BEIJING // An array of government agencies operating without a consistent policy on the South China Sea makes it difficult for China to adopt a conciliatory tone on the controversial body of water, a new report says.
In "Stirring up the South China Sea", the International Crisis Group's report, released on Monday lists 11 departments or ministries that influence Chinese policy towards an area where Beijing's claims conflict with Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.
The rich fishing grounds and potentially large energy reserves of the region, which also contain busy shipping lanes, contribute to the area's status as a potential flashpoint.
While China "does not want to use military force" in the South China Sea, there is the potential for minor incidents to become serious, according to Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the think-tank's North East Asia project director.
"China has no interest in starting a conflict, nor does the United States, but that's not how wars start. It's because you have an incident develop and both countries don't know how to de-escalate," she said yesterday.
China has claimed virtually the entire South China Sea for years. But its ambiguous territorial claims have sparked tensions in the area, most recently in a weeks-long high-seas standoff with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, which both Asian countries claim.
The apparent lack of coordination in Chinese policy is partly because there is a genuine diversity of views within China, according to Li Mingjiang of Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. It is not, he suggested, simply a consequence of the number of agencies involved.
"The different departments, the foreign ministry, the military, all these law enforcement agencies, they simply do not agree on how China should define its claims in the South China Sea, so it becomes impossible to coordinate," he said.
With China's foreign ministry not having the authority to coordinate policy, China's southern naval fleet has exploited tensions to justify its modernisation, according to the report. The anti-smuggling bureau, coastguard and marine surveillance department have also seen their fleets grow in size, and the lack of clear legal framework under which their vessels operate increases the chance of incidents with foreign vessels.
Chinese vessels have been in dispute with Vietnamese and Philippine boats surveying natural resources in the South China Sea, and the ICG says the risk of conflict is increased by an absence of protocols on how to de-escalate incidents.
Local governments in southern China, which gain income from fishing taxes, are also pushing the case for greater engagement.
Over the past year, China has been less assertive, the ICG says, Beijing having concluded rising tensions have allowed the United States to strengthen ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific.
The report notes though that nationalism at home makes it more difficult for China to take a conciliatory line, saying there was "a growing domestic demand for assertive action".
A less hardline discussion of maritime disputes has however become evident in China, said Nicholas Thomas of the City University of Hong Kong's department of Asian and international studies. He cited the way debate evolved after a Chinese trawler captain was detained by Japan in disputed East China Sea waters in 2010.
"It wasn't just straight nationalism. It was why is China doing this, what are our long-term objectives with handling this in the right way," he said.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press