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Stirring up the South China Sea - Crisis Group's Report

International Crisis Group’s director for North East Asia, Stepahie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, spoke to journalists on Tueasday about the organization’s most recent report, Stirring up the South China Sea (I). Here is a summary of points from her talk and the report:

• The sea accounts for around a tenth of the world’s annual fisheries catch and a third of the world’s shipping passes through its waters.
• China has never given co-coordinates for the famous nine-dashed line, marking its claims to an area of sea in the shape of a tongue protruding into the South China Sea between Vietnam and the Philippines. 
• China has been fishing and patrolling in the region since “at least the 15th century,” but the nine-dashed line wasn’t included on an official map until the Kuomintang produced one in 1947. The boundary isn’t recognized by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that China ratified in 1996.
• China’s lack of precision is deliberate. Its leaders are “boxed in” by national sentiment, said Kleine-Ahlbrandt. At school, children learn that China owns the territory enclosed by the nine dashes. Privately, the foreign ministry has begun to brief embassies “that its claim is primarily to land features within the nine-dashed line” as well as the related Exclusive Economic Zones that would belong to the country owning such islands and reefs.    
• Unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China hasn’t agreed with the U.S. on a procedure to avoid escalation of tension in Incidents at Sea
• Kleine-Ahlbrandt said that Vietnam and the Philippines sometimes “put China in a position where it feels as though it needs to respond,” and the dominant regional power’s “victim mentality” complicates its dealings with smaller neighbors.
• There are five Chinese law enforcement authorities with a role in the South China Sea – the Ministry of Public Security (via the Coast Guard), the General Administration of Customs (via the Customs Anti-Smuggling Bureau), the State Oceanic Administration (via China Marine Surveillance), the Ministry of Transport (via the Maritime Safety Administration) and the Ministry of Agriculture (via the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command.
• “Grab what you can on the sea, and divide the responsibilities between agencies afterwards,” is how they describe the allocation of responsibilities in the region. 
• The State Oceanic Administration answers to the Ministry of Land and Resources. That department and the agriculture ministry have been taking the major decisions in the sea. 
• Guangdong and Hainan have, in some cases “been forcing fishing companies to fish further and further” away from the shore. 
• Historically, China’s South Sea Fleet has been weaker than its North Sea and East Sea Fleets, but, as the recent acquisition of destroyers shows, its status has been enhanced by the growing tensions in the sea. 
• By settling disputes in the sea with vessels belonging to its law enforcement agencies and paramilitary, rather than the navy, China can give the impression that it regards the incidents as a relatively minor domestic affairs.  
• Just as China’s energy policy suffers from the absence of a dedicated oversight committee, so the country’s policy in the South China Sea reflects five government departments’ different priorities. The anticipation and resolution of any conflicts requires intervention by the top leaders and there are hotspots, such as North Korea, competing for their attention. 
• China hasn’t defined South China Sea disputes as one of the country’s “core interests” on a par with Taiwan and Tibet, most researchers agree, rejecting speculation that originated in early 2010.   



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