good, limited government in general and prosperity in particular.

    To say that the narrative of liberty vs. power is uniquely “Western” is to turn a blind eye to the struggles of those who have gone before us. Individual rights are not a Western development any more than paper and gunpowder are inventions that are uniquely Chinese. Is Marxism “German”? Is Buddhism “Indian”? Of course not. When ideas are born, they take flight into the world to be used, improved or discarded by all of humanity. Constraints on political power and the protection of individual rights belong to all.

  • Steve

    Prof. Mead:

    Why isn’t it possible to subsume the conflicts over international waters and boundaries under the WTO/Doha-round talks on trade policy and reciprocity? If this is too complicated, international agreements over territorial limits and international admiralty law already have a venue in place under UN auspices. These problems are relatively simple to resolve, assuming goodwill on all sides. Of course, therein lies the rub.

    I suspect this is not about problem resolution or diplomacy but about nationalism, which has become the de facto creed of the Comm. Party of China. This problem is a convenient egg-beater to stir up nationalistic fervor at useful intervals. It distracts the workers and peasants from the oligarchs’ travesties like the Bo affair.

  • don

    Kicking the can will occur precisely because the oil is fungible on an international market and China will benefit regardless of who drills and recovers the oil. Of course, if the market is scuttled–for example, the US steel and oil embargo on Japan in the thirties–then all bets are off.

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