14 August 2011

China, the United States, and 21st Century Sea Power Praised by Andrew Forbes in International Journal of Maritime History

Andrew Forbes, “China and Sea Power in the Twenty-First Century,” International Journal of Maritime History 23.1 (June 2011): 341-46.

Review of Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and Nan Li, eds., China, the United States, and 21st Century Sea Power: Defining a Maritime Security Partnership (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010).

The “rise” of China has been an interesting phenomenon to observe over the past decade or so, but more interesting has been the reaction of the United States. …

The three books under review here, all written and/or edited by members of the US defence academic community, examine the naval “competition” between China and the United States. Stretching doctrinal terms to the breaking point, these books can be considered to cover the strategic, operational and tactical levels of that competition. At the “strategic” level, Red Star Over the Pacific analyses the rationale, selected capabilities and possible uses of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) through a consideration of naval strategic concepts developed by Alfred Thayer Mahan over a century ago. At the “tactical” level, The Great Wall at Sea, while briefly outlining China’s strategic maritime interests (as a rationale for the PLAN), examines in detail the structure and organization of the PLAN. Sitting squarely between these two books, at the “operational” level, is China, the United States, and 21st-Century Sea Power, a collection of edited conference papers which examine the differing US and Chinese approaches to the sea and areas where naval cooperation is both possible and to their benefit, while lowering tensions. …

While China (and any state) has the right to develop its naval forces, it is clear that this growth and modernization is causing tensions in East and Southeast Asia, as well as with the United States. How might this tension be lessened? This is the focus of China, the United States, and 21st-Century Sea Power, which examines how China and the United States might develop a maritime partnership. An oft-heard refrain from international relations specialists, as well as within Track II fora, is that maritime confidence-building measures and maritime cooperation are necessary to lessen tensions. Indeed they are, but the difficulty is moving from the “general” exhortation for cooperation to the “specific” practicalities of what is achievable. And that is the main utility of this book—it is written by practitioners who discuss issues and proffer options that can be used.

The book comprises five parts: the global maritime commons, maritime domain awareness, maritime legal issues and humanitarian operations, perspectives on regional security, and future prospects for maritime security cooperation. An important consideration before there can be any cooperation is an understanding of common interests that provide a reason for cooperation, a political willingness for such cooperation, and institutional frameworks that both allow and manage that cooperation. Notwithstanding the level of suspicion between the United States and china, they have similar maritime interests, and as active users of the sea, they both have an interest in maintaining good order at sea. Thus maritime security is important particularly with regard to those non-traditional issues that occasionally involve navies but more usually maritime forces (such as coast guards). Cooperation does not have to be between navies to ease tensions and the US Coast Guard has worked with Chinese maritime forces to help them improve their maritime enforcement capabilities, perhaps following the lead of the Japan Coast Guard which undertakes a similar role in Southeast Asia. And it is in the realm of constabulary and diplomatic roles that navies are able to begin working together. Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief have taken on a greater importance since the 2004 Asian tsunami and both the United States and China have conducted medical diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region. Search and rescue is another area where states can cooperate, as it is in the interests of all users of the sea that seafarers and mariners remain safe; and as China’s submarine force is growing, submarine rescue is an area where cooperation can occur. The key point is that there are enough activities in the non-traditional maritime security realm for the beginnings of maritime cooperation between the United States and China. Success here might enable increasing naval cooperation in more traditional roles.

But at present no one can tell whether China constitutes  a threat to the current world order (by challenging the United States), and whether the PLAN modernization is solely based on China’s littoral maritime security issues or has broader aspirations. The Chinese often talk of harmonious seas, but often their actions at sea belie these words.

These three books, published by Naval Institute Press, examine the conundrum of China’s military growth and naval modernization from a variety of perspectives. The Great Wall at Sea will continue to be the book to go to in order to understand the structure and capabilities of the PLAN… Red Star Over the Pacific is the book to read to understand what China thinks of sea power… The issues that drive the two countries and how they might cooperate together are covered in China, the United States, and 21st-Century Sea Power. The books can be read individually, but make a good fit if read together.