24 October 2013

Pragmatic Partners, the Unsung Story of U.S.-China Anti-Piracy Coordination

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Pragmatic Partners, the Unsung Story of U.S.-China Anti-Piracy Coordination,” Guest Blog Post for Elizabeth C. Economy, Asia Unbound, Council on Foreign Relations, 24 October 2013.

This guest post is by Andrew Erickson, an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College, and Austin Strange, a researcher for the College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.

Out of the limelight, Gulf of Aden cooperation has provided both China and the United States with a vital conduit for progressive military contact amid protracted mistrust in the Asia Pacific. Indeed, their navies recently conducted a joint anti-piracy exercise there. In the future, Far Seas non-traditional security cooperation is set to play an even larger role in buttressing Sino-American military relations.

U.S.-China maritime engagement, particularly in China’s nautical periphery, remains rife with mistrust, overlapping interests, and uncertainty. Strong official statements and emotionally charged saber rattling characterize much of the discourse in this region. In August 2012, for example, PLAN Rear Admiral and frequent CCTV commentator Zhang Zhaozhong declared that the United States would “run like rabbits” in the event of Sino-Japanese conflict over East China Sea territorial disputes. Indeed, the two maritime powers are arguably primarily competitors, as opposed to partners, in the contested Near Seas.

Nevertheless, the world goes on even as long-term naval strategies unfold in the Asia Pacific. Myriad maritime non-traditional security threats increasingly require the attention of the world’s two largest military spenders. Somali piracy has been one of the most notorious of these challenges, with Tom Hanks joining the struggle as Captain Phillips in the thriller dramatizing the 2009 Maersk Alabama pirating. What does anti-piracy cooperation reveal about how the United States and China might lead multi-state responses to future non-traditional threats? … … …

This post draws on the authors’ monograph “No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Anti-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden,” Naval War College China Maritime Study 10 (forthcoming 2013). It reflects solely their personal views.