01 November 2013

China and the International Antipiracy Effort

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “China and the International Antipiracy Effort,” The Diplomat, 1 November 2013.

China has achieved many firsts under the umbrella of antipiracy. These include its first major contributions to securing sea lines of communication (SLOC), a commendable start. World navies do better at protecting vulnerable maritime regions when they cooperate. There are manifold reasons for this: the transnational economic and political damage that piracy wreaks, the vast area of the western Indian Ocean in which pirates attack, the large number of merchant ships traversing these waters, the diversity of flag states responsible for them, and the resource-intensiveness of naval response options. Accordingly, numerous regional and international antipiracy mechanisms have been established in key strategic areas on the basis of this principle. These systems have made measurable progress in reducing pirate attacks in areas such as the Gulf of Aden. Nonetheless, the Chinese government has chosen to have its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) act unilaterally, albeit in parallel with international efforts. Several other states have made similar policy decisions. Despite its status as an independent provider of SLOC security, however, the PLAN’s coordination with Western antipiracy forces suggests that China can contribute in parallel with, rather than threaten to destabilize, existing maritime governance mechanisms in the Far Seas.

As China and other states transition towards “ocean economies,” piracy and other non-traditional threats continue to jeopardize the stability of the crucial waterways that deliver the lion’s share of world trade. Given their unconventional features such as uncertainty of origin, unpredictability, and unresponsiveness to diplomatic efforts, suppressing non-traditional security threats often requires the concerted efforts of multiple state actors. As the fifth anniversary of China’s Gulf of Aden deployment draws near, what does China’s approach to international antipiracy cooperation reveal about its impact on global maritime governance?

Multilateral coordination mechanisms have enabled China to maintain its status as an independent public goods provider while actively strengthening bilateral naval relations and helping build a 21st-century architecture for global maritime governance. While engaging in numerous highly publicized confidence-building activities with counterpart navies and multilateral antipiracy forces, the PLAN has preferred that its escort task forces operate largely on their own, treating exchanges with other navies as bilateral diplomatic sweeteners, added bonuses to its core piracy responsibilities. This behavior comports with China’s official approach, which advocates “striving to make independent, self-derived, peaceful foreign policy.”

The PLAN is not alone in deploying independent forces to the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa to mitigate the effects of piracy. Such states as India, Iran, Japan and Russia have also deployed substantial naval capacity outside multilateral structures. At any given time, Japan is typically operating two warships in the area tasked with antipiracy support, while Russia and India will usually have one each deployed. Independent operators have participated in official exchanges with multilateral mechanisms, though they have not adopted policies identical to those of any of the multilateral task forces in the Gulf of Aden: Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), NATO’s Operation OCEAN SHIELD, and the EU’s Operation ATALANTA, known colloquially as the “Three Forces,” or operated under CMF’s Combined Task Force (CTF)-150 or -151. As Chinese scholars Liu Jingsheng and Shao Guoyu point out, China, Japan, India and Russia generally have preferred to carry out “accompanying escorts” while other navies use “zoned escorts” and patrols. The latter approach has been a key facilitator of the coordination mechanisms between these navies. … … …