On July 30th, at a study session with members of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, President Xi Jinping championed efforts to build China into a maritime power.
Xi’s remarks aroused renewed concern about China’s policy change in addressing disputes in East China Sea and South China Sea. There is suspicion that China will rely on its military capability other than peaceful approaches such as dialogue and negotiation to deal with the tension. Accordingly, the potential of risks in related waters will rise, which is against the interests of a number of countries, including the US.
Hard and Soft Contents of China’s Maritime Policy
As a rising power, China’s current naval capability does not match the country’s developments. China’s strengthening of muscles and increasing expenses in building sea power have not exceeded the normal level, and accordingly, should not be questioned or blamed.
In the context of increasing uncertainties in East China Sea and South China Sea, to become a maritime power is obviously consistent with China’s interests and demand for dealing with the challenges. China has made it clear that it will safeguard its maritime rights and interests, which require the country to attach importance to the development of maritime capability. However, China’s posture will remain defensive and restrained.
China is not trying to utilize the muscles to gain advantages in resolving territorial disputes with the neighboring countries. China has reaffirmed on various occasions that it persists in peaceful approaches such as negotiation and dialogue.
The problem is that China’s policies have been misinterpreted and distorted. Some media deliberately exaggerate tough perspectives on China’s policies in order to define China as a destabilizing factor in the sea. Unfortunately, the soft contents, which are the core of China’s policies, have been neglected.
When President Xi advocated the idea of becoming “a maritime power”, he also emphasized that China would pursue “converging interests” with other countries in oceanic development. He said that China would make overall plans and take all factors into consideration, which means that China is acting in a responsible way to become a maritime power.
China’s intention has also been clearly demonstrated in Hu Jintao’s report delivered during the opening ceremony of the 18th CPC National Congress. The report outlined China’s maritime policy as China should enhance capacity for exploiting marine resources, develop the marine economy, protect the marine ecological environment, resolutely safeguard its maritime rights and interests, and build itself into a maritime power.
Two points can be concluded from the report. The first is that China’s maritime power dream is a comprehensive design instead of pure military ambition. It not only addresses the protection of sovereignty but also stresses achieving joint development and win-win situation with other countries. The concept of a maritime power is not equal to a power with overwhelming military capability in waters that can defeat other parties according to its will. That is the consideration for which the report included the contents in the eighth part entitled “making great efforts to promote ecological progress” instead of the ninth part addressing accelerating the modernization of national defense and the armed forces.
The second message from the report is that China attaches more importance to development and cooperation rather than confrontation and conflict. China understands that the neighboring countries worry about the disputes in the South China Sea and expect to promote cooperation among related parties in order to ease the tension and maintain regional stability. China has made positive gestures. On August 2nd, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed three suggestions for dealing with the South China Sea disputes during his visit to Thailand.
China Is Cooperative, Not Competitive as a Maritime Power
The US should have the confidence that China cannot catch up with the US maritime power for decades. According to a recent analysis by Russian experts, it will take 20 years for China to become a sea power. At the same time, China is sober-minded. China has no intention to challenge the US presence in waters. Based on this, the US should not overreact to China’s maritime development and treat China as a rival.
Even though both countries have not built up mutual trust that is strong enough to accommodate in-depth military exchanges, they can still work jointly on a number of perspectives that benefit regional countries and are not involved with sensitive issues.
Currently, China and the US have made some progress in collaborative efforts on land in the areas such as disaster relief, response and warning. In 2012, they jointly funded and participated in an urban search and rescue training exercise aimed at improving this capacity of ASEAN member states. USAID and the China Earthquake Administration also co-funded regional earthquake response exercise in Indonesia.
The cooperation in the sea is still lagging behind. Part of the reason is that China’s capability in waters is not sufficient to support related operations. With development, China will be able to become a qualified partner for maritime cooperation with the US.
China and the US initiated cooperation in anti-piracy operation in the Asia-Pacific several years ago. Unfortunately, the efforts were not sustained and little progress has been achieved. Now, with China’s efforts to become a maritime power, it may be the right time for both sides to resume and renew the cooperation intention and proposal.
Su Xiaohui is Deputy Director of the Department of International and Strategic Studies at the China Institute of International Studies.