Chinese Anti-Piracy and the Global Maritime Commons

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Chinese Anti-Piracy and the Global Maritime Commons

As Chinese maritime influence grows, it raises questions for the commercial maritime community.

Chinese Anti-Piracy and the Global Maritime Commons
Credit: REUTERS/Emmanual Kwitema

For perhaps only the second time in its long history, China’s military and economic future seems to point towards the sea. Its transformation in the early twenty-first century from a land to a sea power has not only reshaped the global community’s view of China as an ascending power on the world stage, it has also forced a reconsideration of China’s contribution to both global economic development and the safety and security of the global maritime commons. This expanded global presence and increased dependence on the economy as an agent of stability has forced a reevaluation among Chinese strategic planners. As China’s economy has become increasingly dependent on the sea lines of communication (SLOC) for the basic free flow of goods and commodities, especially oil, it has also increasingly viewed the traditional security structure of the global maritime commons as both a national security liability and an economic albatross.

The reason for China’s dissatisfaction is obvious. The United States, as the central and historically unchallenged guarantor of the security and stability of the global maritime commons, is increasingly typecast as both China’s regional and global strategic revival, always at the ready to contain and curtail its economic growth and put a bit of stick about. However, rather than simply reacting and directly challenging this reality by trying to usurp the status quo, China has adopted an innovative agenda for securing its SLOCs, deploying naval assets, and conducting anti-piracy operations in conjunction with the U.S. and its NATO, EU and coalition allies where it best suits Chinese interests on the one hand, while increasingly acting in a unilateral capacity, specifically at perhaps its most strategic choke point, the Horn of Africa, on the other.

China’s development and implementation of a bident security structure for the global maritime commons has raised some important questions for the commercial maritime community. Will increased Chinese participation lead to greater stability? Will Chinese anti-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa be driven by common interests and goals or by national ones and will the commercial maritime community be pressured into an either/or position when it comes to anti-piracy efforts and security of the SLOCs – and more generally the global maritime commons? In other words, should the community uphold the traditional status quo of a United States, NATO, EU and coalition partners-led effort, or should it side with Chinese unilateralism and all that entails? The answers to these questions aren’t simple nor are they immediate, yet one thing remains clear. China’s drive to the sea has changed the security structure for the global maritime commons in significant and irreversible ways and the commercial maritime community needs to factor China into every equation about anti-piracy, the security of the SLOCs and the overall safety and security of the global maritime commons.  

The Horn of Africa, a Case Study in Unilateralism

The most obvious and perhaps best area to study China’s burgeoning anti-piracy and constabulary efforts is the Horn of Africa, an area of vital importance to the global economic system, the commercial maritime community, and China’s own strategic and economic interests. China’s naval presence and activities off the Horn of Africa are defined by three factors; independent command and control operation, unilateral action, and an unwillingness to meaningfully integrate into other anti-piracy coalitions operating in the area. This is not to suggest that the Chinese have been overtly hostile or antagonistic towards U.S./NATO and EU coalitions, but the ever present cold shoulder and lack of meaningful partnership activities is noticeable and hinders what should be the overarching and shared goal of stability and the elimination of piracy in the area. A good example of China’s emphasis on independent action is its refusal to join or integrate its anti-piracy efforts with the U.S. led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) & Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151), the NATO led Operation Ocean Shield, and the EU led Operation Atalanta, collectively known as the “Three Forces.” One of the most significant reasons for this lack of integration, specifically with the CMF and CTF-151 is that any participating navy must, as a prerequisite for inclusion, allow for the installation of what is known as Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (CENTRIXS). This U.S.-built software system facilitates encrypted communication between navies operating under the CMF umbrella, streamlining inter-navy cooperation and focusing force, asset deployment, and concentrated effort and pressure where it is most needed. The Chinese refusal to adopt CENTRIXS software, mirrors the actions of Russia, another established state actor conducting anti-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa, with both nations being unwilling to accept any coalition that puts primacy on U.S. command or operating systems.

It is also worth noting, that in the case of the CMF, while being led by the U.S. and having its operations directed by U.S. Navy (USN) personnel, its list of participants includes a broad selection of important, independent nations and both established and ascending regional and global powers such as India, Pakistan, Japan and Malaysia. Meanwhile, this lack of an overarching inclusive philosophy and genuine willingness for partnership on the part of the Chinese has, to put it mildly, segregated Chinese anti-piracy efforts and isolated its actions. It has also led to a redundancy in terms of force deployments and overlapping areas of operations, hardly furthering the larger goal of an eliminating piracy off the Horn of Africa.

The question, however, is how have Chinese anti-piracy efforts affected the commercial maritime community? Have Chinese’s efforts been positive? Have they helped reduce the burden of piracy off the Horn of Africa? In superficial terms, answer is a resounding yes. Simply put, more navies, ships and state actors conducting anti-piracy efforts in a specific geographic area and over a greater length of time is going to reduce the ability and willingness of pirates to target commercial maritime vessels. As state actors place more and more effort and focus on anti-piracy in general as an integral part of their navies’ force deployments, the benefit and necessity of maintaining a secure and stable global maritime commons becomes obvious. Chinese anti-piracy efforts, whether operationally independent or as deployed naval assets patrolling and conducting operations alongside U.S., NATO and EU/coalition anti-piracy efforts, are first and foremost significant anti-piracy efforts. The greater the number of navies operating off the Horn of Africa, the safer the waters are for all commercial maritime vessels and the commercial maritime community at large.

Chinese Anti-Piracy Efforts: Motives and Concerns

Yet, for all this “the more the merrier” thinking and optimistically pragmatic conception of anti-piracy efforts of the Horn of Africa, the underlying subtext of motive remains. What does Beijing want to accomplish by conducting anti-piracy efforts of the Horn of Africa? What is the end goal and what do it want to prove by deploying the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with an anti-piracy mission that until relatively recently it was more than happy to leave to the United States, NATO and EU and coalition partners? The answer, it seems, is less driven by some newfound altruistic approach to the security of the global maritime commons and more driven by pure, unbridled national interest. Whereas the Western coalition partners operate and have operated for close to seven decades under the dual conception of securing vital national interests and maintaining a stable global maritime commons for all nations, the Chinese, by contrast, seem to put national concerns first and foremost. This divergence in the thought and theory behind anti-piracy efforts and the security of the global maritime commons is what makes the question of motive all the more pressing and what makes China’s increasingly robust and frequent deployment of naval assets in vital commercial waterways all the more worrisome.

When considering Chinese anti-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa, one cannot help but note that nearly all of China’s crude oil and petroleum imports pass through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, the Gulf of Aden and the surrounding waters of the Arabian Sea. Even with the building of the Eastern Siberia–Pacific Ocean oil pipeline (ESPO pipeline), Chinese dependence on the commercial waterways of the western Indian Ocean is unlikely to decrease by any significant margin. Given this dependence, China has been committing a serious investment of effort, power and influence to not only establishing itself as a power player in the region, but also setting up the conditions for permanent residency for its naval forces off the Horn of Africa. Within the past two years, China has been holding serious and progressively fruitful talks with the government of Djibouti concerning the use of naval facilities with the end goal of establishing a permanent Chinese naval base on the Horn of Africa, in essence and in practice a forward operating base for Chinese naval assets with the goal of further cementing China’s presence in the region. This national and economic interest driven approach concerning Chinese anti-piracy efforts and overall Chinese naval presence in the region should be a cause for concern for the commercial maritime community because, at the end of the day, China’s increasingly nationalistic conception of anti-piracy efforts runs counter to the idea of a free, open and secure global maritime commons.

However, it would rash to think that China has the logistical ability, national will or military strength to directly challenged or replace the United States, NATO, EU and coalition partners as the guarantor of security and stability of the global maritime commons, at least in the near future. Rather, more and more it appears that China is playing a long game, easing the PLAN into an anti-piracy and constabulary role while, for the time being, maintaining a tact deference to the established status quo. This long game mentality should be of particular concern for the commercial maritime community in that it implies that a challenge to the establishment, a radical reinterpretation of the power and security structure of the global maritime commons, is on the horizon.

Consider, for example, the training, ability and preparedness of PLAN naval assets involved in China’s anti-piracy efforts. For the better part of its existence, the PLAN had two primary missions, firstly maintaining the ability to adequately defend the Chinese coast and secondly maintaining the ability to project power and support land operations against China’s immediate regional neighbors, specifically Vietnam and Taiwan. Yet, over the past fifteen years the PLAN has increasingly been training in vessel interdiction, joint land, sea and air coordination, logistical support for forward operating fleets and anti-access/area denial tactics. Now, taken in isolation and with the presupposition of anti-piracy, this development in training and tactics seems benign; but taken with the backdrop of the long game mentality, increasingly assertive and aggressive Chinese actions in the East and South China Seas and a rapidly expanding and modernized PLAN, this development appears much more destabilizing both for the Western coalition partners the commercial maritime community at large. When set against the metric of responsible administration and custodianship of the global maritime commons, the fact remains that China, as an emerging and progressively more powerful and influential global player, consistently falls short of the impartiality and diligence displayed by the United States, NATO, EU and coalition partners. If the latter half of the twentieth century and first two decades of the twenty-first century have reinforced and proven any lessons for the commercial maritime community, most importantly they have demonstrated that with the Western coalition partners as the guarantors of the safety and security of the global maritime commons, stability and prosperity follows. It remains to be seen, what, if any, alternatives China can offer to displace this record and how the global maritime commons would look under Chinese administration.

The Commercial Maritime Community’s Red China Blues                                 

The twenty-first century will conclusively demonstrate that China’s future military and economic development in now and perhaps forevermore intrinsically bound to the sea. As its economic prowess expands and its dependence on and interaction with the global maritime commons grows, more and more China will have to integrate and familiarize itself with the established codes of conduct and security expectations of the commercial maritime community. Yet, the commercial maritime community, for its part, should view the developing relationship between China and itself with one eye towards hope and the other towards caution. Do China’s anti-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa add to regional security? Yes. Does China’s economic emergence tie it more completely to the global economic system, with all its norms and status quos? Yes. Will the United States, NATO, EU and coalition partners remain the guarantors of the safety and security of the global maritime commons? Maybe. Will China be content with the established economic and military order? Don’t count on it! The most important aspect for the commercial maritime community to consider when it tries to understand China and its future place in and contributions to the global security order is that, in the final analysis, China is firmly an authoritarian power. It may sound reductive or perhaps alarmist, but political reality is political reality and the way in which a county operates, conducts its business and relates to itself, its regional neighbors, and the global community at large, is a good indicator of how it will grasp and wield the reins of power. Simply put, when it comes to the safety and security of the global maritime commons, the transnational sea lanes and the commercial maritime community, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

Matthew Minot-Scheuermann (USA) is a SPF Non-Resident Fellow with CSIS Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program, a contributing writer for Strategic Insights, a series of maritime security reports published by RiskIntelligence, a Danish maritime security consultancy firm and a Resource Development Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity.