All at sea over disputed waters

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 April, 2012, 12:00am

China faces difficulty in alleviating tensions in the South China Sea because of contrasting mandates and a lack of co-ordination among its own government agencies, according to a study conducted by an international non-governmental group that strives to prevent conflicts.

The International Crisis Group said in a report it will release today, and which was seen by the South China Morning Post yesterday, that Beijing had shown a willingness to resolve the disputes through a moderate approach. But the effectiveness of those efforts had been hindered by the absence of an overarching policy executed uniformly throughout different levels of government.

The report comes as China and the Philippines are embroiled in escalating tensions, with Manila and Beijing accusing each other of undermining sovereignty near the Scarborough Shoal - or Huangyan Island - a group of islands and reefs to which both nations lay claim. The United States and Manila launched two weeks of naval drills a week ago, triggering a strong reaction from Beijing.

A commentary by the People's Liberation Army Daily published on Saturday warned that the US-Philippines drills had raised the risk of an armed confrontation over the disputed waters. The Pentagon has insisted the drill is a regular exercise 'not tied to any current situation'.

The crisis group's report said the Chinese navy's use of maritime tensions to justify its modernisation, coupled with nationalistic sentiment among mainlanders, complicated the issue. But the more immediate risk of conflict stemmed from the growing number of law-enforcement and paramilitary vessels that were playing an increasing role in the dispute without a clear legal framework.

'The conflicting mandates and lack of co-ordination among Chinese government agencies have stoked tensions in the South China Sea, and many of them are using this issue to try to increase their power and budget,' the report said.

It also said China had a 'bulky bureaucracy', which included 11 ministerial-level government agencies, dealing with the territorial disputes. Yet many of them had no knowledge of the diplomatic landscape and showed little interest in promoting the national foreign policy agenda.

Nor does the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) have the authority or resources to manage other government agencies, particularly the People's Liberation Army, according to the report. 'Another key problem is that the PLA significantly outranks the MFA in China's bureaucratic hierarchy, making co-ordination of South China Sea policy through the ministry impossible,' it said.

On some occasions, the Foreign Ministry relied on Western diplomats for information regarding the navy's activities in the South China Sea.

And the lack of co-ordination continued within the foreign ministry, particularly since the US got involved in 2009, as departments overseeing North American and ocean affairs must be consulted, along with the Asian affairs department, on anything related to the disputes.

'All of this inter-departmental competition makes it harder to achieve internal consensus on South China Sea issues and weakens the already limited effectiveness of the Foreign Ministry in managing disputes,' the report said.

The disputes have also become complicated by attempts to expand economic activities such as tourism in the disputed areas 'due to [the local governments'] single-minded focus on economic growth'.

'Yet despite the domestic nature of their motivations, the implications of their activities are increasingly international,' the report said.