A 10,000 tonne Coast Guard cutter under construction in Shanghai. (Sinodefence Forum.)

The perfect storm for geopolitical instability: high emotions, high levels of resolve, and low levels of communication and coordination.

This characterisation applies to crises such as in eastern Ukraine and Syria. It may also describe a long-simmering dispute in the South China Sea which has the potential to escalate dramatically. Linda Jakobson's latest paper explains in particular how China, the central protagonist in this dispute, is experiencing rising nationalism, a deliberate doctrinal shift toward 'sovereignty' over 'stability', and inter-agency rivalry and even dysfunction. Given China's colossal resources and historical consciousness, it might only be a matter of time before these internal dynamics spill over to an external conflict:

All of these actors (local governments, law enforcement agencies, the PLA, resource companies, and fishermen) stand to gain from China's defence of its maritime interests, including commercially, or through increased government funding, or in terms of prestige. Many actors push the boundaries of the permissible, using the pretext of Xi's very general guidelines on safeguarding maritime rights. They grasp every opportunity to persuade the government to approve new land reclamation projects, fishing bases, rescue centres, tourist attractions, larger and better-equipped patrol vessels, resource exploration, and legal instruments to codify claims. Xi relies on these actors to maintain the unity of the Communist Party. In the present nationalistic political atmosphere, Xi cannot denounce an action taken in the name of protecting China's rights.

Jakobson's paper has intriguing insights into the personal workings of China's supposedly monolithic political system. The unification of nine maritime agencies ('nine dragons stirring up the sea') into the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) has been riven by disharmony. Today the SOA has a dual-command structure (one civilian and one military) that will practically guarantee confusion. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as she has pointed out before, is neither the unitary decider of foreign policy nor even a particularly powerful one. The bulking up of Sansha (Woody Island) is partly at the initiative of local authorities, encouraged by corporate interests and probably the military, who will be happy to commandeer its extended airport runway.

Of the three dynamics — emotion, resolve, coordination — at work here, it is the middle one that is the most problematic. It can be argued whether China is more 'emotional' about its maritime interests than before. And while the apparently decentralised and confused conduct of Chinese actors is surprising, it is also possible that Beijing encourages their conduct, distancing itself with 'plausible deniability.'

What is crystal clear from Jakobson's paper, however, is the shift in stance from restraint to resolve, signaled from Xi Jinping down. She quotes an official: 'In contrast to the past, when wei wen (upholding stability) was paramount and our law enforcement agency vessels were ordered to withdraw from any stand-off in disputed waters, wei quan (safeguarding rights) now takes precedence over wei wen. This allows (Chinese) vessels to act resolutely.'

That is worrying. There is a debate going on in the US, I believe quite correctly, about the need for moderation in foreign policy after the adventurous excesses of the last decade. This formulation of grand strategy is aptly summarised in Barry Posen's book Restraint. Restraint is difficult: it requires discipline, patience and wisdom to achieve long-term objectives. China itself has been a masterful practitioner in recent decades. A reader of Jakobson's paper would rightly question if China is now deviating from this 'hide and bide' path. Incentives are clearly asymmetric today for any Chinese actor to escalate matters for the sake of national honour. He/she is unlikely to be punished, but likely would be lionised.

It is possible that China will back up its words militarily by reinforcing its vast and relentless 'white hull' fleet with 'grey hulls over the horizon.' Still, Beijing would do well to consider further consequences of a determined pursuit of its 'rights.' Even a restrained America may proliferate alliance bases and places along the littoral, wielding the same kinds of 'A2/AD' systems (mobile anti-ship missiles) that China itself is so keen about. Nearby Palawan's archipelago has immensely more strategic depth than Fiery Cross Reef, and US Marines are already present all over Palawan. We should hope the ongoing lawfare contest Jakobson describes as a 'propaganda war' stays that way. 

Her paper understandably limits its scope mainly to the South China Sea and the dynamics inside China's polity. It would be useful to understand if the other claimants — Japan in the East China Sea obviously comes to mind — are likewise experiencing their own domestic transitions in emotion, resolve and coordination. If storm clouds are brewing, Linda Jakobson's continued contributions to our understanding will be priceless.