Pragmatic | Nine dragons stirring up the sea

On the many domestic Chinese agencies involved in the South China Sea

Most Indian reports on China tend to look at that country as a unitary entity with little focus on the internal political and institutional dynamic that affects Chinese actions. Walter Russell Mead blogs about the old Chinese legend of “nine dragons stirring up the sea” used by maritime policy circles to describe the various government agencies involved in the South China Sea. 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. He draws from a report titled Stirring up the South China Sea (I) released last month by the International Crisis Group.

Here is an extract from the executive summary of that report:

The conflicting mandates and lack of coordination among Chinese government agencies, many of which strive to increase their power and budget, have stoked tensions in the South China Sea. Repeated proposals to establish a more centralised mechanism have foundered while the only agency with a coordinating mandate, the foreign ministry, does not have the authority or resources to manage other actors. The Chinese navy’s use of maritime tensions to justify its modernisation, and nationalist sentiment around territorial claims, further compound the problem. But more immediate conflict risks lie in the growing number of law enforcement and paramilitary vessels playing an increasing role in disputed territories without a clear legal framework. They have been involved in most of the recent incidents, including the prolonged standoff between China and the Philippines in April 2012 in Scarborough Reef. Any future solution to the South China Sea disputes will require a consistent policy from China executed uniformly throughout the different levels of government along with the authority to enforce it.

China’s maritime policy circles use the term “Nine dragons stirring up the sea” to describe the lack of coordination among the various government agencies involved in the South China Sea. Most of them have traditionally been domestic policy actors with little experience in foreign affairs. While some agencies act aggressively to compete with one another for greater portions of the budget pie, others (primarily local governments) attempt to expand their economic activities in disputed areas due to their single-minded focus on economic growth. Yet despite the domestic nature of their motivations, the implications of their activities are increasingly international. Other factors – both internal and external to China – have also been responsible for increasing tensions, but they are beyond the scope of this study.

Effective coordination of actors is also hampered by a lack of clarity over precisely what is supposed to be defended. China has yet to publicly clarify the legal status of the so-called nine-dashed line that appears on most Chinese maps, encompassing most of the South China Sea. While the foreign ministry has taken steps to try to reassure its neighbours that Beijing does not claim the entire South China Sea and has at least partially justified its claims on the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the government cannot easily back down from claims to significant portions of the sea that are based on historical presence in the region. Local government agencies take advantage of this lack of legal clarity when engaging in activities in disputed areas.

Read the rest here.


DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.