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Navigating U.S.-China Maritime Relations

Jan 22, 2024
  • Nong Hong

    Senior Fellow, National Institute for the South China Sea Studies

At the start of 2024, the outlook for U.S.-China maritime relations continues to be marked by complex dynamics and ongoing tensions, particularly within the Indo-Pacific region. Several key factors are shaping the relationship.

The South China Sea has been a continual focal point of contention. U.S.-China relations in and over the South China Sea are only getting more tense at a time of general breakdown in overall relations. Also, the essence of the South China Sea disputes has evolved from the territorial and maritime disputes of the claimant states to a strategic competition that is now between China as a coastal state and the United States as a visiting state.

Both countries have increased their naval presence and conducted military exercises in the region, heightening tensions. The U.S. has continued to assert its presence through so-called freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), challenging what it considers to be excessive maritime claims by China. China, in turn, has expanded its naval capabilities and conducted its exercises to assert control in the region.

The Taiwan Strait continues to be an area of heightened sensitivity, and the U.S. has maintained an ambiguous policy toward Taiwan, even as Beijing has reiterated its territorial claims over the island. U.S. naval activities in the region, along with arms sales to Taiwan, have faced robust opposition from China, intensifying the complexities in relations.

Beyond the military realm, the United States and China have engaged in diplomatic and economic competition around the globe. The U.S. seeks to strengthen alliances in the Indo-Pacific region through initiatives such as the Quad (an alignment of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia), while China has pursued its Belt and Road Initiative, expanding its economic influence in various countries, sometimes through port development and infrastructure projects with strategic maritime implications.

Continued disagreements persist regarding the interpretation of international maritime laws and norms, as well as compliance. While the U.S. has stressed the significance of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, China has frequently advocated for its own interpretations and historical rights, underscoring the importance of customary international law.

The upcoming course of the maritime relationship between the U.S. and China could be shaped by changes in leadership, global events or shifts in policy approaches. Consequently, a thorough analysis of the evolution of both nations’ maritime strategies and broader bilateral relations is essential to understanding whether future developments will entail sustained tensions or offer prospects for various forms of cooperation. 

Understanding maritime strategy 

The United States has passed through various phases in its maritime strategy. Establishing and upholding global maritime supremacy became a pivotal objective for the U.S. after World War II, and it aimed to secure global hegemony. During the Barack Obama administration (2009-17), concerns regarding major power competition at sea led to the adoption of “rebalancing” strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, with a primary emphasis on maritime affairs. Subsequently, the Donald Trump Administration (2017-21) shifted its focus toward the Indo-Pacific.

It is noteworthy that the resurgence of U.S. maritime dominance began under Obama, while the Trump administration delineated a separate course for ocean-centered competition. But it wasn’t until Joe Biden assumed office that a comprehensive strategy for engaging in sea-based competition with China was fully implemented. Consequently, China and the United States have found themselves entangled in intense naval standoffs, with the control and counter-control of maritime territories emerging as the central facets of their strategic rivalry.

China has undergone distinct developmental phases in shaping its maritime strategy as well. During the early years of the People’s Republic of China, the nation’s primary focus was on safeguarding its survival, and it was extremely sensitive to perceived external threats. However, a pivotal turning point came in 1978 when it embarked on its historic reform and opening-up policy. This heralded the adoption of an open ocean strategy by the Communist Party of China, which emphasized both offshore defense and oceanic development.

This strategic shift marked a significant departure from China’s earlier narrow emphasis on maritime security alone. It embraced a more comprehensive perspective, pivoting away from zero-sum games and toward fostering cooperative relationships in the maritime domain.

As nations embraced the consensus that the 21st century would be the “ocean century,” competition over oceanic resources intensified. Against this backdrop, a new generation of Chinese party leadership has adopted a strategy of fostering robust maritime power.

China’s maritime power strategy has evolved into a central and pivotal component of the country’s pursuit of its maritime interests. It underscores the importance of adhering to a holistic land-sea plan, fostering the marine economy and cultivating maritime strength. 

Reading the other mindset 

In their broader bilateral relationship, China and the United States appear to be approaching a new equilibrium of power, indicating an extended period of strategic impasse. The comprehensive maritime domain awareness initiative of the United States encompasses the entirety of the Indo-Pacific region, extending from the Indian Ocean across Southeast Asia and into the South Pacific. As the U.S. persists in implementing this new strategic blueprint, and with China’s maritime endeavors expanding into the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific as well, competition between their respective naval capabilities will inevitably extend into these waters.

In the expansive global maritime arena, it remains both politically unfeasible and technically implausible for China and the United States to resolve their conflicts through warfare. Within this consensus, comprehending the mindset of each party becomes the key to alleviating tensions, surmounting obstacles and moving toward a less confrontational approach. It can pave the way to potential avenues of cooperation.

From China’s standpoint, the formation of the U.S. maritime alliance and the execution of the Indo-Pacific Strategy pose substantial challenges to China’s national security. As a result, a critical strategic imperative for China involves formulating strategies to protect its maritime rights and interests while concurrently establishing a network of strategic maritime partnerships. By fostering collaboration within this network, China aims to fortify its maritime standing and guarantee the sustainable advancement of its maritime interests. Its advocacy of the concept of “building a maritime community with a shared future” holds considerable significance since its formal introduction by President Xi Jinping in 2019. This concept underscores the value of nurturing cooperation, mutual trust and shared development among nations with maritime interests.

From the viewpoint of the United States, China’s escalating naval military capabilities represent a potential challenge to U.S. global maritime dominance and security. Consequently, the it has enacted a series of measures aimed at restraining the growth of China’s maritime strength. For instance, in March 2020, Philip Davidson, the 25th commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, highlighted the pivotal importance of the Pacific Defense Initiative, which seeks to counter potential threats from regional competitors, particularly China, by reinforcing the U.S. military presence, capabilities and deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Recognizing disparities

It’s intriguing to note the dynamics characterizing the current U.S.-China maritime competition, which, compared with historical land-sea power struggles, has swiftly evolved with significant changes. First of all, the underlying purposes driving the rivalry between the two nations differ starkly. China’s strategic focus on its maritime advancement and pursuit of maritime interests aims to foster a global community united in shared prosperity and to establish an equitable maritime order. Conversely, the United States is pursuing conventional maritime hegemony and control, historically emphasizing dominance over key waterways worldwide and establishing a network of military bases to safeguard its maritime interests.

Additionally, conventional differentiation between land and sea power is gradually eroding owing to technological advancements, leading to an expansion and fusion of their meanings and extensions. Consequently, the traditional advantages and drawbacks linked to land and sea power are becoming less evident. Moving forward, the competition between the United States and China in the maritime realm is expected to broaden, surpassing conventional military capabilities. These contrasting ambitions highlight the divergent strategies each nation employs when navigating the maritime sphere.

Amid this competitive seascape, it’s imperative for both China and the United States to acknowledge and navigate the differences in their mindsets. The rapid ascension of China’s maritime prowess has fueled apprehensions within the United States. Drawing from its historical experience, the U.S. often gauges intentions based on capabilities and may inadvertently exaggerate China’s strategic motives. Conversely, China might underestimate the broader strategic ramifications of its own power expansion within the region and globally. Both countries require time for strategic readjustments to foster a deeper understanding of each other’s perspectives. 

Tackling the current setback 

At present, China and the United States often find themselves in disputes, blaming each other for provocative actions and showcasing reactionary conduct. To alleviate the impact of politics and nationalism, it is crucial to institute prompt and transparent communication channels on pivotal maritime matters across global regions. This involves engaging in extensive consultations on strategic concepts, facilitating discussions on arms control and fostering exchanges regarding the development of maritime armaments.

It is crucial to recognize that at the heart of the U.S.-China maritime rivalry is distribution of power, not disputes over sovereignty or freedom of navigation. Should China and the United States fail to effectively address each other’s reasonable concerns — abstaining from meaningful discussions while solely emphasizing their own respective principles and stances — the inevitable consequence over time will be an escalating intensity in maritime conflicts and confrontations between the two countries.

Given the existing competition, potential avenues are yet available for collaboration between China and the United States with respect to ocean-related challenges globally. Both nations should proactively participate in establishing an international maritime public service system and contribute to providing public goods for the global community. This encompasses engagement in marine scientific research, furnishing early warning systems for natural disasters, aiding in search and rescue operations, advocating environmental protection, extending support for disaster relief, combating piracy, countering terrorism and addressing various other critical domains.

China and the United States both hold a vested interest in upholding an open and harmonious regional maritime order. The contemporary rivalry between these nations predominantly centers on disputes concerning order and regulations. To ensure a stable maritime relationship, it’s imperative to establish a mutually recognized set of rules or an order embraced by both countries and the broader international community. Such an order, grounded in shared principles, respect for international law, and the interests of all stakeholders, can only be realized through extensive negotiations and dialogue.

Concerted efforts are essential to shape enduring sea-based interactions that mitigate risks and foster stability. Both China and the United States should refrain from unilateral actions geared toward establishing maritime security mechanisms against each other, be it in the Western Pacific, the Indo-Pacific region or any other maritime zone. Instead, the primary focus should be on cultivating mutual understanding and trust, and on fostering cooperative endeavors.

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