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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.