In recent years China’s good-neighbourly pledges of increased trade and investment have stood in stark contrast with its provocative actions in its near seas. In part this reflects contradictions in China’s core interests. On the one hand, economic growth — vital for China’s political stability — requires cooperative relations with neighbours. On the other hand, defending sovereignty causes friction with neighbours who are rival claimants to contested islands and seas on China’s periphery.
China’s claims in the East and South China Seas have not changed in decades. What has changed is China’s capacity and desire to defend its maritime claims. Moreover, since becoming leader, Xi Jinping has placed greater emphasis on defending China’s sovereignty. But there is no evidence that China’s recent actions in the maritime domain are part of a grand strategy Xi is pursuing to coerce China’s neighbours in a tailored way towards a pre-defined goal. Despite the image of Xi as a strong leader, systemic problems and fractured authority in China leave substantial room for myriad maritime security actors to push their own agendas, especially in the South China Sea. These include local governments, law enforcement agencies, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), resource companies, and fishermen.
All of these actors 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.
The central leadership has tried to better coordinate maritime policies, in particular by restructuring the maritime enforcement agencies. But the plan to establish a unified China Coast Guard, announced in March 2013, has not yet been fully realised. The complex management structure of the consolidated organisation has given rise to a power struggle between the State Oceanic Administration and Ministry of Public Security that has yet to be resolved. Additionally, it is unclear whether the PLA will expand its present role as an ‘over the horizon’ force, on hand only in case it is needed. According to some Chinese sources, the PLA had a coordinating role during the stand-off between the Chinese and Vietnamese patrol vessels over the HYSY-981 oil rig in May 2014. Joint military–civilian exercises have since increased, possibly indicating that the PLA will take on a more active role in maritime law enforcement.