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3 Keys to a Peaceful China-US Maritime Coexistence

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3 Keys to a Peaceful China-US Maritime Coexistence

As U.S.-China frictions grow, the likelihood of a maritime clash increases. Here’s how to avoid a worst-case scenario.

3 Keys to a Peaceful China-US Maritime Coexistence

In this May 6, 2016, file photo, soldiers from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy watch as the USS Blue Ridge arrives at a port in Shanghai.

Credit: AP Photo

China and the United States have reached an agreement on a Phase One trade deal. Though Sino-U.S. trade frictions are far from over, both sides have acknowledged that this kind of serious negotiation is a good way to resolve differences. Now, it is also necessary for them to reach some consensus on how to coexist at sea.

It is beyond all doubt that efforts of the United States toward maintaining and consolidating Indo-Pacific maritime hegemony and China’s actions to build capacity and safeguard maritime rights will conflict with each other as time goes by. Since 2010, maritime conflict has consistently been one of the most serious problems in China-U.S. relations. The situation is getting worse and worse — at present, with the growing atmosphere of strategic competition and high-intensity confrontation, both the United States and China are making preparations for the worst-case scenario. In the United States, some war rhetoric has even begun to emerge. Even while growing more hostile at the strategic level and more provocative at the tactical level, the two militaries also have to face more daily air and sea encounters, greatly increasing the risk of military conflict.

We may have reasons to be cautiously optimistic about overall peace, thanks to nuclear deterrence and the interdependence of interests. However, there will be a long-lasting period of trouble and uncertainty before a new equilibrium would be finally formed. During this time, the possibility of small-scale armed conflict is increasing. The success of competition control and crisis management mainly depends on whether China and the United States are able to make compromises or reach an understanding the following three aspects.

First, reach a necessary consensus on power distribution in the western Pacific.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has been maintaining absolute maritime superiority based on its military presence and powerful alliance system in the region. At the same time, China has not had much say over maritime affairs for a long time. To a large extent, the issues of the Diaoyu Islands, South China Sea, and Taiwan resulted from China’s excessively weak naval and air forces. The situation worsened after the end of the Cold War. However, the strategic pattern of the western Pacific is now changing with the rapid development of China’s comprehensive strength and military modernization.

Although China’s military force is unable to challenge that of the United Sates worldwide in the foreseeable future, in the local sea area of the Asia-Pacific, a more balanced power distribution between China and the United States is replacing the unipolar structure dominated by Washington. The power transition between China and the United States so often mentioned by the strategic community is substantially occurring in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in East Asia. Even according to the most cautious and conservative opinion, the rise of China will lead to some limited but substantial changes in the local power structure.

As the ratio of national defense budget to GDP is much lower for China than for the United States, China has greater potential for gathering resources in the case of an arms race. Even if China’s growth rates in terms of both GDP and national defense spending began decreasing and the United States devoted more resources to national defense due to improvement in its financial condition, it is an inevitable tendency that the gap between China and the United States with respect to national defense spending is narrowing. Moreover, most of China’s national defense resources are used for the western Pacific while the United States can only put part of its resources in this region — no matter how much the “Indo-Pacific strategy” is implemented. Therefore, sooner or later China will be well-matched with the United States in term of defense resources in the western Pacific.

In spite of a large gap in quality and overall capability, the Chinese navy will undoubtedly obtain scale superiority in East Asia due to the asymmetry of power projection between China and the United States, and such superiority will compensate for the quality disparity to certain extent. If the large-scale land-based air force and missile force are taken into consideration, China will be in a better position.

Therefore, as China and the United States make full use of emerging military technologies and leverage their geographical advantages, China will obtain a power balanced with or even superior to the United States’ in East Asia and the United States will maintain a relatively advantageous position in the high seas. Both sides need to accept the most likely power structure to appear in this region, clearly understand their own weak points, restrain exaggerating behaviors, and learn to coexist with each other. As a report from the Carnegie Endowment warns, “Efforts by the United States or China to secure future predominance will prove futile and dangerous, given a host of security, economic, and diplomatic factors.”

Based on the strategic fact that both competition and compromise with each other are unavoidable, China and the United States need to maintain strategic consciousness; arrange dialogue on western Pacific issues as soon as possible; conduct substantial negotiations with respect to strategic conceptions of each other; launch arms control dialogues or mutual restrictions on maritime armament development; reach necessary consensuses on power distribution and power balance in the region; and form an inclusive security framework for coexistence on this basis in the process of the competition.

Second, rationally handle third-party factors.

The United States has established a widespread security network in the Asia-Pacific region and maintains alliances with Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and other regional countries. The United States is making more and more security commitments to its allies and partners with respect to the Diaoyu Islands, South China Sea, and other maritime disputes involving China. The United States also maintains military and political relations with Taiwan based on the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. Washington deems itself responsible for Taiwan and should not allow the Chinese mainland to unify Taiwan by force or threat of force.

Not surprisingly, Chinese actions to safeguard its territorial integrity, sovereignty, and sovereign rights will be fiercely opposed by these third parties. As their close ally, the United States has to respond to the Chinese actions according to the expectations and demands of these third parties. In this way, disputes and conflicts between China and third parties will lead to frictions between China and the United States. Moreover, with China’s maritime rise, the U.S. is also more and more interested to intervene in these issues from the perspective of great power competition.

As a country that underwent a “century of humiliation,” China considers territory and sovereignty very significant and strongly dislikes any external intervention. If the basic balance of U.S. policy breaks down and the United States rises in revolt against China’s moves to safeguard its territory and sovereignty, it is not likely that China and the United States would have substantial communication and dialogue as the former is forced to assume the worst about the latter’s motives. Even though the United States wishes to restrain and suppress China through the Taiwan issue and maritime disputes involving China, it still needs to remain neutral in relation to sovereignty-related issues. Otherwise, fierce responses from China will definitely come. For the United States, the Taiwan issue and those maritime disputes involving China are a double-edged sword. If they are excessively taken advantage of by the United States, there would be more loss than gain for Washington and it may even lead to the collapse of its whole Asia-Pacific policy framework.

If the United States really wants to have a strategy and policy dialogue with China with respect to maritime issues, including the South China Sea, it needs to maintain a low profile on sovereignty and relevant issues, thus creating an atmosphere for communication and negotiation. China is more and more willing to have dialogue and communication with the United States on regional order and maritime competition management, which is of concern to both parties. However, the United States frequently criticizes China’s maritime claims, which has directly impeded the possibility of in-depth dialogue and communication. In fact, the United States’ concerns are about balance of power and freedom of navigation, rather than sovereignty issues. However, Washington has wasted a lot of energy and opportunities due to its intervention on issues like sovereignty and maritime delimitation.

China, meanwhile, needs to keep calm and should not panic or overreact by attributing all provocative actions of third parties to the United States. Meanwhile, Beijing also needs to objectively understand the strategic intentions of the United States and should not regard any U.S. intervention in the Taiwan issue and maritime disputes involving China as evidence that “the United States will never give up its attempt to subjugate China.” It is urgent for China to maintain a strategic consciousness and clearly understand that even as China has no strategic intention to challenge the U.S., its power development and actions to defend maritime rights will be seen by the latter as a threat to its maritime dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.

Third, make joint efforts to build inclusive maritime rules and order.

In modern times, competition for sea power is to a great extent about maritime order and rules. Certain systems or rules are well needed for binding and coordinating the U.S.-China maritime relationship to keep it stable. Currently, both China and the United States claim to be building rule-based international orders, but the question as to which kinds of rule remains. As neither China nor the United States is able to establish or maintain a predominant power and status, such rules or order should be recognized by both parties and may only be built in the maritime interactions between them. The prerequisite is that each party has to give up any intention or plan of building an exclusive maritime security system targeting the other party in the western Pacific or even the Indo-Pacific region.

It should be noted that, even though China persists in its nine-dash line (NDL) claim in the South China Sea, China does not have the intention or capacity of establishing an exclusive presence inside the NDL. In fact, there is no problem with freedom of navigation in the waters within the NDL, whether for merchant ships, warships, or military aircraft. Yes, there have been some confrontations taking place in Chinese-claimed territorial waters or within 12 nautical miles of Chinese islands, but that is another story related to Chinese sovereignty and national security.

To make a breakthrough in negotiations and dialogues on rule and order, the United States needs to take the initiative to create a favorable atmosphere and environment rather than being insufferably arrogant as an international moralist and judge against China. The United States stands in a dominant position in the legal battle by virtue of its superiority in discourse power while China stays in a passive, defense position. However, this does not mean that the rules as advocated by the United States are more reasonable and legal. In practice, if China raises an objection, the rules will not be validated. In fact, both China and the United States have veto power over any Asia-Pacific maritime security order.

The establishment of the existing maritime order based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is an important step for global order. The execution and implementation of UNCLOS marked the first time that a maritime order adjustment was achieved through negotiation rather than maritime battle. However, the new maritime order is far from being completely established — for instance, issues related to military operations and maritime security are not well discussed and regulated. China has reservations about UNCLOS’s terms of compulsory arbitration and historical tittles and rights, and the United States has not yet joined the Convention at all.

In terms of building an international maritime order, China and the United States have more common ground than contradictions. Both China and the United States have vast area of territorial sea and long continental coastal lines. The two countries have common language and historical responsibility in establishing a maritime order. As the strength disparity between China and the United States is reduced, the two countries will tend to have similar concepts about rules on freedom of navigation and dispute settlement procedures. The impact of political and ideological contradictions and other irrational factors on the issue should weaken gradually. It is necessary for both parties to promote dialogue and cooperation toward perfecting international maritime laws and mechanisms, to facilitate the creation of similar maritime concepts, and to seek for better understanding of the opinions and behaviors of the other party even though the disputes cannot be eliminated completely.

As warships and aircraft from two sides encounter each other more frequently, it is urgent for both parties to develop an operational code for coexistence in this region. The U.S. military force is not used to the rapid growth of China’s seapower while the People’s Liberation Army is inexperienced in handling relations with its counterpart as a great maritime power. As the military forces of the two countries will coexist in the western Pacific for the long term, the region is becoming crowded and military operations launched against each other will be inevitable. To avoid misjudgment and the potential intensification of a crisis, it is imperative for China and the United States to jointly form a set of rules or codes governing military operations. The “Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Sea Encounters” and “Mutual Report Mechanism for Major Military Actions” are good examples of shared rules.

In the next step, China and the United States should carry out in-depth negotiations and seek consensus on “bottom line” rules on military exercises, reconnaissance, and undersea activities so as to avoid any dangerous escalation. Both parties need to regain rationality and communicate calmly with each other on rules and systems. Criticizing or attacking each other is detrimental to the establishment of any order.

These three major prerequisites are far from being sufficient for promoting positive maritime interactions between China and the United States. More wisdom and new techniques are needed. However, these three prerequisites are an important foundation for these two giants to maintain a long-term maritime peace.

Hu Bo is Director of the Center for Maritime Strategy Research and Research Professor at the Institute of Ocean Research, Peking University. He is also Director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI). His most recent publications include China’s Sea Power in the Post Mahan Era by China Ocean Press (2018) and Chinese Maritime Power in the 21st Century by Routledge (2019).