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    Greater China
     Dec 8, 2012

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China makes a splash with coastguard rules
By Peter Lee

New regulations for the Hainan Province Coast Guard - summarized in People's Republic of China (PRC) news agency reports on November 28 but as yet not published in full - generated a spasm of anxiety through the region and around the world.

Part of the anxiety was due to alarmist reporting by some otherwise prestigious outlets - more on that later - but the PRC government deserves the lion’s share of the blame for its sudden, incomplete, and ambiguous announcement.

If the PRC is going to succeed in its objective of ordering affairs in the South China Seas to its liking through bilateral negotiations with a number of rightfully resentful and suspicious states - chiefly Vietnam and the Philippines - it will have to communicate its

tactical moves as escalations and concessions carefully calibrated to the demands of each local hot spot.

To play the rogue dragon blundering through the southern oceans simply reinforces the conviction of China’s neighbors that better behavior and, perhaps, better results can be obtained by the solution that the PRC abhors: the aggrieved nations clubbing together through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and with the support of the United States pursuing negotiations in a multilateral forum.

Announcing the new Hainan regulations through fragmentary reports invited China’s South China Sea adversaries/interlocutors to spin the news to suit their priorities and preoccupations.

Judging from the agency reports, the meat of the Hainan regulations was this:
Police in Hainan will be authorized to board and search ships that illegally enter the province's waters in 2013, the latest Chinese effort to protect the South China Sea.

Under a set of regulation revisions the Hainan People's Congress approved on Tuesday, provincial border police are authorized to board or seize foreign ships that illegally enter the province's waters and order them to change course or stop sailing.

The full texts of the regulations, which take effect on Jan 1, will soon be released to the public, said Huang Shunxiang, director of the congress's press office.

Activities such as entering the island province's waters without permission, damaging coastal defense facilities, and engaging in publicity that threatens national security are illegal.

If foreign ships or crew members violate regulations, Hainan police have the right to take over the ships or their communications systems, under the revised regulations. [1]
The next day, a Reuters report from Jakarta interviewed Surin Pitsawan, secretary-general of ASEAN, and came up with: ASEAN chief voices alarm at China plan to board ships in disputed waters. [2]

The Reuters article occasioned a concerned post by James Fallows at the Atlantic magazine's website: "The Next Global Hot Spot to Worry About". [3] Agence France-Presse's lede eschewed nuance and accuracy to push the "PRC restricting freedom of navigation" hot button:
China has granted its border patrol police the right to board and turn away foreign ships entering disputed waters in the South China Sea... [4]
Then it was the turn of the New York Times on December 1 to deliver an anxiety upgrade: "Alarm as China Issues Rules for Disputed Area". [5] Manila Times added a serving of gasoline to the fire: "Chinese Police to Seize Foreign Ships in Spratlys". [6] The Indian Express evoked the Hainan regulations in its coverage: "Ready to Protect Indian Interests in South China Sea: Navy Chief". [7]

The reliably unreliable Foreign Policy magazine website (which recently elevated artist-provocateur-Twittermaster Ai Weiwei to its list of 100 top world thinkers while ignoring the determinedly thoughtful, imprisoned, and Twitter-deprived Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo) outsourced its Hainan Coast Guard coverage to an "It's the end of the world!" commentary titled "Will China Go to War in 2013?" from the conservative American Enterprise Institute. It proposed the foreign policy prescription:
Washington needs to make clear in the strongest possible terms that freedom of navigation won't be interfered with under any circumstances, and that the US Navy will forcibly prevent any ship from being boarded or turned around by Chinese vessels. [8]
Thankfully, the Obama administration did nothing of the sort. As reported by the New York Times, it simply stated:
"All concerned parties should avoid provocative unilateral actions that raise tensions and undermine the prospects for a diplomatic or other peaceful resolution."
This was probably in response to a careful and informed reading of the news reports concerning the new coastguard regulations, coupled with the understanding that the Chinese coastguard's area of responsibility is within the PRC's 12-mile (19.3 kilometer) coastal waters immediately contiguous to the various pesky islands (the wide open spaces of the South China Sea within the PRC's notorious nine-dash line fall under the purview of the Maritime Surveillance Force).

The target of the regulations is not vessels exercising freedom of navigation to transit China's claimed exclusive economic zone, so the World War III hysterics of the American Enterprise Institute were apparently misplaced.

M Taylor Fravel, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, contributed an analysis to The Diplomat which concluded:
[T]he actions outlined above are all concerned with Chinese territory or territorial waters - not the much larger maritime areas that press accounts have suggested. This is, moreover, consistent with the duties of the China's public security border defense units that are the subject of the regulations. [9]
The PRC government belatedly got on the case, clarifying that the Hainan coastguard regulations had nothing to do with impairing the free navigation of foreign vessels transiting the South China Sea. On November 30, Xinhua reported that the PRC Foreign Ministry had addressed the anxiety over the coastguard's declaration of its right to stop and board foreign vessels that illegally enter its waters:
"China highly values free navigation in the South China Sea," Hong said. "At present, there are no problems in this regard." [10]
In this context, I would voice the opinion that "the PRC threat to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea" is a canard that the United States happily encourages in order to claim relevance in the otherwise remote reaches of the Pacific Ocean. The majority of traffic passing through the area is going to and from China, and if the PRC wished to commit economic suicide by shutting down shipping in these waters, it could do so largely by closing its own ports. Japan has exhaustively researched the strategic vulnerabilities of the Malacca Strait/South China Sea route and determined that they could be bypassed at the significant but not fatal cost of a 10% increase in shipping costs (super-large ore carriers destined for Japan already avoid the South China Sea and transit the Sunda Strait on the east side of the island of Indonesia). I leave it to experts in the field to determine whether world peace - or even the access of Vietnam and the Philippines to the international trade regime - would be fatally compromised by the unlikely event of absolute Chinese interdiction of third-country marine traffic through its claimed exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. The PRC recognizes freedom of navigation for transiting vessels as an absolute red line that should not be crossed (if there are any doubts, I suggest that interested readers explore the PRC's long-standing and vociferous opposition to the US promotion of the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is designed to allow transiting vessels to be stopped and boarded by the naval forces of do-gooder nations in search of nefarious cargoes). In any case, if the PRC wishes to engage in piracy of transiting ships and trigger a global economic and security crisis, the heavy lifting will not be done by the Hainan Coast Guard. Fallows kindly posted some points I made concerning the import of the new regulations, which I reproduce here:
1. They are part of an upgrade/clarification of coastguard regs throughout China. Media reports show that, for instance Hebei and Zhejianghave also issued new regulations at the same time.

2. It appears their target is nationalist demonstrators from neighboring nations intent on island-related mischief. The main purpose of the new regs is to establish a clear public policy allowing for the coastguard to take action against people who try to land on the islands or sail around the islands and [irritate] the PRC (like the Taiwanese and Hong Kong demonstrators did to Japan around the Senkakus). I'm assuming that's the reason why the coastguard announced it is not going to permit any "hooliganism" inside China's claimed territorial waters (a catch-all term for activity without a clearly identified legitimate purpose, according to the PRC and in this case probably includes spraying coastguard vessels with fire hoses, hotdogging, etc.).

3. So the new regs forbid crossing borders or entering ports without permission; illegal island landings; messing with facilities on islands China claims; propaganda that violates China's sovereignty or national security. The regs are written not to impinge on lawful freedom of transit. The coastguard is only supposed to go after ships that illegally "stop or drop anchor" while transiting.

4. I think the reason why the Hainan regulations were given such prominence is because the PRC wanted to put the Philippines and Vietnam on notice that sending out nationalist armadas/landing parties to contested islands would elicit an escalating response from the Chinese. Going after demonstrators in an organized, legalistic way (instead of ad hoc reactive response) is a relatively cheap and easy way for the PRC to assert and demonstrate effective sovereignty of the areas it claims. One could call this escalation, and/or an attempt to set clear ground rules to help avoid conflict.

5. I see the intent of the regulations as written is to promote the PRC's idea of routine, lawful maritime enforcement. It will be interesting to see how energetically this is spun as "PRC violates freedom of navigation".

Continued 1 2  

China nudges up South China Sea tension (Dec 6, '12)

China to rule the seas - unmanned
(Dec 5, '12)

Is China trying to implode Japan's economy?
(Nov 30, '12)



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