Will U.S., China Navies Play Nice?

Can China and the U.S. get along on the high seas, or even work together on issues of mutual interest? Maybe.

A slew of worthwhile questions came up during the Q&A at last month’s Harvard-Diplomat panel in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We even got to banter with an old hippie who held forth on China’s virtues as an honest broker in the non-Western world, a stark contrast to supposedly predatory America. That reminded everyone we were at an epicenter of the Sixties.

Or, one graduate student asked about what China is doing to prepare itself for nonmilitary missions in the “far seas,” as Chinese officials and pundits call waters remote from East Asian shores. She voiced particular interest in the part China’s newly refitted Soviet aircraft carrier might play in ventures far from Chinese shores, like counterpiracy, counterproliferation, or humanitarian and disaster relief. And, in time-honored graduate student fashion, she sneaked in a second question, this one about the prospects for U.S.-China cooperation on the high seas.

These are worthy topics to explore. The former is mostly about hardware and thus less interesting (to me). The ex-Varyag will play no part in far-seas operations until engineers work the kinks out of the hull and its internals, and until the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has a working air wing for the ship. Those are no easy tasks. It could take years for aviators to develop the skills needed to operate from a pitching flight deck. Once the flattop is a working vessel, it will presumably be capable of doing many of the things U.S. carriers do at the margins of nonmilitary endeavors, though on a smaller scale because of its smaller size.

Some of a carrier’s capacity comes from the fact that it’s a mobile airport with its own fleet of aircraft. Some comes from the fact that it’s a big ship with a big engineering plant. Naval vessels often shut down their plants when they moor to a pier, and run vital systems from shore electrical power. A carrier can reverse the process, supplying the city from its own generators.

Consider two recent cases. USS Abraham Lincoln rendered humanitarian assistance in the Indian Ocean following the 2004 tsunami off Aceh. Its helicopter squadrons delivered supplies along the coast of stricken Sumatra. Its massive distilling plants converted seawater to fresh water suitable for drinking and washing. Similarly, USS Ronald Reagan and USS George Washington brought aid to northern Japan following the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that struck the archipelago last year. Stung by its inability to provide assistance during the 2004-2005 relief effort, and aware it can burnish China’s good name by rendering assistance, Beijing has determinedly pursued the capability to respond to future natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies. Soft power arises from selfless acts, but a government needs the wherewithal as well as the resolve to perform such acts.

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The second question is more intriguing and, in all likelihood, more consequential for Asia’s maritime future. Can China and the United States get along on the high seas, or even work together on matters of mutual interest? Maybe so. It depends where on the map Chinese and U.S. interests intersect. Close to Chinese shorelines, probably not. Farther away, maybe so. Over time, working together outside East Asia could help them work together in the hothouse diplomatic environment of East Asia. It’s something worth striving for.

Beijing’s receptiveness to seaborne collaboration appears inversely proportional to the distance from Chinese shores. Controversies in the China seas trip defensive reflexes among Chinese leaders and pundits, not to mention a sizable swathe of the populace. That’s why in 2010, Rear Admiral Yang Yi of China’s National Defense University reported that U.S. plans to conduct naval exercises in the Yellow Sea “evoked an intense reaction from the Chinese public.” Because the Obama administration “ignored the Chinese government’s stern remonstrations and the strong reaction of the Chinese people,” noted Yang, China’s legion of “patriotic netizens” exhorted the leadership to pelt flagship George Washington with antiship missiles. That’s a visceral reaction to what even Beijing agreed – grudgingly, when pressed – were lawful maneuvers in international waters and skies.

Distance seems to still such reflexes, at least in part. Over the past three years, for instance, China’s navy has operated amicably alongside the national naval contingents and multinational task forces suppressing piracy in the Gulf of Aden. A former teaching partner of mine spent a year with the U.S. Fifth Fleet in 2008-2009. When he returned, he recalled that the commanders of the Chinese squadron off Somalia had dined on board the American flagship – on the very same day Chinese vessels “harassed” USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea. Talk about Providence juxtaposing events for ironic effect!

To use a physics metaphor, it feels like a kind of inverse-squares law governs how China surveys its nautical surroundings. Beijing frets endlessly over challenges to its interests in the Yellow, East China, and South China seas. Those worries seem to recede with distance from Chinese shores, much as distance attenuates gravitational force, electromagnetic fields, light, sound, and radiation. The farther you get from the source, the weaker the energy. And it’s not a gradual or linear decline. The intensity plunges by the square of the distance.

Why? Part of the reason must be domestic politics. Events outside the China seas, and especially outside the Western Pacific, simply lack the emotional resonance of controversies in the “near seas” which lap against Chinese shores. Generations of Chinese have considered the near seas an offshore preserve. Few events in faraway expanses like the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea will stoke the same passions as a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier – the pride of the U.S. Navy – cruising the Yellow Sea, at Beijing’s maritime door.

Another factor is that China sees fewer vital interests in jeopardy in the “far seas” outside East Asia than it does close to home. From Taiwan to maritime territorial claims to the North Korean nuclear impasse, Beijing has taken on a dizzying array of commitments in the China seas. But there must be more to it than that. Beijing has energy interests aplenty at stake in the Indian Ocean, yet it plays reasonably well with others there.

Expediency must be at work as well. China has numerous commitments along its seaboard and is struggling to field enough assets to uphold those commitments. That leaves little to spare for adventures in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. Simple prudence warns against taking on too much – and outrunning the nation’s finite means. Beijing has little choice but to do what it has done in the Gulf of Aden. It can deploy modest forces while trusting to others to shoulder most of the maritime-security burden for now. Over time, should it arrange matters in the near seas to its liking, China’s leadership can afford to undertake a more proactive policy and strategy in the far seas. If it can boost the amount of sea power at its disposal, it can reduce the inverse-squares effect.

Or, consider a historical analogy. The dynamic taking hold in the Asian seas feels like the inverse of one that prevailed in late Renaissance Europe, when seafaring states operated under one set of rules close home and a starkly different one in remote seas. China’s competitive impulse appears strongest in the China seas, weakest in distant seas like the Indian Ocean. In 1559, as part of the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, France and Spain reached an informal understanding whereby they could make war in a remote theater – the West Indies, their counterpart to the far seas, where both powers saw vital resource and trade interests at stake – while remaining at peace in Europe.

In short, they agreed that there would be “no peace beyond the line.” According to British historian James Williamson, “line” is a misnomer. There were two lines denoting the western and northern edges of the war zone. The French and Spanish sovereigns, that is, declared the waters south of the Tropic of Cancer and west of the longitude of Ferro, in the Canary Islands, a battleground. Williamson maintains that this arrangement affirmed longstanding custom. Historian Garrett Mattingly offers a rejoinder, insisting that it is far from clear where the “lines of amity” ran. Brown University historians Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh tacitly agree with him, pegging the western boundary at the Azores rather than the Canaries. Nonetheless, Mattingly and the Bridenbaughs do accept Williamson’s basic premise that Europeans were prepared to fight in American waters while remaining at peace in Europe.

Warfare in the West Indies was a messy, indirect affair. Monarchs typically issued “letters of marque” rather than send the navy to prey on merchantmen and seaports. Official charters empowered private seamen to act as “privateers,” raiding enemy shipping in the royal interest while taking their own cut of the plunder. Officials at court winked at outright piracy during this no-holds-barred era of marine affairs. The England of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I later joined the bloodsport, sending forth Sir Francis Drake, John Hawkins, and other larger-than-life figures to sow havoc in American waters.

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This is one of those comparisons that’s worthwhile more because of the differences than the similarities between two regions and ages. Think about some of the disparities separating the North Atlantic then from Asia today. Then, land powers adjoining one another agreed to fight for their economic interests, but to do so in a secondary theater and without widening the war to their homelands. They agreed not to let nautical competition set loose a life-or-death struggle along their common frontiers. Economics remained subsidiary to national survival.

In Asia today, the two protagonists to an unspoken arrangement are separated by thousands of miles of ocean. They need not choose between survival and their other interests. On the other hand, unlike 16th century France and Spain, they discern vital interests in waters that wash against one of the rivals’ coasts. The concentrates minds not beyond the line, but within it. It remains to be seen whether Americans attach the same importance to freedom of the seas that Chinese attach to reordering affairs along their historic marine periphery. In the Indian Ocean and other expanses, both countries can take a more easygoing attitude – making it easier to cooperate. The geometry is different, even though similar motives and reflexes are at work.

Then, it was hard to determine where the boundary between comity and conflict ought to run. The argument between Mattingly and Williamson makes the point. Today, it’s easier to detect the line beyond which different rules apply. Geography helps. To China’s east, it makes intuitive sense that the offshore island chain running from Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines delineates China’s immediate ambitions. And to be sure, Chinese strategists like the late Admiral Liu Huaqing, father of the PLAN, designate the seas bounded by the island chain (along with a swathe of the Western Pacific just to the east of the islands) as the primary theaters of Chinese maritime endeavor. To the southwest, the line traced by the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago – a line pierced by the vital Strait of Malacca – constitutes a logical boundary for China’s seaborne aspirations.

Now as in Elizabethan times, a doctrine of no-peace-beyond-the-line erects no absolute barrier to interactions between near and far seas. Indeed, Drake’s 1585-1586 expedition to the Indies drove the Spanish treasury to the point of bankruptcy – and evidently helped goad King Philip II into sending the Armada against the British Isles in 1588. Judging from that precedent, Sino-American conflict in the near seas could radiate into the far seas, gutting efforts at maritime-security cooperation. Or, conversely, collaboration in the far seas could radiate into the near seas, helping relax tensions there. There are no guarantees.

And finally, it’s worth asking whether the logic of Cateau-Cambrésis applies to China’s relations with other seagoing nations besides the United States. For example, the European precedent maps more precisely to Sino-Japanese relations – relations between two strong sea powers situated near each other – than to U.S.-China relations. Will similar motives shape diplomacy between Tokyo and Beijing? Or, what about China and Russia, two great powers with a common land border? And what about China and India, two seafaring states that will interact more and more as China amasses sea power and, in all likelihood, expands its nautical enterprise into the Indian Ocean. In that case India would play the same part China plays in East Asia, China the part of the American outsider coming into the local great power’s home waters.

Renaissance Europe – you take your historical analogies where you find them.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.