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How China, US See Each Other at Sea (Page 2 of 3)

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 Dingli said 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. 

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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.

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