China’s “unpredictable” behavior in the South China Sea is fueling an Asian arms race, according to the author of a report that says Chinese agencies don’t coordinate in executing national strategy.
China, which claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, has alarmed its neighbors with contradictory policies in the region, said Linda Jakobson, an independent researcher and non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. Asian nations including Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia have responded by increasing military spending.
“I’m concerned about the arms race that is quite evidently taking place,” Jakobson said by telephone from Sydney. “It is a result of the uncertainty about what China is going to do with its power.”
While officials promote China’s diplomatic approach to solving territorial spats, the country’s island reclamation projects, confrontations with foreign fishing boats and oil exploration activities have provoked protests from rival claimants.
China’s permanent representative to the United Nations said this week that his country will work with other countries to promote the peace, security and openness of the ocean, according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency.
President Xi Jinping’s pledge to treat China’s neighbors as friends and partners, has been undermined by agencies “taking heavy handed measures” to strengthen its territorial claims, Jakobson said in a report for the Lowy Institute titled “China’s Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors.”
In March, China’s law enforcement vessels tried to stop the resupply of a Philippine naval vessel in disputed waters in the South China Sea. Two months later, China moved an oil rig into waters within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, sparking confrontations between dozens of boats and deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.
Jakobson said that despite Xi’s image as a strong leader, systemic problems and “fractured authority” in China leave room for a myriad of maritime security actors to push their own agendas. The actors include the People’s Liberation Army, local governments, law-enforcement agencies, resource companies and fishermen.
“They grasp every opportunity to persuade the government to approve new land reclamation projects, fishing bases, rescue centers, tourists attractions, larger and better equipped patrol vessels, resource exploration and legal instruments to codify China’s claims,” Jakobson wrote in the report.
In the current atmosphere of nationalism, “Xi cannot denounce an action taken in the name of protecting China’s rights,” she said.
“Xi Jinping has said it is important to protect sovereignty while maintaining stability but he has not spelled out how this balance is to be maintained,” Jakobson said in the interview. “So it is really up to the actors and those actors who want to push the agenda will continue to do so.”
Vietnam will soon take delivery of its third Russian-made submarine, part of a $2 billion order for six such vessels, Thanh Nien News reported Dec. 7. Indonesia plans to field 12 submarines and is buying two from Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, according to IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. Singapore, which has six submarines, has ordered two more from ThyssenKrupp Marine System GmBH.