China's maritime rights and expansion push could lead to tension with neighbours

Beijing's push to expand maritime economy and oceanic rights is seen as vital to nation's development, but also a source of friction

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 August, 2013, 9:02am

China's ambitious push to boost its marine economy and maritime rights is rising higher on the new leadership's agenda, but observers say the campaign could lead to more friction with its neighbours.

President Xi Jinping told a Communist Party Politburo meeting on Wednesday that becoming a maritime power was a priority, and vowed to further explore maritime resources and boost the proportion of the marine economy in the nation's gross domestic product.

"Oceans and seas have an increasingly important strategic status regarding global competition in the spheres of politics, economic development, military and technology," Xi said.

The marine economy comprises various industries, including tourism, and accounted for 9.6 per cent of China's GDP last year. An official think-tank estimated that the proportion would jump to 12.4 per cent by 2020.

"The ocean will be prominent on the policy agenda of the Chinese government," said Wang Hanling , a maritime expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "More effort will be put into formulating maritime strategy and law enforcement ."

Zhuang Guotu , director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University, said most of China's international trade was conducted by sea, so maritime security was rapidly becoming a major diplomatic issue. As a result, he said, China's maritime reach was expanding, and it has led to conflicts with neighbours.

"Security is increasingly important, especially as confrontations between China and its neighbours intensify," he said. "China needs to ensure that trade routes at sea will not be blocked."

China can't afford to have its claims to waters off its borders challenged further, Zhuang said, warning that this could trigger a "setback" in the nation's maritime expansion plans.

Professor Gao Shu , who specialises in oceanic affairs at Nanjing University, said territorial disputes would not affect China's maritime strategy, as Beijing needed to seek out more natural resources to fuel its booming economy.

Meanwhile, the Philippines' top diplomat said yesterday that he and his Vietnamese counterpart had discussed how they could co-operate in their territorial disputes with China.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said he and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh agreed in Manila yesterday to ask the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to seek early negotiations with Beijing on a legally binding accord to prevent a major conflict in the South China Sea.

Del Rosario said China's offer to jointly develop disputed areas was also discussed.

Additional reporting by Associated Press