12 July 2010

CMSI ‘Red Book’ #6: “U.S.-China Maritime Confidence Building: Paradigms, Precedents, and Prospects”

David Griffiths, U.S.-China Maritime Confidence Building: Paradigms, Precedents, and Prospects, Naval War College China Maritime Study 6 (July 2010).

As two great powers that will influence much of the immediate future of our small and vulnerable planet, China and the United States are in a marriage of sorts. Like it or not, the two societies depend on each other. Environmental degradation, social unrest, economic problems, or pandemic outbreak in one must inevitably affect the other. Both must be active contributors to a peaceful, prosperous, sustainable, global community. Both governments emphasize their commitment to a positive and constructive mutual engagement. At sea, however, that engagement is not always trouble free. Confrontation happens—and when it does, events do not always unfold in the way that policy makers might have intended or preferred. Like a married couple, both sides prefer to downplay to the outside world the extent and nature of quarrels. But despite this public posture, those in command of naval and maritime air forces understand only too well the potential risks of damage, injury, and even death at the tactical level. More worrying is the inherent risk of unintended consequences and the potential for an uncontrolled strategic-political spiral of unwanted escalation. It is bad policy and in no one’s interest to perpetuate a relationship in which an innocent mistake at sea can trigger an unwanted political crisis.

The maritime relationship between China and the United States is a vital element in their relationship and a strategic concern for other states. Their tactical-level interaction at sea is too complex to be governed solely by legal arrangements and political postures. It is too important to be conducted on-scene by best guesses about each other’s intentions, especially when things get exciting and the testosterone and adrenaline start flowing. And when things do go wrong, the resulting political fallout can be too serious to be addressed by rhetoric and dogmatic adherence to rigid positions. Interactions at sea are inherently fluid and must be managed mutually, responsibly, and predictably. At the moment, the maritime relationship between China and the United States is not working as effectively as it should—or must. The business of government is to manage events and minimize risk, so no political leadership should be satisfied with a situation in which an honest misjudgment or accident at sea can result in an unwanted international political problem at an inopportune time.