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.