The 21st century is the century of the sea which has become the world’s second living domain. Today’s increasing globalization further highlights the importance of the sea for mankind’s survival and development. The oceans allow all countries access to the global market, with over 80% of world trade transported by international shipping which forms marine links at global levels. And the ocean provides people with food, minerals and other resources. On the other hand, the structure of international politics has seen profound changes since the start of the new century. The characteristics and types of global and regional conflicts are now different, especially those involving resources, so strategic transport passage is now done more and more by sea. Maritime security concerns involve the likes of piracy, environmental pollution, sea lines of communication (SLOC), illegal fishing, etc. As for management and protection of the ocean and its resources, it was once policed by naval forces and was free to exploit, but is now extensively overseen by treaties. Oceans’ governance is firmly on the agenda since it is indispensable to maritime security. All of these aspects force society to focus increasingly more on the sea.
As an emerging country, China pays more attention to geo-economics because its development strategy and economic security are closely connected with the sea. But there are maritime interests and concerns for China that need monitoring.
The highest priority is passage of its foreign trade. As the biggest goods exporter in the world, China's dependence on foreign trade exceeds 80%, and over 90% of this relies on international shipping as most of its trade partners are coastal countries. Whether the shipping lines are impeded or not has a direct link to the function of China's foreign trade and national economy.
The second concern is guaranteed supply of its energy imports. With growing energy demands, China’s need for crude oil doubled in 10 years from 1995 to 2005. In 2009, its dependence on oil imports reached 56%. In the next 15 years, this number is expected to double. Until 2020, China’s daily importation of crude oil will be about 7.3 million barrels. China imports energy mainly from the Middle East, Africa and Asia-Pacific region, and most of it is shipped in tankers.
A broader challenge is protection of its overseas interests. China’s economic development has stimulated more and more enterprises and individuals to “go out” to the world. Accordingly its overseas interests increasingly expand, with which comes more protection responsibility for them.
Unites States’ concerns
The United States attaches major importance to geopolitics and one of the cores of its global strategy is maintaining maritime imbalance. The outstanding point of focus for America is that it wants to assure its dominance of the oceans continues. Since the end of the Cold War, it has been the world’s only superpower and to maintain its marine superiority it wants to control chokepoints over the world’s seas.
It also hopes to enlarge its global interests so deploys its navy around the world to wield influence and ensure its homeland security.
Furthermore, America needs to deal with various challenges to its maritime interests: one is that exploitation and utilization of ocean resources have made the situation on the seas more complicated, somewhat weakening U.S. control; another is that globalization makes oceans the main link in world trade, hence SLOC and harbors are vulnerable to attack and destruction; and crimes committed on the sea, including pillaging and smuggling of arms and drugs, etc. have become more frequent.
China and U.S. differences
With deepening globalization and the faster pace of China’s global emergence, China and the U.S. have more interactions on the sea, resulting in a lot of disputes and conflicts. There are major differences between the two countries in approach and attitude to the oceans.
They share, different perspectives: the U.S. thinks that China will be a main and potential challenger to its superpower status, including in maritime affairs; it is concerned that China’s increasing marine force will diminish its dominance. China believes that the U.S. holds a Cold War mentality, regards China as a strategic rival, attempts to control China’s surrounding seas and limits China’s maritime interests.
Their interpretations of international law vary: the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOS) represents the modern maritime legal system and reflects the common interests of the majority of countries. However, the U.S. refuses to sign the LOS Convention, much less its implementation as it thinks that the 11th part of the convention cannot satisfy its requirements. China is a signatory to the LOS Convention and deals with maritime affairs according to its rules and principles.
Their naval power is imbalanced: the U.S. has an outstanding naval force; its blue-water navy can rarely be matched across the world. China’s army is still in the process of modernization, and its naval equipment and technology remain weak.
And finally, they have different objectives: America aims to build a U.S.-led global ocean system. China focuses on building a “harmonious ocean” to maintain lasting peace and security on the sea.
Areas of cooperation
Convergence of maritime interests and concerns between China and America mean that both sides can cooperate on maritime security.
An international priority is to maintain the security and safety of SLOC and free navigation. Along with the development of China’s opening-up and increase of its economic and trade volume, as well as its mounting demands for overseas energy and resources, it has increasingly required safe and unimpeded marine passages. As the single superpower, the U.S. also needs to maintain SLOC safety. Ensuring freedom of navigation and protecting SLOC, especially energy supply lines, are in the economic and security interests of both China and the U.S.
Just as important is the need to guarantee freedom of trade. China and the U.S. are the world’s two leading trading powers and freedom of trade is a mutual and reasonable expectation. The Asia-Pacific region is an especially important export market and investment destination for the U.S. To maintain a close economic relationship with it via the sea is essential for U.S.national interests.
Integral to freedom of trade is dealing with both traditional and non-traditional security threats including arms proliferation, piracy and smuggling, etc. on the sea.
Another reason for China-America maritime cooperation is that the sea is a platform of security cooperation and an arena for joint initiatives between the two countries.
No single country in the world has sufficient resources to ensure complete safety of the oceans. China-America cooperation will not only achieve win-win results, but also be beneficial to other countries. The potential range of cooperation covers joint maritime search and rescue, and peace keeping over the sea, etc. as well as jointly fighting traditional and non-traditional security threats on the ocean.
An outcome of this collaboration could be establishing maritime security cooperation institutions, within which the two countries could negotiate and coordinate maritime security issues, and jointly deal with maritime affairs through talks such as a China-America maritime security forum. Also on the agenda should be proposals for oceans governance at regional and global levels and listing maritime issues on the agenda of existing multilateral cooperation institutions, such as the G20 and APEC, etc.
Ma Ying is Professor & Director of Center for Asia-Pacific Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.