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Chinese Authorities Spar Over South China Sea

by Mary Swire,, Hong Kong

26 April 2012

A new report from the International Crisis Group, 'Stirring up the South China Sea', has analysed the reasoning behind continued international tensions on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, despite China's earlier commitment to rebuild friendly international relations.

The report says a lack of coordination among Chinese government agencies has stymied process towards a resolution in the South China Sea, with conflicting mandates struggling to increase their power and budget. “Repeated proposals to establish a more centralised mechanism have foundered, while the only agency with a coordinating mandate - the foreign minister - does not have the authority or resources to manage other [domestic] actors,” the report says.

“The Chinese navy’s use of maritime tensions to justify its modernisation, and nationalist sentiment around territorial claims, further compound the problem," the report continues. "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 Shoal.”

“While Beijing took measures in mid-2011 to moderate its approach in order to repair damage done to regional relationships that had led to an expanded US role in the region, this is unlikely to be sustainable unless China adopts consistent overarching policy executed uniformly throughout the different levels of government.”

The report says that in order to quell the tensions, Beijing must ensure that the eleven ministerial-level agencies involved, and in particular the law enforcement agencies, respect one coherent maritime policy, and agree to compromise on what constitutes Chinese territorial waters.

Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Crisis Group’s North East Asia Project Director, said: “Some agencies are acting assertively to compete for a slice of the budget pie, while others such as local governments are focused on economic growth, leading them to expand their activities into disputed waters. Their motivations are domestic in nature, but the impact of their actions is increasingly international”.

According to the International Crisis Group, clashes on the South China Sea - 3.5 million sq km of waters contested by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - are plentiful. Last year, tensions peaked when a Chinese fishing boat rammed and severed the exploration cables of a Vietnamese ship. Both sides have also launched live fire exercises. In late April, Chinese law enforcement vessels prevented the Philippine navy from detaining Chinese fishermen allegedly caught poaching, resulting in the extended standoff in Scarborough Reef. The Chinese navy has steered clear of the disputes over the last several years, but is using the tensions to justify its modernisation, which is contributing to a regional military build-up.

The Chinese government faces the challenge of presenting an acceptable maritime border claim, based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to diffuse the conflict. However, the report notes that with nationalist sentiment high and growing public demand for more assertive action, it will not be easy for Beijing to back away from its historical claims. “This confusion is playing into the hands of law enforcement forces and local government policies,” the report says.

Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director, concluded: “The Sea will remain volatile unless China’s internal coordination problems and the legal confusion surrounding its maritime territorial claims are addressed."

TAGS: marine

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