ISSN 2330-717X

China’s New Marine Interests: Implications For Southeast Asia – Analysis


China has for the first time included a chapter on marine development in a Five Year Plan. This emphasis on the marine economy presents both challenges and opportunities.

By Yang Fang

CHINA’S 12th Five-Year Plan, which was released in March 2011, has for the first time incorporated maritime development guidelines in a single chapter. The plan emphasises an optimal marine industry structure that includes exploiting and utilising marine resources rationally and scientifically, enhancing maritime development, and improving control and management capabilities.

The call for development of the marine economy is in line with China’s growing maritime interests. During the course of the 11th Five-Year Plan, China’s marine economy increased by 13.5%. However, this increase accounts for no more than 10% of the national GDP. In the years to come, the Chinese government will transform the national economy into a more marine-based one. Coastal provinces have increased investment in marine industries and programmes to promote the marine economy. The country’s coastal provinces and municipalities – Liaoning, Hebei, Tianjin, Shandong, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan – all have their own offshore development plans.

However, many challenges lie in the way of such progress. These include the increasing demand for resources and the need to expand the size and role of law enforcement agencies at sea, which involve risks of confrontation with foreign ships.

Intensified Search for Energy


China is heavily dependent on energy and other resources to fuel its rapid economic growth. To ensure the sustainability of energy resources, the country is searching intensively for offshore sources to reduce dependence on foreign imports. State-owned energy companies are pushed to explore oil and gas in deeper and broader waters offshore. Most notably, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the biggest offshore oil and gas producer in China, has launched the most advanced oil and gas drilling platform CNOOC981 in June 2011, enabling the drilling of oil and gas in waters up to 3000 meters deep.

The quest for energy and the acquisition of high technology equipments will allow China to extract oil under more challenging geological conditions further and deeper in the South China Sea. In the past, China’s energy exploration activities in the South China Sea were confined to more shallow waters off Hainan Island. In comparison the Oriental Outlook, a magazine published by Xinhua News Agency, noted that about 20 million tonnes of oil and gas have been extracted annually by Vietnam, Philippines, and Malaysia from the South China Sea. This is perceived as a loss of oil and gas to foreign countries.

Combined with the pressure caused by the growing demand for energy domestically, the Chinese are feeling increasingly insecure about this unequal share of resources. The intensified search for energy among claimant states in the South China Sea, together with the lingering maritime boundary disputes will keep destabilising the region if all the parties concerned go their own way.

Expanding Law Enforcement Agencies

As China’s economy becomes more marine-based the role of maritime enforcement agencies will become more important. With three million square kilometers of offshore waters and 32,000 kilometers of coastline, China’s law enforcement agencies are required to expand their efforts in patrolling the seas and regulating maritime activities to maintain maritime order and protect marine economic development.

Since the 11th Five-Year Plan, China has been expanding its maritime law enforcement agencies. The China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) force, a department under the State Oceanic Administration, has launched a construction programme of 36 inspection ships and 54 high speed speedboats. It is envisaged that by 2015 when the 12th Five Year Plan is accomplished, the CMS will have 16 aircraft and 350 patrol vessels. By 2020, its staff will increase from 9000 to 15,000 personnel.

Other than the CMS, Chinese maritime law enforcement agencies also include the Maritime Police of the Border Control Department, the Maritime Safety Administration, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, and the General Administration of Customs. These agencies are under different departments and are projected to expand to fulfill their roles better.

More Conflicts Ahead?

The recent spats between China and other claimants over the South China Sea mainly involve stand-offs between Chinese patrol vessels and oil-searching vessels of neighbouring countries. The use of patrol vessels from civil law enforcement agencies may be a message that China is not willing to respond to maritime boundary disputes by using military force.

As the security environment in the surrounding waters, particularly in the South China Sea and East China Sea, is becoming more complicated, it is clear that China is facing more challenges in conducting maritime law enforcement. The confrontations between Chinese patrol ships and other claimants’ ships including exploration and fishing vessels are likely to increase.

Pondering the tough questions

China is facing a number of challenges at sea as its growing demand for energy and greater maritime law enforcement at sea become entangled with long-lingering sovereignty disputes with neighbouring countries. The military elites in China are calling for a more extensive national maritime strategy, which is under review. How these factors are to be integrated in a grand maritime strategy and its maritime interests can be achieved without confronting regional countries are tough questions that planners in Bejing are pondering.

Greater coordination both among Chinese maritime law enforcement agencies and between China and neighbouring countries in the South China Sea could offer a way out. Countries should consider joint cooperation backed by stronger political will to ensure sustainable stability and security for all. Countries should also consider establishing maritime hotlines for confidence building and better information sharing.

Yang Fang is an Associate Research Fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University where she obtained her M.Sc in Asian Studies. She graduated in law from Huaqiao University, China.

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RSIS Commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. The views of the author/s are their own and do not represent the official position of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU, which produces the Commentaries. For any republishing of RSIS articles, consent must be obtained from S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

One thought on “China’s New Marine Interests: Implications For Southeast Asia – Analysis

  • July 8, 2011 at 8:37 am

    Regardless how big and how powerful china is; in order for them to be respected is they should respect other country’s sovereignty first.

    China’s claim in the West Philippines’ Sea (WPS) or also known as South China Sea is baseless and not in accordance to the Law. Does it mean that because they are making business with the Philippines since 7 AD then they would claim the waters and land of the Philippines?

    The UNCLOS international Law of Sea has promulgated the signed and approved by the United nations 200 Nautical Miles Exclusive Economic Zone of all the country surrounding the Sea must be follow and China must not violate it.

    China bullied and clashed with Vietnam in Paracel which supposed to be Vietnam has the legal jurisdiction in some part of Paracel and China also Bullied and Invaed the Philippines’ Water in the West Philippines’ Sea (WPS) 200 Nautical Miles Exclusive Economic Zone.

    Also Taiwan; if Tiawan don’t want that the Treaty of Paris including them as Part of the Philippines then they must back-off otherwise the Treaty of Paris would be revive and will include them as a state of the Philippines.

    Taiwan is very far from the Spratlys. The rights of Taiwan before is they are part of the Philippines so they could exploit the Spratlys as Spratlys is part of the Philippines. Since Taiwan is not part of the Philippines anymore then they must have to back-off.

    For Vietnam: it is over to claim the whole spratlys including the Shore of the Philippines. Vietnam must follow the UNCLOS 200 Nautical Miles and must not over laps their claim. Vietnam and Philippine used the Spratlys as a fishing ground in their ancient times because that time they are both friends and sharing common places. Now, it doesn’t mean that if they wee allowed by the Philippines to exploit the spratlys before, then it could be part of Vietnam. It is a sign of betrayal. If somebody will lend you something then you will not return it anymore? Is it the right way Vietnam? Spratlys is within 200 nautical mile from the shore of the Philippines so how could you say that you owned including the shore of the Philippines? Are you under estimating Filipinos are you are well off and more educated than Filipinos? Think of it..



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