BEIJING/MANILA (Reuters) - Jockeying by Chinese agencies over policy fiefdoms and budgets threatens to intensify tension in the disputed South China Sea, a respected think tank warned on Monday, with the Philippines seeking more patrols to guard against China’s claims.
China has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan across the South China Sea. They worry over what some see as growing Chinese assertiveness in staking claims over the sea’s islands, reefs and shoals.
On Sunday, the commander of security forces on the western Philippines island of Palawan said he had asked for more ships and aircraft to step up patrols in his area, fearing China may build on uninhabited features there.
“In the age of prefab materials, they can do it in just one day,” Lieutenant General Juancho Sabban told reporters after annual U.S.-Philippines war games on the island.
Sabban’s area of command includes the Spratly islands, one of the main disputed areas in the South China Sea.
“We have more patrols now than before and we are asking for more air assets so we can patrol the area,” he said.
Sabban said there was growing concern over China’s increased presence in the South China Sea, including plans to place markers in contested waters that are seen as an attempt to bolster its territorial claims.
In a report released on Monday, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said weak coordination among the various Chinese government bodies responsible for South China Sea policy has complicated China’s attempt at a peaceful rise.
“The escalating tensions since 2009 have dealt a severe blow to Beijing’s relationships with its Southeast Asian neighbors and gravely tarnished its image both regionally and internationally,” the ICG said.
“While some efforts have been made to patch up diplomatic ties since mid-2011, the longer-term situation in the South China Sea will remain volatile in light of China’s internal coordination problems,” it said.
China’s military, in a commentary in the official Liberation Army Daily on Saturday, warned the United States that U.S.-Philippine military exercises have raised the risk of armed confrontation in the South China Sea.
It was the harshest warning yet after weeks of tension. Peking University professor Jia Qingguo said China may be preparing to take a tougher line on disputes, adding many in China want the United States to rein in the Philippines.
“Quite a lot of people are thinking that the U.S. is encouraging the Philippines to create a problem for China in the South China Sea,” Jia said.
The ICG said at least 11 ministry-level government agencies, and five law enforcement agencies under them, play a part in China’s South China Sea management. China’s navy, it said, uses territorial disputes to validate modernization.
“While some agencies act aggressively to compete with one another for greater portions of the budget pie, others attempt to expand their economic activities in disputed areas due to their single-minded focus on economic growth,” the group said.
“The biggest problem in coordinating the actors - apart from their number - is that most of these agencies were originally established to implement domestic policies but now play a foreign policy role,” it said.
Adding to the confusion, provincial governments in coastal regions that border the South China Sea have increased tension by promoting tourism in the disputed waters, it said.
China completed a trial voyage by a cruise ship this month to the Paracel Islands, called the Xisha islands in Chinese but also claimed by Vietnam.
U.S. and Philippine troops launched two weeks of annual naval exercises in mid-April. Amphibious landing drills were set to take place on Wednesday in areas facing the South China Sea. On Saturday, joint marine units simulated an assault to retake an oil rig from militants in northern Palawan.
U.S. and Philippine military officials however said the drills were not directed at China or any other party.
In recent weeks, Philippine and Chinese ships have faced off near the Scarborough Shoal in waters claimed by both countries that are believed to be rich in oil and gas.
On Monday, the Philippines said it had sent a civilian fisheries boat to check on the condition of marine life and water quality in the area, which could anger China.
As the standoff enters its third week, China has a maritime surveillance ship and six fishing boats in the area while the Philippines has a coastguard vessel and a fisheries boat.
“I think the current standoff is a manifestation of a larger threat to many nations,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a television interview on Monday. “The bigger picture is that anybody can be targeted.”
Del Rosario and Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin will hold strategic talks in the United States next week and will be hoping to get firm backing from its long-time ally and former colonial ruler on the Scarborough Shoal.
The dispute has also moved into cyberspace with websites of the office of the Philipine president being attacked from Internet addresses assigned to Chinese networks, said Edwin Lacierda, a spokesman for President Benigno Aquino.
A Philippine Foreign Ministry spokesman appealed to citizens of both countries to stop cyber attacks saying they were not helping ease tension in the South China Sea.
Two areas in the South China Sea are among 15 oil and gas exploration blocks to be opened by the Philippines for bids later this week.
Additional Reporting by Manny Mogato in Manila; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel