‘Sea grab’ sparks tensions in South China Sea

Posted on August 14, 2012


YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Many people look at China and see a unified behemoth tightly controlled by the communist central leadership, so when a diplomatic fray develops, like a rash of recent confrontations in the South China Sea, the assumption is that it’s all part of a grand plan by Beijing.

But some analysts see the bureaucracy as more akin to a giant octopus, with the teeming tentacles of ministries and provinces setting their own agendas as they compete for clout and profits — as long as they maintain loyalty to the Communist Party. The philosophy, particularly among southern provinces, is the ancient adage, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.”

That occasionally leaves Beijing to clean up any unintended diplomatic messes.

For instance, China’s maritime policy has largely been set by five national agencies and other local governments. In an apparent effort to impress Beijing, they have been making a “sea grab” of sorts for disputed islands in the South China Sea based on China’s iconic “nine-dashed-line” map claiming sovereignty over those waters.

That has sparked tensions with other countries and concerns about Chinese expansionism that have played a role in the U.S. decision to shift more military resources to Asia and led the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand to become more open to an expanded American presence.

Some South China Sea countries embroiled in past island sovereignty disputes have found a path forward through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. China, however, has bristled at the suggestion that its South China Sea policy and actions should even be discussed by ASEAN or other regional groupings.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, roughly equivalent to America’s State Department, would logically be the body setting and coordinating policy among the various government entities with interests in the disputed seas. But it’s little more than a bit player.

At the same time, the People’s Liberation Army’s navy has largely remained out of the fray, the nation’s leaders concerned that a strong military presence would escalate minor confrontations to armed conflict.

With China’s regional naval strategy for the PLA remaining vague, Pentagon and State Department policymakers take cues from the actions of the country’s maritime enforcement agencies. The Pentagon’s Asia “pivot” announced this summer means shifting 10 percent of surface ships and submarines in the Atlantic to the Pacific over eight years. The move came in part because of perceptions that China could become a regional threat – based on its handling of island disputes.

For the U.S. military, however, there’s no clear message to be found in that pile of tea leaves.

Adding to the complexity, in late July, China raised the status of Sansha city on the tiny island of Yongxing, the largest in the Paracel chain in the South China Sea. About 220 miles from the mainland’s most southerly province of Hainan, Sansha will officially oversee the roughly 770,000 square miles of sea claimed by China, as vaguely defined in the nine-dashed-line map. The area includes the disputed Paracels, Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal and other areas.

“The Chinese bureaucracy is a huge, complex system,” said Dali L. Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing and author of “Remaking the Chinese Leviathan: Market Transition and the Politics of Governance in China.”

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have its own boats. It’s only recently that the [MFA] has established a department in connection with the oceans. It may not even know what’s going on in the waters because it doesn’t have the capacity to monitor.”

Larry Wortzel, a commissioner on Congress’s U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, pointed out in an email interview that no foreign minister sits on the 25-member Politburo, the top political body, making this “an important ministry and a minister without significant input to the most important decisions.”

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, issued a lengthy report in April analyzing the mix of maritime enforcement agencies involved in monitoring the seas.

The competition for bigger budgets, power and prestige among these agencies — along with revenue-seeking local governments — has contributed to tensions because their actions “in disputed waters sometimes lead to unintended diplomatic consequences,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Crisis Group’s Northeast Asia director in Beijing, said in an email interview.

“The decentralization of power is indeed one of the factors contributing to a lack of effective coordination among these agencies,” she said.

For example, local authorities have encouraged fishermen to sail farther into the South China Sea due to pollution and overfishing closer to the mainland, Kleine-Ahlbrandt said. China’s maritime enforcement agencies have followed this activity where it leads — which has resulted in numerous standoffs with ships from Japan, Philippines and Vietnam. They also have sought to promote tourism in the Paracels in pursuit of increased revenue.

Particularly worrying is that China’s five key maritime enforcement agencies operate 2,400 boats and ships to police China’s inland and sea waters, some equipped with machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons, according to estimates in the Crisis Group’s report.

Officials of one of those agencies, the China Maritime Surveillance, have announced plans to increase their personnel from 9,000 to 15,000 and increase their number of ships from 280 to 520 by 2020. The Fisheries Law Enforcement Command plans to add five patrol boats over 3,000 tons, all equipped with helicopters, by 2015, the Crisis Group report said.

“Obviously this is a major opportunity to expand their turf a bit,” Yang said of the enforcement agencies. “What you see is that every agency and ministry is trying to demonstrate that it’s doing something.

“If I were a bureaucrat in Beijing, I’d want to be saying, ‘Look, we’re helping to expand our national sovereignty; we’re doing something; we’re sending ships over.’ That’s basically what’s happening at this point.”

According to the Crisis Group report, the agencies have an expression to capture the free-wheeling nature of their missions: “Grab what you can on the sea, and divide the responsibilities between agencies afterwards.”

Indeed, this maritime enforcement system has hardly had time to evolve. Even as late as 10 years ago, China’s central government wasn’t paying much attention to what happened beyond its land boundaries, Yang said.

Maritime enforcement agencies have been left to divine the subtleties of national sea policy but are acutely aware of the central government’s sweeping claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea and of nationalist sentiment to not budge an inch in island confrontations.

Some analysts maintain that China hasn’t intentionally assumed a more aggressive policy in the South China Sea, but is rather trying to maintain the status quo in the face of emphatic sovereignty claims by neighboring countries.

“Those viewing Chinese ‘aggression’ as the impetus for current tension might reasonably be asked why Beijing has only six outposts in the Spratlys (compared with 29 occupied by Vietnam), why Beijing is one of the only claimant states not currently pumping oil out of the South China Sea, and why the largest island in the Spratlys archipelago is actually occupied by Taiwan,” Lyle Goldstein, an associate professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., wrote in “Foreign Policy” magazine last month.

“In fact, China’s policy in the South China Sea has been largely reactive in both present and historical circumstances, which indeed explains a good bit of the incoherence of China’s present policy.”

While there are signs that China is undertaking greater coordination of its maritime agencies — it’s in the process of preparing a national maritime strategy — there’s no sign that any group is willing to accept erosion of its clout and money-making prospects.

Masayuki Masuda, a fellow with the National Institute for Defense Studies, the policy research arm of the Japan Ministry of Defense, who prepared the 2011 China Security Report, said he’d found “hints in domestic discussions” in China that competition among the maritime agencies is alive and well in the ongoing strategy process.

Some of those agencies will seek to strengthen ties with the People’s Liberation Army to bolster their status, he said.

Wyatt Olson

China’s Ancient Mariners Stoke Modern Conflict in S. China Sea

Aug. 13 (Bloomberg) — In asserting its claims to the tiny islands, rocks and reefs in the South China Sea, China points to records of its ancient mariners. Today, those waters are far more important to China than in the age of the sail.

That’s because the area may hold oil riches that rival Saudi Arabia’s, a prospect that is stoking tensions in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes as China undertakes its once- in-a-decade leadership transition.

China’s assertiveness over a vast stretch of sea has grown in lockstep with its economic clout as it overtook the U.S. to become the world’s largest energy user. It is encountering competition over the rights from others, notably Vietnam and the Philippines, which are also asserting their claims.

“There is no advantage for China to back down or enter negotiations,” said Andrew Nathan, a scholar of Chinese politics and foreign policy at Columbia University in New York. “China won’t calm down, and the current posture reflects a long-established strategy to reassert its claims steadily over time without ceding an inch.”

At stake are unproven oil reserves of as much as 213 billion barrels, according to Chinese studies cited in 2008 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That compares with 265.4 billion barrels of proven reserves held by Saudi Arabia as of 2011, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

In 2010, China became the world’s top energy consumer. Its demand for oil alone surged to 9.8 million barrels per day in 2011 from 216,000 barrels per day in 1965, BP data shows. That’s more than double its daily production of 4.1 million barrels.

Economic Case

A net oil importer since 1993, China’s own proven oil reserves would last only 10 years at the current production levels, while Vietnam’s production would last 37 years, according to BP Plc estimates. The needs of the Philippines, because it imports nearly all of its oil, are greater than China’s, Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario said in an interview last year.

The world’s second-largest economy claims “indisputable sovereignty” over most of a body of water that lies south of mainland China, including more than 100 small islands, atolls and reefs that form the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Those claims are contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

‘Nine-Dash Map’

China says explorer Zheng He, whose sea adventures predate Christopher Columbus, crossed the South China Sea during the Ming Dynasty and cites historical maps that long predate the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. The Chinese Foreign Ministry website says the earliest discovery of the Spratlys, called Nansha in China and Troung Sa in Vietnam, can be traced back 2,000 years to the Han dynasty.

These records form the basis of China’s “nine-dash” map of the sea, first published in 1947, that extends hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to the equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo. North Vietnam recognized Chinese sovereignty over the area from the 1950s to the 1970s, while the Philippine claim of some islands dates back to the 1950s.

In the closing days of the Vietnam War, China seized the Paracel Islands in a 1974 naval battle with South Vietnam. In 1988, China sank several ships and killed more than 70 Vietnamese sailors in a skirmish over the Spratlys.

Military Force

Along with the growing strength of its navy, China has used its maritime surveillance ships to harass foreign fishing boats, cut survey ships’ cables, and plant markers on unoccupied reefs. At least eight incidents between China and the Philippines, a U.S. ally, in the last 18 months have highlighted conflicting territorial and resource claims, according to the Congressional Research Service.

While all-out war is unlikely, “all of the trends are in the wrong direction,” the International Crisis Group, a policy research organization, said in a report last month.

The competing nations have moved to assert administrative control over the islands through setting up local governments, building structures, passing laws and promoting tourism, often leading to tensions. After Vietnam passed a maritime law in June, China delineated oil blocks off areas that Hanoi’s leaders had already awarded and set up a military garrison in the Paracels.

Adding to the mix is the U.S., which is shifting military assets to Asia and is advocating multilateral regional talks on the South China Sea. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a July 18 editorial that China’s call for bilateral talks “is a recipe for confusion and even confrontation.”

U.S. Criticism

China’s actions in the Paracels run “counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risks further escalating tensions in the region,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said on Aug. 3. A day later, officials in Beijing said the U.S. was sending “a seriously wrong signal” to rivals for territorial rights in the South China Sea.

“The Chinese tend to react in very visceral fashion, and that does not always go down well,” said Jonathan D. Pollack, an Asian and Pacific Studies specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in a telephone interview. “Any time they see a U.S. role in anything, they will lash out.”

The U.S., which says it doesn’t take sides on competing claims, has a declared national interest in a stretch of sea that carries an annual $5 trillion in ship-borne trade and frequently cites concerns of freedom of navigation. China denies ever threatening ships passing through its waters.

Long-Standing Policy

“The U.S. is unlikely to get involved directly, as that would alter a long-standing policy of maintaining neutrality in territorial disputes and complicate its broader relationship with China,” said Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “However, the U.S. is likely to speak out when it believes that trends are challenging regional stability or the principle of freedom of navigation.”

The new surge in hostilities can be traced to about 2007, when claimants moved to strengthen their positions and develop oil and gas fields within their 200-nautical-mile economic zones, according to analyst Ian Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Government-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp., China’s largest off-shore oil producer and parent of Cnooc Ltd., in May begin drilling using its first deep-water drilling rig north of the Paracels. The proposed acquisition of Nexen Inc. of Canada by Cnooc, in a deal valued at $15.1 billion, would give China in-house deep-sea drilling expertise it had lacked, according to Dean Cheng, a researcher on Chinese political and security issues at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Race On

“It is certainly conceivable that if the Chinese are out there first, and the Chinese find oil and they can back their claims with military force that, in a sense, the region is going to be effectively ceded to the Chinese,” he said.

Vietnam has bid out areas within China’s claims, with Exxon Mobil Corp. and Gazprom OAO among companies that have signed deals to explore the area. The Philippines has also opened parts of the waters to international companies, though in a July auction it received bids only from smaller, local oil companies such as Makati City-based Helios Petroleum.

The existing mechanisms for China and Southeast Asian nations to hammer out their differences are proving inadequate. China says its claims pre-date the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which sets out a framework for a solution, and won’t submit to international arbitration.

A meeting in July of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations hosted by Cambodia failed to reach a consensus on handling disputes in the South China Sea.

If after nine years Asean and China cannot agree on how to implement a set of confidence-building measures, “what hope is there for reaching an agreement on a binding code designed to limit the sovereignty-building activities of the more active claimants?” said Storey. “Little to none, I would say.”

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