10 August 2007

China: A New Maritime Partner?

Lyle J. Goldstein, China: A New Maritime Partner?,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 133, No. 8 (August 2007).

The U.S. Coast Guard is opening the door to a cooperative relationship with China.

China’s maritime development is gathering steam. It is challenging South Korea and Japan for dominance of the global shipbuilding market. More than 1,700 ships carry the five-star red flag, giving China the world’s second largest merchant marine. Seven of the top 20 container ports in the world are located in China, with Shanghai seeking to take the top spot by 2010. Beijing is moving into both civil and naval high-tech shipbuilding arenas, producing everything from liquefied natural gas tankers to area air defense destroyers with phased array radars. From a maritime perspective, China finally has “stood up.”

This rapid maritime development has engendered tension, not only between China and its coastal neighbors, but also with the United States. It was suggested during the 1990s that Asia’s preeminent continental power would not dare to challenge the preeminent sea power in the region. Such a balance of power, however elegant, seems less and less feasible as Chinese shipyards turn out better designs while the United States remains largely focused on Iraq.

To ensure peace in the 21st century, the United States and China must reach a new modus vivendi on the high seas. Unfortunately, military-to-military engagement remains rather limited and tense, a tone that that is just beginning to change since the nadir during and after the April 2001 EP-3 incident. To be sure, the spring 2007 visit to the United States by China’s naval commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, is a significant step in cooperative relations, but this maritime partnership must be built on a strong foundation of trust established over time through activities that have concrete benefits for both sides.

In contrast to the volatile military-to-military relationship, the U.S. Coast Guard’s civil maritime engagement with China has been sustained and successful. The Coast Guard and corresponding Chinese civil maritime authorities have circumvented points of tension to cooperate on common interests in maritime governance. The United States and China both want safe, clean oceans, sustainable and fair extraction of resources, and security from seaborne asymmetric threats. Over the course of the last five years, the Coast Guard has worked with multiple Chinese ministries to develop a relationship that includes both exchanges ashore and operational cooperation at sea.

But in an era of increased missions for the service, this relationship cannot be taken for granted. In fact, accelerating Coast Guard engagement with China has the potential to pay enormous strategic dividends for the United States. Such an approach supports U.S. national goals to encourage the integration of China into a community of maritime stakeholders. The Coast Guard relationship with China and other coastal states is pragmatically realizing the vision of a multinational 1,000-ship navy to police the global commons. …