Thursday, May 17, 2012

bureaucratic politics in the South China Sea

The longer I study government, the less inclined I am to accept conspiracy theories -- that governments can secretly carry out major policies without the rest of us finding out. My default presumption is that some subordinate organization did its own thing without  approval or direction from above, or that there was simple incompetence.

Given that orientation, I have been puzzled by the apparent ratcheting up of pressure by China over disputed islands in the South China Sea.  Today I have a plausible explanation in a report from the respected International Crisis Group.  The key observation:

The conflicting mandates and lack of coordination among
Chinese government agencies, many of which strive to
increase their power and budget, have stoked tensions in
the South China Sea. Repeated proposals to establish a
more centralised mechanism have foundered while the
only agency with a coordinating mandate, the foreign ministry,
does not have the authority or resources to manage
other actors.
China’s maritime policy circles use the term “Nine dragons
stirring up the sea” to describe the lack of coordination
among the various government agencies involved in
the South China Sea. Most of them have traditionally been
domestic policy actors with little experience in foreign
affairs. While some agencies act aggressively to compete
with one another for greater portions of the budget pie,
others (primarily local governments) attempt to expand
their economic activities in disputed areas due to their
single-minded focus on economic growth. Yet despite the
domestic nature of their motivations, the implications of
their activities are increasingly international.
Of course, there are broader strategic issues involved as well, as the ICG report notes. But these "nine dragons" could propel this controversy into quite dangerous waters unless Beijing asserts central control.

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