Academic journal article China Perspectives

Strategies of China's Maritime Actors in the South China Sea

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Strategies of China's Maritime Actors in the South China Sea

Article excerpt

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Since around 2009, China has reinforced its maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and has tried to deter other states from strengthening their claims at China's expense. China has employed a range of diplomatic, administrative, economic, and military tactics to expand its effective control over disputed territories.(2)

Are China's tactics based on a well-coordinated plan, or are they the unintended consequence of competition and self-interest among various agencies? Do China's maritime actors compete for their own narrow interests to an extent that could disrupt China's overall strategy? Or are these actors working under the broad policy direction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)? Also, what is the role of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in the SCS? These are questions that this paper will try to answer.

There are two views on the questions. In one of her recent papers published in 2014, Linda Jakobson argues that China's actions in the maritime domain take place unsystematically and organically rather than as part of a grand strategy. Various actors cooperate when it serves both parties' interests, and "there is no evidence of a central government approved grand plan that mandates different actors coercing other claimants in a tailored way."(3) On the other hand, Bonnie Glaser argues that China's various maritime actors are increasingly coordinated and directed by senior policymakers as part of a larger strategy aimed at protecting China's sovereignty and maritime rights.(4)

This paper argues that although coordination problems did exist in the Hu Jintao era, as detailed in Jakobson's works, coordination among maritime actors has been improving, especially under the Xi Jinping administration. Of course, this is not to say that Xi Jinping has overcome all of the problems in China's political system at once, but the development of coordination is an important trend deserving further exploration.

The questions are part of a broader debate on China's political system. Since the 1990s, China's political system has been frequently referred to as "fragmented authoritarianism" in which authority at the very peak of the Chinese political system is centralised, but the layers below it are fragmented and disjoined.(5)

There is wide consensus among scholars about the complex nature of the Chinese political system, but sometimes researchers differ on which aspect they emphasise.

The first view puts an emphasis on fragmentation. Since the system is fragmented, it will be difficult for the central leadership to control all actions of the agencies. As a result, coordination among China's agencies tends to be poor.(6)The second view stresses that even though China looks different from its Maoist past, "democratic centralism," an organisational principle of the CCP, has not essentially changed, and China therefore somehow maintains coherence on important policy issues.(7) This paper adds insight to this debate.

Here we face at least two analytical problems: lack of information and the complex nature of China's strategy. It is not easy to know the consequence of poor coordination or observe the causal relationship between poor coordination and a particular behaviour. Moreover, China's strategy tends to be expressed in vague ways and sometimes contains contradictory elements, as a result of which it is very difficult to obtain information that ascertains which action by an agency truly deviates from national policy and which does not.

There is no easy way to overcome these analytical problems, but the paper will focus on Xi Jinping's power consolidation and institutional reforms that imply greater coordination, as well as the actual behaviour of maritime actors that indicate cooperation among actors. Each type of evidence is partial, but when combined this evidence strongly suggests the development of deeper coordination among maritime actors. …

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