China could easily grab control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal fishing grounds in the South China Sea using its increasingly modern and powerful armed forces. Chinese naval, air and amphibious units, working in unison, already have the capability to enforce Beijing’s claims of island ownership and maritime control in the northern sector of the sea, where the shoal is located just 220 km from the Philippine mainland.

China dwarfs the puny Philippine military. Yet it deliberately chose not to deploy its regular armed forces to secure the unoccupied shoal, even though the standoff with the Philippines continued for more than two months. On June 16, Manila withdrew its remaining two coast guard vessels from the Scarborough area, ostensibly because of a passing typhoon, without saying whether they would return after the weather clears.

There are several reasons for China’s decision not to use warships. The Philippines is an ally of the United States and China could not be sure the U.S. would not intervene if Chinese armed forces became directly involved in a Scarborough clash and takeover.

In the past few years, China’s increasingly assertive actions not just in the South China Sea, but also against Japan over disputed islands and maritime boundaries in the East China Sea, have alarmed and alienated many of its neighbors. “The last thing China wants is to see these countries and the U.S. joining hands against China,” Chen Xiangyang, deputy director of the Institute of World Political Studies in the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, wrote in the online edition of China Daily on June 11.

This has created a major foreign policy management issue for China as it prepares for a once-in-a-decade leadership transfer later this year. At this sensitive time, and as its economy slows, China needs a stable neighborhood. Yet Chinese leaders bidding for the top posts cannot afford to appear weak in upholding national unity.

So China decided not to wield “hard power” over Scarborough. Instead it is applied softer paramilitary power, as well as diplomatic and economic pressure on the Philippines.

Deploying vessels from its growing fleet of paramilitary seagoing ships, some lightly armed and others unarmed, may remain China’s preferred means of expanding its presence and enforcing its sweeping claim to sovereignty and other forms of jurisdiction over about 80 percent of the South China Sea, extending deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

But there are risks with this paramilitary policy. It could still lead to armed conflict with Southeast Asian claimant countries, with Chinese regular forces becoming involved if reinforcements are required. Both Chinese and foreign analysts have warned of this danger if the various competing maritime law enforcement agencies of China continue to expand rapidly without firmer centralized control.

Attending the first intergovernmental maritime talks with China last month (May 15-16 in Hangzhou), Japanese officials found that five Chinese paramilitary agencies were involved: (1) the China Coast Guard, an arm of the Public Security Ministry; (2) the Maritime Safety Administration of the Transport Ministry; (3) the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) of the Agriculture Ministry; (4) the State Oceanographic Administration’s China Marine Surveillance (CMS), a unit of the Land and Resources Ministry; and (5) the General Administration of Customs, which is ranked as a ministry.

A study published two years ago by the U.S. Naval War College said that these five Chinese agencies had about 40,000 personnel, compared with some 12,000 in the Japan Coast Guard, although the latter is better equipped.

In fact, there are nine Chinese maritime agencies linked to different ministries and levels of government. They are sometimes referred to as “nine dragons stirring up the sea” because of their increasing involvement in disputed waters.

However, the five agencies represented at the talks with Japan are the biggest and most active at sea, with FLEC and CMS being most visible in recent months in both the Scarborough and East China Sea disputed zones. A senior CMS official said earlier this month that its fleet would have more than 520 vessels by 2020, about double its current size, while its personnel would increase to 15,000, from 9,000 now.

Four years ago, the CMS deputy director Sun Shuxian suggested that the force would serve as a surrogate naval unit. He told the China Daily on Oct. 20, 2008, that the CMS would be “upgraded to a reserve unit under the navy, a move that will make it better armed during patrols. …”

Last March, Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, deputy chief of the China Society of Military Science, called for the main maritime enforcement agencies to be integrated into a national coast guard under a ministry of seas and oceans to improve efficiency and policy control.

In an April report, the International Crisis Group said that by competing to increase their power and share of the budget, the nine dragons were stoking tensions in the South China Sea and making a settlement more difficult to achieve.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

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