When it appeared, prior to the recent deal with Russia, that the U.S. might be preparing for military strikes against Syria, a chorus of voices emerged to prophesize that this latest Middle Eastern entanglement would have dire implications for the U.S. maritime pivot to Asia. Speculation was rife that Washington may have indeed already begun the process of re-drawing its commitment to East Asia.
Yet, chronic skeptics eager to write the pivot’s obituary may be premature. The rebalancing may be at a crossroads, but there appears to be some innovative thinking at work to realign the fundamentals of the strategy to help Washington achieve its broader objectives.
A New Rebalancing Strategy
The redrawing of U.S. pivot plans appears designed to help the U.S. maneuver into a favorable position in East Asia, without compromising on its efforts to meet any challenges that might arise in the Middle East. From an operational perspective, the new maritime initiatives look to be a part of a tactical counter-balancing strategy, wherein an increased maritime presence in the Mediterranean is accompanied by a temporary reduction of the pivot-related operational tempo in parts of the Eastern Pacific, where the U.S. Navy seems in a rather conciliatory mood vis-à-vis the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N).
Recent developments suggest a new maritime bonhomie is blossoming between the U.S. and China. In a rare if not unprecedented development on September 6, three PLA-N ships visited Hawaii for operational exercises with the U.S. Navy. The three Chinese naval ships – Qingdao, a Luhu-class destroyer; Linyi, a Jiangkai-class frigate; and Hongzehu, a Fuqing-class fleet oiler – carried out coordinated exercises with the American guided missile cruiser, USS Lake Erie, off the Hawaii coast, signaling a growing amenability for operational interaction between the two navies.
To add to the joint-operational endeavors, Wu Shengli, Commander-in-Chief of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy, was invited to visit the U.S. Significantly, this was only three weeks after China's new Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan toured both the Pacific Command in Hawaii and the Northern Command in Colorado. In discussions with his American counterpart, Chuck Hagel, Chang is supposed to have discussed several endeavors that the United States and China will undertake to strengthen their maritime relationship.
These interactions are not one-off events. Rather, they are of a piece with an evolving pattern of close maritime engagement between China and the U.S. Just several weeks ago, a U.S. naval ship carried out anti-piracy drills with units of the PLA-N in the Gulf of Aden. Reportedly, the USS Mason, a guided missile cruiser, teamed up with PLA-N destroyer Harbin and Chinese auxiliary replenishment oiler Weishanhu to conduct a series of evolutions of an operational nature, including combined visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) operations, live-fire drills and cross-deck landings.
While the U.S. Navy portrays the recent engagements with the PLA-N as a move towards improving strategic “trust and transparency,” aimed at avoiding any miscalculation in the Pacific, the Chinese Navy – despite a general wariness about the U.S. rebalance – has been enthusiastic in embracing the theme. Not only is the PLA-N willing to cooperate in the maritime domain, it has also indicated its keenness to attend the U.S. Navy-sponsored RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) exercises in 2014 at Hawaii. Indeed, the geniality on display between the USN and PLA-N has surprised maritime analysts who, until a few months ago, were evaluating scenarios with the two navies in an “eyeball-to-eyeball” confrontation in the Pacific.
A Tailored Accommodation
What’s visible from a distance, however, may only be half the story. Look closer, and the outlines of a new strategic template seem to be emerging. The U.S. and China appear to have come to an unstated agreement that in dealing with each other in the maritime domain, they will follow a principle of tailored “strategic accommodation” – a qualified form of cooperation that holds good only in areas where the two nations do not have conflicting strategic interests, and where it would augur well for both to combine resources and assets. The increased operational convergence between the USN and PLA-N in the Eastern Pacific and Indian Ocean appears to follow that tacit understanding. It recalls an interesting point James Holmes made recently, wherein he noted how big maritime powers sometimes chose to cooperate in areas that aren’t mutually contested. The new emerging U.S.-China maritime cooperation seems to follow that doctrine of "no peace beyond the line" – the most notable example of which, as Holmes points out, was the famed European maritime rivalry during the renaissance period.