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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Many people look at China and see a unified behemoth tightly controlled by the communist central leadership, so when a diplomatic fray develops, like a rash of recent confrontations in the South China Sea, the assumption is that it’s all part of a grand plan by Beijing.

But some analysts see the bureaucracy as more akin to a giant octopus, with the teeming tentacles of ministries and provinces setting their own agendas as they compete for clout and profits — as long as they maintain loyalty to the Communist Party. The philosophy, particularly among southern provinces, is the ancient adage, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.”

That occasionally leaves Beijing to clean up any unintended diplomatic messes.

For instance, China’s maritime policy has largely been set by five national agencies and other local governments. In an apparent effort to impress Beijing, they have been making a “sea grab” of sorts for disputed islands in the South China Sea based on China’s iconic “nine-dashed-line” map claiming sovereignty over those waters.

That has sparked tensions with other countries and concerns about Chinese expansionism that have played a role in the U.S. decision to shift more military resources to Asia and led the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand to become more open to an expanded American presence.

Some South China Sea countries embroiled in past island sovereignty disputes have found a path forward through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. China, however, has bristled at the suggestion that its South China Sea policy and actions should even be discussed by ASEAN or other regional groupings.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, roughly equivalent to America’s State Department, would logically be the body setting and coordinating policy among the various government entities with interests in the disputed seas. But it’s little more than a bit player.

At the same time, the People’s Liberation Army’s navy has largely remained out of the fray, the nation’s leaders concerned that a strong military presence would escalate minor confrontations to armed conflict.

With China’s regional naval strategy for the PLA remaining vague, Pentagon and State Department policymakers take cues from the actions of the country’s maritime enforcement agencies. The Pentagon’s Asia “pivot” announced this summer means shifting 10 percent of surface ships and submarines in the Atlantic to the Pacific over eight years. The move came in part because of perceptions that China could become a regional threat – based on its handling of island disputes.

For the U.S. military, however, there’s no clear message to be found in that pile of tea leaves.

Adding to the complexity, in late July, China raised the status of Sansha city on the tiny island of Yongxing, the largest in the Paracel chain in the South China Sea. About 220 miles from the mainland’s most southerly province of Hainan, Sansha will officially oversee the roughly 770,000 square miles of sea claimed by China, as vaguely defined in the nine-dashed-line map. The area includes the disputed Paracels, Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal and other areas.

“The Chinese bureaucracy is a huge, complex system,” said Dali L. Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing and author of “Remaking the Chinese Leviathan: Market Transition and the Politics of Governance in China.”

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have its own boats. It’s only recently that the [MFA] has established a department in connection with the oceans. It may not even know what’s going on in the waters because it doesn’t have the capacity to monitor.”

Larry Wortzel, a commissioner on Congress’s U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, pointed out in an email interview that no foreign minister sits on the 25-member Politburo, the top political body, making this “an important ministry and a minister without significant input to the most important decisions.”

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, issued a lengthy report in April analyzing the mix of maritime enforcement agencies involved in monitoring the seas.

The competition for bigger budgets, power and prestige among these agencies — along with revenue-seeking local governments — has contributed to tensions because their actions “in disputed waters sometimes lead to unintended diplomatic consequences,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Crisis Group’s Northeast Asia director in Beijing, said in an email interview.

“The decentralization of power is indeed one of the factors contributing to a lack of effective coordination among these agencies,” she said.

For example, local authorities have encouraged fishermen to sail farther into the South China Sea due to pollution and overfishing closer to the mainland, Kleine-Ahlbrandt said. China’s maritime enforcement agencies have followed this activity where it leads — which has resulted in numerous standoffs with ships from Japan, Philippines and Vietnam. They also have sought to promote tourism in the Paracels in pursuit of increased revenue.

Particularly worrying is that China’s five key maritime enforcement agencies operate 2,400 boats and ships to police China’s inland and sea waters, some equipped with machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons, according to estimates in the Crisis Group’s report.

Officials of one of those agencies, the China Maritime Surveillance, have announced plans to increase their personnel from 9,000 to 15,000 and increase their number of ships from 280 to 520 by 2020. The Fisheries Law Enforcement Command plans to add five patrol boats over 3,000 tons, all equipped with helicopters, by 2015, the Crisis Group report said.

“Obviously this is a major opportunity to expand their turf a bit,” Yang said of the enforcement agencies. “What you see is that every agency and ministry is trying to demonstrate that it’s doing something.

“If I were a bureaucrat in Beijing, I’d want to be saying, ‘Look, we’re helping to expand our national sovereignty; we’re doing something; we’re sending ships over.’ That’s basically what’s happening at this point.”

According to the Crisis Group report, the agencies have an expression to capture the free-wheeling nature of their missions: “Grab what you can on the sea, and divide the responsibilities between agencies afterwards.”

Indeed, this maritime enforcement system has hardly had time to evolve. Even as late as 10 years ago, China’s central government wasn’t paying much attention to what happened beyond its land boundaries, Yang said.

Maritime enforcement agencies have been left to divine the subtleties of national sea policy but are acutely aware of the central government’s sweeping claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea and of nationalist sentiment to not budge an inch in island confrontations.

Some analysts maintain that China hasn’t intentionally assumed a more aggressive policy in the South China Sea, but is rather trying to maintain the status quo in the face of emphatic sovereignty claims by neighboring countries.

“Those viewing Chinese ‘aggression’ as the impetus for current tension might reasonably be asked why Beijing has only six outposts in the Spratlys (compared with 29 occupied by Vietnam), why Beijing is one of the only claimant states not currently pumping oil out of the South China Sea, and why the largest island in the Spratlys archipelago is actually occupied by Taiwan,” Lyle Goldstein, an associate professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., wrote in “Foreign Policy” magazine last month.

“In fact, China’s policy in the South China Sea has been largely reactive in both present and historical circumstances, which indeed explains a good bit of the incoherence of China’s present policy.”

While there are signs that China is undertaking greater coordination of its maritime agencies -- it’s in the process of preparing a national maritime strategy -- there’s no sign that any group is willing to accept erosion of its clout and money-making prospects.

Masayuki Masuda, a fellow with the National Institute for Defense Studies, the policy research arm of the Japan Ministry of Defense, who prepared the 2011 China Security Report, said he’d found “hints in domestic discussions” in China that competition among the maritime agencies is alive and well in the ongoing strategy process.

Some of those agencies will seek to strengthen ties with the People’s Liberation Army to bolster their status, he said.

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.
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