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Much-Forgotten China-U.S. Maritime Teamwork

Aug 12 , 2016
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science

In the heat of the South China Sea dispute, people seem to forget about China-U.S. maritime cooperation, another side of China-U.S. maritime relations. What is the nature of the maritime relationship between the two countries? Though there is a structural contradiction between U.S. safeguarding its hegemony or “leadership” and China’s maintaining its rights and interests in the Asia-Pacific region, disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea do not involve the core interests of the United States. Therefore, there need not be zero-sum competition. The Sino-U.S. maritime cooperation features a low level, a narrow scope and many limitations, and should be driven by high-level leaders and constructed by hard work. In general, competition outweighs cooperation, but cooperation has not been suspended because of competition, and the coexistence of the two becomes a “new normal” in China-U.S. maritime relations.

Indeed, Sino-U.S. maritime cooperation has witnessed many highlights recently. Between the two countries, as demonstrated in the Strategic & Economic Dialogue Outcomes of the Strategic Track (2016), maritime cooperation covers the protection and conservation of the world’s oceans, joint combat against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, marine litter prevention and reduction, improvement of the effectiveness of marine protected areas, expansion of ocean observations, maritime law enforcement, maritime safety and security, and discussion of the law of the sea and polar issues. Between the two navies, though cooperation still focuses on the non-traditional security field, the subjects are more diverse, including counter-piracy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, search-and-rescue, military medicine exchanges, public security maintenance, among others; the forms are more innovative, from bilateral exercises to multilateral ones, from “hard” joint practices like searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines passenger plane to “soft” joint promotion of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), etc.; and the contents are more substantive. As in joint exercises, China’s role has evolved from an observer to a participant, and the two navies have proceeded from table-top war-gaming to live-troop interaction. The latest example is the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) 2016, with more Chinese naval forces taking part in more drill subjects.

Without doubt, China-U.S. maritime cooperation is of great significance. First, it sets a good example of handling international affairs by cooperation among major world powers, which is conducive to maintaining international maritime order as well as regional peace and stability. Second, it promotes benign interactions between two militaries, which is conducive to enhancing mutual understanding, dispelling misgivings, and increasing strategic mutual trust and strategic stability. Third, it provides opportunities for sharing useful experiences, which is conducive to developing the capabilities for jointly providing maritime public goods.

However, it must be admitted that there are obstacles to China-U.S. maritime cooperation. In the Asia-Pacific region, there are some opportunistic “third parties”, while the U.S. has taken advantage of the disputes, and tried to maintain some degree of regional tensions to “balance” China. That is damaging the atmosphere of China-U.S. maritime cooperation. Between the two countries, the lack of strategic mutual trust is constraining the depth of cooperation. Between the two navies, there are less theoretical studies on the contents, modes, and objectives as well as difficulties and solutions concerning the participation of naval forces in China-U.S. maritime cooperation. Non-confrontational and non-exclusive international mechanisms, such as those for public goods provision and for responsibilities sharing, have yet to be established to coordinate the activities of the two navies. In addition, domestic laws and international agreements are lacking to provide legal support for overseas operations by Chinese armed forces. The Law on Counter-Terrorism issued in December 2015 laid a legal foundation for the Chinese military to conduct counter-terrorism operations abroad and was a good start.

About international cooperation, Professor Yan Xuetong once pointed out that common and complementary interests can promote “positive cooperation”, with the aim of expanding mutually beneficial interests, while confrontational interests can promote “negative cooperation”, with the aim of preventing potential conflicts, or limiting the damaging effects of those conflicts and decreasing losses. For future Sino-U.S. maritime cooperation, in the non-traditional security field, the two militaries might strengthen “positive cooperation” to achieve common security objectives; in the traditional security field, they might enhance “negative cooperation” to control and manage divergences.

The key areas in the non-traditional security field may include jointly securing the sea lines of communication (SLOCs), conducting counter-terrorism operations on the sea, and carrying out humanitarian and disaster-relief operations. Specifically, the two navies might extend the counter-piracy operations and exercises worldwide and share information on maritime situation to better secure the SLOCs. Since joint counter-terrorism activities are relatively new, the two might exchange views on some basic concepts to eliminate double standards, establish counter-terrorism coordination mechanisms, and conduct more exercises. Disaster relief cooperation is more mature, and the two navies might further exchange personnel training, and join international efforts and multilateral exercises.

In the traditional security field, maritime issues are a major source of crises for the two militaries. The key areas of “negative cooperation” may include: (i) Maintaining high-level dialogues and exchanges to express each other’s main concerns, strategic intention and cooperation wills, in order to dilute and even eliminate negative factors. (ii) Strengthening confidence-building measures and exchange mechanisms. Currently, through the Maritime Military Consultative Agreement mechanism, the two navies are regularly coordinating with each other on the implementation of the CUES and the China-U.S. Memorandum of Understanding on the Code of Safe Conduct on Naval and Air Military Encounters. Besides, they can make use of other platforms such as the West Pacific Naval Symposium, International Seapower Symposium, and Shangri-La Dialogue to discuss maritime issues. (iii) Optimizing the process of maritime crisis management, including early warning of maritime crises, crisis management training and exercises, decision-making, communication and coordination in a crisis, and others, in order to better predict, prevent and manage crises.

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