TSG IntelBrief: China’s Uncertain Maritime Ambitions

INTELBRIEF

TSG IntelBrief: China’s Uncertain Maritime Ambitions

As of early June 2012, China’s maritime ambitions remain a source of uncertainty and concern for the United States as well as for regional powers in the Asian Pacific area. To date, the Chinese government has yet to issue a white paper defining its maritime interests as it has in other areas of its evolving military and defense policies. Nor has it specifically clarified — or described the implications of — the coordinates of its so-called “nine-dotted line,” a division ostensibly demarcating China’s claims in the South China Sea, drawn on a 1947 map produced by the former government of the Republic of China.

What is known at this stage is that China’s maritime policies are undergoing a major reassessment, perhaps even a transformation, that is consistent with the country’s expanding power and global interests. What that transformation means, and what it signals about Chinese maritime intentions, remains a focus of intense analytical speculation.

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Factors in Maritime Development

China’s effort to transition from its longstanding coastal defense posture to developing a viable offshore, blue-water maritime capability is a fairly recent phenomenon with origins in the mid-1980s. Its maritime development since then appears to have been spurred by a combination of key factors:  

Economics. China’s growing economy has connected Chinese interests more extensively with the international community and increased its dependence on global commerce, much of which moves by sea. In 1993, for instance, China became a net importer of oil. By 2009, China’s State Oceanic Administration estimated that 70 percent of the value of Chinese trade traveled by sea. Many of the resources China requires to fuel its growth — especially oil, copper, iron ore — must travel by ocean-going transport. It is estimated that by 2020 China will need to import two-thirds of its oil. Protecting these trade routes will be viewed as a strategic necessity, one that will require an enhanced maritime capability. Maritime assets are also an important component of China’s plans to protect its foreign economic investments and its citizens overseas.
 
Security. Reunification with Taiwan remains China’s primary strategic focus, with the U.S. regional naval presence being a principle potential deterrent to China’s reunification aspirations — and, in truth, to many of China’s regional ambitions. But China has other regional territorial disputes as well, with multiple countries claiming overlapping territorial and maritime rights that directly compete with those of China. Limited to rhetorical bluster in the past, China’s growing maritime capacity in recent years has enabled it to press its interests and defend these claims far more robustly.   

Politics. Collateral to economic interests and security threats are political concerns that the Chinese Communist Party must successfully manage to ensure its rule. These include the potential instability of growing nationalism in China — which tends to be activated in particular when questions involving national sovereignty and territorial integrity arise — and tenuous social stability due to economic inequalities, which potentially could be aggravated by interruptions in the supply of goods or resources. The Party has calculated that a muscular maritime arm is an important tool in containing these potential problems and ensuring the continuation of its rule in China.

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Potential Areas of Conflict

Although there is a valid argument to be made that a growing global economy like China’s needs commensurate growth in its military and civilian maritime forces, Beijing’s failure to date to clarify its maritime policies and interests leaves lingering concerns about its future intentions. This lack of clarity alone creates uncertainty and the potential for conflict with other maritime powers. But there are other complicating factors in China’s maritime environment that, if left unaddressed, could further raise the risk of confrontation and misunderstanding.

One such area concerns the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which defines countries’ rights and responsibilities in the use of the oceans. China signed the agreement in 1996 and follows most of its provisions; however, it does not agree that freedom of navigation under UNCLOS extends to the right of military ships to conduct survey operations within a country’s exclusive economic zone. The United States, which has not signed the agreement, interprets UNCLOS to include such activities, and U.S. military vessels often conduct such survey operations. U.S.-China misunderstandings — and confrontations — in the maritime domain often involve this fundamentally different interpretation.

A second area concerns questions about the extent of coordination and communication among the multiple bureaus and departments in China that have jurisdiction over maritime matters. In addition to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), military actors in the maritime arena include the broader PLA, various military departments, the People’s Armed Police, and the maritime militia. Civilian agencies with maritime interests include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which in 2009 created a subordinate Bureau of Boundary and Ocean Affairs), the Ministry of Land and Resources (which includes authority over maritime resources), the Ministry of Agriculture (which includes the Bureau of Fisheries), and the General Administration of Customs (involved in anti-smuggling) among a host of others. This lack of central authority — and the inescapable bureaucratic friction that undermines rapid coordination among agencies — further blurs the lines of responsibility over maritime matters.  

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Implications of the Shangri-La Dialogue of 2012

Singapore hosted the June 1-3 Shangri-La Dialogue, a meeting among Asia-Pacific defense ministers designed to build conference and cooperation. At the Dialogue, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the United States would be adjusting its military force posture so that, by 2020, 60% of the U.S. fleet would be deployed in the Pacific. (U.S. naval forces are currently distributed equally between the Atlantic and the Pacific.) This move will obviously enhance the U.S. presence in the Pacific, but also increase the U.S. Navy’s regular contacts with Chinese maritime vessels.

Following the Dialogue, a Chinese foreign affairs spokesman said that such an expansion of the U.S. presence was “inappropriate.” While such a reaction is to be expected, of greater significance was the fact that Mr. Panetta’s counterpart, the Chinese Defense Minister, Liang Guanglie, did not attend the Shangri-La Dialogue this year, although he did (for the first time) in 2011. It remains unclear whether the absence of senior Chinese military officials formally signaled displeasure with the United States or whether Chinese leaders are keeping a low public profile as a result of the current political scandal involving Bo Xilai (as reported in our May 30 IntelBrief).

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