May 29, 2011

How China, U.S. See Each Other at Sea

By Dr. Patrick M. Cronin

Maritime security, especially in the East and South China Sea, remains high on the agenda of China, the United States, Japan and other regional actors.  Incidents over the past two years have strained relations and then prompted official and unofficial dialogues, including a two-day conference of experts hosted by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences in association with the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. The debate emanating from here in Shanghai at once showed the value of dialogue, but also its limitations.

While Chinese and US officials attempt to build on the fragile edifice of maritime cooperation advanced earlier in May through high-level military and civilian talks, they might do well to reflect on the distinction between conflicts of national interest and conflicts based on insufficient understanding. As they know, dialogue won’t necessarily improve the former, but it does help to alleviate the latter.

Indeed, Prof. Nan Li of the US Naval War College believes that dialogue can actually reduce trust when the differences are over national interests. This may be the case with respect to China explaining its active defence or anti-access and area denial strategy. For example, when someone as knowledgeable as retired Rear Adm. Yang Yi claims that it applies only to ‘Taiwan battlefield’ scenarios, US and foreign audiences are sceptical if not incredulous. 

Dialogue may be similarly counterproductive when the United States attempts to explain the air-sea battle concept. Although the concept remains nebulous, describing Navy-Air Force concepts of operations in the event an adversary like Iran tries to block the Strait of Hormuz elicits fears of a larger containment policy for those in Beijing.  Also, because it was mentioned officially in the February 2010 Quadrennial Defence Review, many Chinese assume that air-sea battle is a real strategy, and not simply a concept.

Similarly, China and the United States have fundamentally different interpretations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). One major difference is over whether and which type of military activities are permitted within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of a nation. China’s national interests and growing confidence lead to an expansive view of its EEZ and a narrow view of which military activities are permissible for a foreign nation to undertake within an EEZ.  Such activities must be peaceful, and Chinese nationalists don’t consider intelligence gathering even by non-warships to be peaceful. The United States, on the other hand, not only contends that such information gathering is entirely within international law, but also that the United States has an obligation to periodically test the premise in order to maintain what it considers the global public good of freedom of the seas.

But the practical maritime situation remains dynamic, and not simply a matter of interpreting international law. For example, China may, according to one Chinese scholar, invest in new high-technology to thwart US intelligence gathering on Chinese submarines. Thus, the incident over the ocean surveillance ship, USNS Impeccable in March 2009, when a People’s Liberation Army Navy frigate crossed its bow within 100 yards, may in future see the introduction of new Chinese technological means for denying the United States ability to monitor the opaque military operations of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) .

Political initiatives are another strategy that China will employ to prevent US naval vessels from spying on its submarines. China will work with fellow BRIC nations like India and Brazil, which are also opposed to foreign military activities in their respective EEZs. At a different forum in May, Chinese scholar Shen Dinglisaid China has the right to claim, but not the right to directly interfere, with such intelligence gathering activity. But Prof. Shen added that in 30 years, when China’s navy is truly global and perhaps has bases in Latin America, then it will be China’s turn to harass the United States by eavesdropping in its EEZ.

Some Chinese scholars are bringing considerable research and erudition to their nationalist arguments.  Sometimes, the reasoning can be too clever by half, however, because every country including China has staked out conflicting arguments at various occasions.  For example, in the dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku, China claims the main land mass is a rock, thereby entitling Japan to only 12 nautical miles rather than the 200 nautical mile EEZ that comes with an island.  However, in China’s famously ambiguous ‘nine-dotted lines,’ a U-shaped line claiming jurisdiction over much of the South China Sea, China obscures the fact that many of the land features are definitely no more than rocks. 

For this reason, Dr. Li Mingjiang contends that it would be in China’s interest to clarify what it means by the nine-dashed line map of the South China Sea. Rather than trying to argue that the map is China’s territorial water or historical water or historical right, he recommends that China claim that it’s simply a line of islands and other land features covered by the UNCLOS.  Other littoral states would contest the claim, but the clarity would have the benefit of limiting suspicions that China’s core interests are expanding, commensurate with its power. 

Concerns over China’s long-term intentions and capabilities are the main driver sowing uncertainty in the maritime domain.  And no amount of revision to the UNCLOS can clear up different interpretations that are driven by conflicting national interests. At the same time, the Obama administration is right to make one more push for ratification of UNCLOS, because the failure to ratify it conveys the message to the world that the United States creates its own arbitrary rules rather than upholding a global rules-based system.

Where dialogue can help, however, includes cases where there is a shared national interest.  For example, as submarine activities grow in the Western Pacific, it’s almost inevitable that there will be accidents. During the Cold War, Soviet submarines collided at an average of once a year, and US subs perhaps once every three years. Recently, a pair of French and British ballistic missile submarines collided when trying to hide in the same location, demonstrating that even close allies can have mishaps. Because of the lack of use of agreements like the US-Soviet 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement, there is an absence of preparation among regional powers to assist in an emergency such as after a collision. This is as true for South Korea and Japan as it is between China and the United States. 

But despite conflicting interests, various types of cooperation can still be pursued. One is expanding transparency (although the latest Chinese White Paper seems to demonstrate that China isn’t interested in going further than it already has in recent years).  Another type of cooperative activity would be to establish additional Incidents at Sea-type agreements and use the ones that already exist.  The key example of an existing but under-used agreement is the 1998 Military Maritime Cooperation Agreement, which until recently had mostly languished because of Chinese reluctance to give a speeding license to the United States. A third idea is to widen cooperation for Humanitarian and Disaster Relief, both bilaterally and multilaterally. Finally, there’s the idea of pursuing more joint development—and not halting it when tensions arise, as the Chinese did in 2010 with respect to joint energy development in the East China Sea after a Chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel.

Whatever type of cooperative action is considered, there’s no doubt that various multilateral efforts have progressed of late among maritime forces.  For example, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) is the first regional government-to-government agreement to promote and enhance cooperation on these issues in Asia.  Some 17 countries have joined since it was entered into force in 2006.  Countries in the region also share ship tracking information and engage in joint patrols, and these activities are apt to continue to grow in the coming years. These steps are built on common interests in the freedom of navigation, at least with respect to commercial sea lines of communication.

Beyond limited cooperative steps, there is also some hope in recent challenges to conventional worst-case thinking. For instance, there is widespread anxiety over energy competition, including in the South and East China Seas. But others would argue that, in reality, the geological tables defy this concern, because the hydrocarbons are generally likely only sufficient to provide energy for about 15-20 years; by the time China builds a truly blue-water naval fleet to defend its sea lines of communication, the resources are likely to be well on their way to depletion. With this in mind, Christine Parthemore of the Center for a New American Security argues that nations would make better use of their concerns by focusing on more enduring common worries, such as depleted fisheries and the environmental impact from climate change. And on these issues, cooperation is both desired and needed by most countries. 

The recent US-China strategic and military dialogues in Washington promoted the notion of joint cooperation and exercises on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and anti-piracy. This is precisely the kind of step-by-step, building block approach to confidence-building measures that can also have genuine benefit and is almost surely going to be necessary to execute in the future. 

But the Chinese and Americans will want to ask hard questions of each other, some of which simply reflect the United States’ concern at potentially losing its ability to project naval and air power in Asia and China’s concern that it will not be able to expand to become both a maritime and a continental power. A good example is how Beijing sees US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statements in 2010, to the effect that the US-Japan treaty covers the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, as a departure from previous US policy that studiously avoided taking sides on matters of disputed sovereignty. 

China also believes the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895, that forced a weak China to cede the island, is invalid and that it was wrong of the United States to retain possession of the islands after World War II and then give them to Japan to administer. In fact, in 2002, then US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made the same policy statement as Secretary Clinton, and curiously the Chinese didn’t object then. In addition, US policy seeking multilateral confidence building measures doesn’t contradict its policy of trying to steer clear of choosing sides; rather, it simply underscores that the United States and many other countries have a stake in how disputes are settled.

It’s clear, then, that national interests will limit the level and pace of cooperation in and around the Western Pacific. Cooperation will grow, but remain vulnerable in these congested, unsettled waters. Perhaps co-host Liu Ming had the most salient observation at the Shanghai conference: The United States will have to adapt to China’s rise and the confidence it brings, and China must recognize that the United States retains maritime supremacy.