China moves from ‘restraint’ to ‘resolve’ in South China Sea


The perfect storm for geopolitical instability: high emotions, high levels of resolve, and low levels of communication and coordination.

This characterisation applies to crises such as in eastern Ukraine and Syria. It may also describe a long-simmering dispute in the South China Sea which has the potential to escalate dramatically. Linda Jakobson’s latest paper explains in particular how China, the central protagonist in this dispute, is experiencing rising nationalism, a deliberate doctrinal shift toward ‘sovereignty’ over ‘stability’, and inter-agency rivalry and even dysfunction. Given China’s colossal resources and historical consciousness, it might only be a matter of time before these internal dynamics spill over to an external conflict:

All of these actors (local governments, law enforcement agencies, the PLA, resource companies, and fishermen) stand to gain from China’s defence of its maritime interests, including commercially, or through increased government funding, or in terms of prestige. Many actors push the boundaries of the permissible, using the pretext of Xi’s very general guidelines on safeguarding maritime rights. They grasp every opportunity to persuade the government to approve new land reclamation projects, fishing bases, rescue centres, tourist attractions, larger and better-equipped patrol vessels, resource exploration, and legal instruments to codify claims. Xi relies on these actors to maintain the unity of the Communist Party. In the present nationalistic political atmosphere, Xi cannot denounce an action taken in the name of protecting China’s rights.

Jakobson’s paper has intriguing insights into the personal workings of China’s supposedly monolithic political system. The unification of nine maritime agencies (‘nine dragons stirring up the sea’) into the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) has been riven by disharmony. Today the SOA has a dual-command structure (one civilian and one military) that will practically guarantee confusion. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as she has pointed out before, is neither the unitary decider of foreign policy nor even a particularly powerful one. The bulking up of Sansha (Woody Island) is partly at the initiative of local authorities, encouraged by corporate interests and probably the military, who will be happy to commandeer its extended airport runway.


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