China’s rising maritime aspirations

Author: Li Mingjiang, RSIS

The recent annual sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) — two of the most important political events in China — demonstrated the extent to which the country’s elite aspire to safeguard China’s interests in the East Asian seas.

But in his report to the NPC, Premier Wen Jiabao also vowed to prioritise efforts to improve relations with neighbouring countries. The experience of recent years indicates that these two policy objectives may not be reconcilable and that it will be extremely difficult to maintain a balance between the two.

Proposals aimed at protecting China’s maritime interests flowed thick and fast during these meetings — and not all of them will facilitate friendlier relations with China’s neighbours. For instance, Lui Cigui, director of the State Oceanic Administration, indicated that China is serious about carrying out law enforcement activities in surrounding seas. He noted that China’s regular patrol activities now cover all the maritime zones under Chinese jurisdiction, which extends to the Yalu River estuary in the north, the Okinawa Trough in the east and the Zengmu Reef (James Shoal) in the south. The patrols also monitor features including the Suyan Islet (Socotra Rock), Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, Huangyan Islands (Scarborough Shoal) and the Nansha Islands (Spratlys). Less immediately confrontational, Wang Zhuwen, the president of Dalian Ocean University and a deputy in the NPC, pointed out that a lack of general awareness is constraining China’s ability to pursue its maritime interests. He thus proposed that maritime education should be included in primary and middle school curricula.

Chen Mingyi, a member of the Standing Committee of the CPPCC, also suggested that China should establish a national maritime commission to coordinate Chinese maritime policy. He further proposed that China should formulate a long-term comprehensive plan to transform China into a maritime power by 2020. Major General Luo Yuan, meanwhile, attracted much attention when he proposed that China should integrate its maritime law enforcement personnel to form a national coast guard. This new grouping would protect China’s maritime rights and interests in the face of growing challenges in the South China and East China seas. Luo also suggested that China should focus on five policy areas in the South China Sea: consolidating its administrative jurisdiction, strengthening the legal grounds of its territorial claims, enhancing its military presence, promoting economic activity and improving its ability to shape international opinion. He then proposed that China publish a white paper on the South China Sea issue to provide a comprehensive account of the historical and legal grounds of China’s claim.

Wang Zhifa, deputy director of the National Tourism Administration, announced that his agency is working with other central government agencies and Hainan province to promote tourism in the Paracels. He noted this should help secure China’s claim to sovereignty over the islands and will also be useful for border security. Some CPPCC members proposed that China should also step up efforts to protect the Diaoyu Islands — which are effectively controlled by Japan. This follows recent official publicity which promoted the islands’ Chinese names to underscore China’s claim to the islands. For instance, China Central Television could include the Diaoyu Islands in its weather forecasts to further highlight their inclusion in Chinese territory.

Despite these propositions, China’s aims and ambitions for its coastal seas are still not entirely clear. The Chinese media and many Chinese analysts have only described China’s ambitions in the East Asian seas in very loose terms. At recent political meetings in Beijing, for example, the political commissar of the navy’s North Fleet noted that China’s possession of an aircraft carrier is justified because China owns a large maritime area — in his own words, three million square kilometres of ocean territory. This would presumably include most of the East China Sea and the maritime zone within the ‘nine-dotted line’ in the South China Sea. But many Chinese experts on maritime affairs and officials in China’s foreign policy community are unlikely to support the usage of terms like ‘ocean territory’ to describe China’s ambitions in East Asian seas, viewing such language as overly expansive. In contrast to the commissar’s ambitious statement, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei observed in February that ‘no country, including China, makes a sovereignty claim over the whole South China Sea’.

So while it seems Beijing has not developed a clear maritime strategy, China’s interests in the maritime arena are growing fast. The discourse at the recent political congresses in Beijing exuded a sense of urgency and emphasised the need to employ tougher policies and step up China’s efforts to transform itself into a maritime power. Judging by experiences over the past few years, Premier Wen’s foreign policy goal of improving neighbourly relations might fail if regional maritime disputes are not handled with proper diplomatic care.

Li Mingjiang is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the China Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article first appeared here as RSIS Commentary No. 53/2012.