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Sino-US Bridge of Cooperation Over Troubled Waters

Mar 13 , 2013
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science

It is encouraging to notice that both Xi Jinping and Hillary Clinton once emphasized that the Pacific Ocean is wide enough to accommodate China and the US. However, the understatement might be that the Pacific Ocean is not peaceful, and the two countries have many differences on maritime issues.

Indeed, from the perspective of maritime security experts, there are differences. At present, China’s major maritime security concerns include disputes over maritime rights and interests. Major sovereignty disputes that China faces are mostly maritime ones. Especially in recent years, the South China Sea issue and the Diaoyu Islands issue have become regional hot issues and China’s maritime situation has become further complicated.

Another issue is national reunification. Although cross-Strait relations have witnessed a peaceful development since 2008, the social foundation for “Taiwan independence” has not been shaken, the recognition of “one China” in Taiwan people’s minds is still to be fostered, and there is still a long way to go to realize China’s complete reunification.

Safety of navigation presents a further challenge. The sea and ocean have become the lifeblood of China’s long-term development, and the safety of sea lines of communication plays an increasingly vital role in its economic development.

Furthermore, the US has been stepping up its rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific, reinforcing its military presence in the region, developing the Air-Sea Battle concept, consolidating its alliances, and frequently conducting reconnaissance. In addition, some of China’s maritime neighbors have been increasing their naval expenditures and competing in building up naval forces.

On the other side, US major maritime security concerns cover:

  • Freedom of navigation, including that of merchant, surveying and military ships.
  • China’s development of “blue water” navy. The US thinks China’s maritime strategy, as well as naval strategy and development, is not transparent enough, and thus worries about China’s ambition of global expansion.
  • Development of anti-access/area denial capabilities. China’s R&D of middle- and long-range missiles, extension of PLA Air Force’s operational radius, increase of submarine activities in open seas, and development of the aircraft carrier, are believed to be potential threats to US maritime power projection. 

The different concerns reflect some deep-seated differences between China and the US in maritime strategy, understanding of maritime laws and the method for settling maritime issues. Firstly, China’s maritime strategy is to “enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, develop the marine economy, protect the marine ecological environment, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power.”[1] Its aim is to promote China’s ecological progress and support peaceful development, while the US maritime strategy is to maintain its sea dominance, which is regarded as an important parameter of US future leadership.

Secondly, the US believes that the reconnaissance activities of its ships and aircraft in China’s EEZ are legitimate. While China thinks that, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the surveying and intelligence-gathering activities of foreign naval ships in China’s EEZ violate its laws and threatens national economic security and military security on the sea.

Thirdly, the US attaches great importance to its alliances, places them above international morality and justice, and may resort to force to fulfill its obligations with its alliances. China has always judged maritime issues in accordance with the rights and wrongs themselves, and hopes to settle maritime disputes through peaceful negotiations.

On the one hand, differences between China and the US may have a negative impact on Sino-US security relations. On the other hand, in the Asia-Pacific, China’s economic advantages and the US military advantages are irreplaceable. The relationship between China and the US is not confrontational in an all-round manner, but complementary and competitive. It is time to build a bridge of cooperation over the troubled waters.

The maritime interests of China and the US can converge on such issues as economic development, safety of navigation, maintenance of the security of global commons, and guarantee of free flow of trade on the sea. Besides, the two countries may join hands to conduct scientific researches on marine environment protection.

The two navies may also strengthen cooperation, keep a safe distance, and conduct joint exercises and training on maritime search and rescue, counter-piracy, counter-smuggling, escort missions, disaster relief, humanitarian rescue, and others. Within the framework of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA), China and the US can still have exchanges of maritime information on a regular basis, and avoid accidents on the sea. During his visit to China in September 2012, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta invited the Chinese navy to participate in the RIMPAC 2014 exercise, which might serve as a model for practical cooperation between the two militaries. Additionally, China’s high-level naval officers may take an active part in the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), making use of various multilateral platforms to build trust and reduce suspicions.

The stronger the Sino-US bridge built for cooperation, the more peaceful the waters will be, and the more stable and prosperous the Asia-Pacific region will become.

Dr. Zhao Weibin is a Research Fellow, Center on China-America Defense Relations (CCADR), PLA Academy of Military Science (AMS), China.


[1] Cited from Hu Jintao, “VIII. Making Great Efforts to Promote Ecological Progress”, FIRMLY MARCH ON THE PATH OF SOCIALISM WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS AND STRIVE TO COMPLETE THE BUILDING OF A MODERATELY PROSPEROUS SOCIETY IN ALL RESPECTS (Report to the Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China on Nov 8, 2012).

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