China has achieved many firsts under the umbrella of antipiracy. These include its first major contributions to securing sea lines of communication (SLOC), a commendable start. World navies do better at protecting vulnerable maritime regions when they cooperate. There are manifold reasons for this: the transnational economic and political damage that piracy wreaks, the vast area of the western Indian Ocean in which pirates attack, the large number of merchant ships traversing these waters, the diversity of flag states responsible for them, and the resource-intensiveness of naval response options. Accordingly, numerous regional and international antipiracy mechanisms have been established in key strategic areas on the basis of this principle. These systems have made measurable progress in reducing pirate attacks in areas such as the Gulf of Aden. Nonetheless, the Chinese government has chosen to have its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) act unilaterally, albeit in parallel with international efforts. Several other states have made similar policy decisions. Despite its status as an independent provider of SLOC security, however, the PLAN’s coordination with Western antipiracy forces suggests that China can contribute in parallel with, rather than threaten to destabilize, existing maritime governance mechanisms in the Far Seas.
As China and other states transition towards “ocean economies,” piracy and other non-traditional threats continue to jeopardize the stability of the crucial waterways that deliver the lion’s share of world trade. Given their unconventional features such as uncertainty of origin, unpredictability, and unresponsiveness to diplomatic efforts, suppressing non-traditional security threats often requires the concerted efforts of multiple state actors. As the fifth anniversary of China’s Gulf of Aden deployment draws near, what does China’s approach to international antipiracy cooperation reveal about its impact on global maritime governance?
Multilateral coordination mechanisms have enabled China to maintain its status as an independent public goods provider while actively strengthening bilateral naval relations and helping build a 21st-century architecture for global maritime governance. While engaging in numerous highly publicized confidence-building activities with counterpart navies and multilateral antipiracy forces, the PLAN has preferred that its escort task forces operate largely on their own, treating exchanges with other navies as bilateral diplomatic sweeteners, added bonuses to its core piracy responsibilities. This behavior comports with China’s official approach, which advocates “striving to make independent, self-derived, peaceful foreign policy.”
The PLAN is not alone in deploying independent forces to the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa to mitigate the effects of piracy. Such states as India, Iran, Japan and Russia have also deployed substantial naval capacity outside multilateral structures. At any given time, Japan is typically operating two warships in the area tasked with antipiracy support, while Russia and India will usually have one each deployed. Independent operators have participated in official exchanges with multilateral mechanisms, though they have not adopted policies identical to those of any of the multilateral task forces in the Gulf of Aden: Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), NATO’s Operation OCEAN SHIELD, and the EU’s Operation ATALANTA, known colloquially as the “Three Forces,” or operated under CMF’s Combined Task Force (CTF)-150 or -151. As Chinese scholars Liu Jingsheng and Shao Guoyu point out, China, Japan, India and Russia generally have preferred to carry out “accompanying escorts” while other navies use “zoned escorts” and patrols. The latter approach has been a key facilitator of the coordination mechanisms between these navies.
Its independent identity notwithstanding, the PLAN has actively engaged with other navies whom it perceives as being “in the same boat” with regard to contemporary maritime piracy. The Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) mechanism, which meets quarterly in Bahrain, has been the primary interface for that engagement. All naval ships or convoys fighting piracy are considered affiliated members. SHADE is not an organization but a facilitating venue. It is chaired by EU Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) and the CMF Chief of Staff (with NATO co-chairing some meetings more recently), and seeks to avoid redundancies within multilateral and independent deployer operations. SHADE was originally drawn up by EUNAVFOR and CMF because each side recognized the “benefits of a loose confederation of the willing.” SHADE’s Terms of Reference explain the mandate and functions of the mechanism. The U.S. provides funding for SHADE; however it is not simply U.S.-led, as U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) do not do any tasking and all involved navies maintain sovereignty and vetoes over their participation. SHADE meetings, often attended by a multitude of antipiracy stakeholders including representatives from navies and governments, businesses and NGOs, are reported to have a collegial atmosphere based on the common goal of eradicating piracy.