18 December 2014

CMSI’s Ryan Martinson & Lowy Institute’s Linda Jakobson Debate the Agency of China’s Civil Maritime (Coast Guard) Agencies

A great debate whose time has come. Personally, I think Martinson strikes the right balance, but both experts have made useful contributions to the open source literature on this important yet understudied topic!

China’s consolidating Coast Guard is certainly acting in aggregate to further a larger national strategy of some sort; the question is, precisely how, and to what end? What challenges is it facing, and how is it working to surmount them? What limitations to consolidation and coordination remain? What are the relevant trends? All these areas cry for detailed scholarly and analytical attention.

Ryan D. Martinson, “Chinese Maritime Activism: Strategy Or Vagary?The Diplomat, 18 December 2014.

A new study questions the conventional wisdom of a coordinated national strategy.

Everybody who meditates on Chinese foreign policy has a theory of how China functions. This is only human: the mind needs to make sense of all the information. The best analysts constantly reassess their theories in light of new data. In her recent Lowy Institute study, Linda Jacobson presents the English-speaking world with lots of new data – and a new theory to go with them.  …

Jakobson profiles all of China’s major actors in the maritime sphere, from the highest policymaking bodies to the outspoken ranks of PLA propagandists. Above all, she focuses on China’s maritime law enforcement agencies, a natural choice given that if a strategy does exist they would be the primary instruments with which it would be implemented. In particular, she looks at the recently created China Coast Guard, suggesting a reform encountering stiff headwinds, a case that she makes with great persuasiveness. Jakobson puts a microscope on the agents of Chinese maritime policy, unearthing the details of their political ecosystem from dozens of texts and interviews with Chinese scholars and officials. Her research is a much needed corrective to simplistic views of China as a state able to identify an objective many years in advance and pursue it with anthropomorphic cunning. …

Depicting a cast of maritime actors at odds with each other does not in itself prove fragmented authority is to blame for recent assertiveness. Strategy could still be at play. Ultimately, it will depend on how you define the term. If by strategy one means a comprehensive state effort to achieve an identified objective, inter-agency rivalry should be seen in its proper light as an impediment to coherence not a driver of actions. In other words, “tailored coercion” may suggest too much subtlety, but the chaos implied by Jakobson’s model errs in the other extreme. ….

Linda Jakobson, China’s Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors (Sydney: Lowy Institute for International Policy, December 2014).

In this Report, Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow Linda Jakobson argues that despite Chinese president Xi Jinping’s image as a strongman, China’s approach to maritime security will continue to be shaped by a diverse set of actors pushing their own agendas. Consequently, China’s behaviour will be unpredictable. These actors are taking advantage of Xi’s very broad guidelines, the present nationalistic atmosphere, and fractured authority within China’s decision-making processes to push for maritime policies that benefit them commercially and politically.


China’s recent assertive actions in the maritime domain are not part of a grand strategy to coerce China’s neighbours in a tailored manner. …

The restructuring of China’s maritime law enforcement agencies, announced in March 2013, led to a power struggle between the State Oceanic Administration and the Ministry of Public Security. Consequently, genuine integration of the new China Coast Guard has not yet taken place.

The People’s Liberation Army could be taking a more active role as coordinator of maritime law enforcement in China’s near seas.