The Prospect of Sino-US Maritime  Conflict and Cooperation

China International Studies | 作者: Li Fanjie | 时间: 2014-01-20 | 责编: Li Xiaoyu
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by Li Fanjie



Oceans provide an important arena for the United States to implement its global strategies. Therefore, maintaining absolute control of oceans builds the core of US geopolitical strategies.[1] Since the beginning of the 21st Century, with the rapid growth of China’s sea power and intensification of disputes between China and its neighboring countries over maritime rights and interests, the United States has been making greater efforts to contain and deter China at sea. This inevitably exasperated the conflict between the two countries. However, the conflict between China and the United States at sea is different from the Cold War type of confrontation between the United States and former Soviet Union, because there still exist broad spaces for cooperation between the two countries.


I. Misjudgment on the Growth of China’s Sea Power


An emerging power in the epoch of globalization, China becomes more and more dependent on oceans for international trade, fuel supply and cargo shipment, all of which are indispensible to its economic growth. Meanwhile, China is the only major country in the world which has not achieved national unification. To protect sea lanes, safeguard national sovereignty and promote unification, China has to gradually modernize its army and strengthen its sea power. However, such actions caused excessive vigilance and misunderstanding on the part of the United States.


1. China’s rising military power deemed as a threat to US military superiority in West Pacific

In recent years, China’s navy and air force experienced considerable growth in combat power. “Killer” weapons developed based on the principle of “asymmetry combat” in particular have caused great concerns in the United States about China’s “anti-access” and “area denial” capabilities.

In early 2009, Gates, the US secretary of defense, claimed in a Foreign Affairs article that “Beijing’s investments in cyber warfare, anti-satellite warfare, antiaircraft and antiship weaponry, submarines, and ballistic missiles could threaten the United States’ primary means to project its power and help its allies in the Pacific”. [2] In the summer of the same year, Krepinevich, director of Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, claimed that due to China’s “anti-access” and “area denial” capabilities “East Asian waters are slowly but surely becoming another potential no-go zone for US ships”.[3]

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, in its 2010 Report to Congress, also commented that “as China’s air and missile modernization efforts progress, Beijing’s ability to threaten U.S. forward deployed forces and bases in the region is improving” and that China’s navy and air force could attack five major US air force bases in East Asia.[4] The report indicated that China had acquired the capability to project its armed forces to the first island chain and would soon expand its capabilities to reach the second island chain. Especially worth noting, according to the report, was the fact that the cruise missiles deployed at air or sea frontiers by China could easily hit military targets as far as Guam. China’s increased “anti-access” and “area denial” capabilities would render US army’s combat and maneuver capabilities in some geographic locations quite restricted. With the support of its air force and missile troops, China was able to deploy armed forces not only in the sky but also above and beneath sea waters. This meant that the days of US control at key strategic sea lanes were numbered. The report further claimed that if the balance of power continued to tilt in China’s favor and China’s war capabilities beyond Taiwan continued to grow, the US navy would sooner or later have to back off to locations much further beyond the first island chain in West Pacific.


2. China challenging US-led maritime order

Due to different domestic situations and maritime strategies, China and the United States have different understandings about maritime order. With its global hegemony based on superior sea power and one of its core interests being maintenance of free access to oceans, the United States finds it very natural to advocate the principle of “absolute freedom of navigation”. In contrast, China pursues an “offshore defense” strategy, and therefore holds the opinion that foreign battleships engaging in military survey operations in a country’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EZZ) are harmful to the country’s national security and should therefore be prohibited. This is so different from the US view based on the concept of “navigation freedom” and the opinion that “states should not legally prohibit military survey operations within their Exclusive Economic Zones”.[5]

It was these different understandings about military survey operations in EZZs that consequently led to the “Impeccable Incident” in 2009. In that incident, China deemed the operations of USNS Impeccable as “illegal”, while the United States thought Chinese ships encircling Impeccable “provocative and harassing”. In short, the United States held the opinion that the behaviors of and the principles adopted by China in the South China Sea posed a great challenge to the system of norms deliberately constructed by the United States over the past decades[6]. No wonder Walter Lohman, director of Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, claimed that “left unchallenged, the Chinese claim to the South China Sea could one day leave the American Pacific Fleet asking Chinese permission to conduct routine operations. If the Chinese claims calcify at a pace similar to the development of their navy, in another 10 years, the U.S. will have a real crisis on its hands.”[7]

According to the observation of Willard, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, the “restricted access” concept promoted by China has won the support of many countries and even been applied in some strategic regions. For example, the majority of countries in the arc zone that stretches from the Arabic Sea to Sea of Japan, including those coastal countries in South Asia and those sitting across the world’s most important sea lanes, are all denying access of foreign ships to their territorial waters. Countries like Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia and North Korea even enacted laws prohibiting foreign military operations in their EZZs. Of the states adopting “restricted access” policies described above, some have been beefing up their regional naval forces, while others are actively developing their nuclear capabilities or related conventional techniques to deny others’ access to their claimed waters. If this Chinese version of EZZ connotation were accepted by the international community, then the definition of EZZ as a concept in international law would definitely be changed. As EZZs cover more than one third of the world’s total ocean area and many strategic hubs and important sea lanes are located in EZZs, the spread of China’s legal opinion on EZZ will fundamentally threaten the maritime interests of the United States.[8]


3. The rise of China deemed as a threat to the security of US allies in Asian Pacific

In recent years, some neighbors of China took the opportunity of America’s return to Asia to actualize and expand their illegal encroachment on Chinese territories, which forced China to take actions. Incidents such as Sino-Japanese ship collision in 2010, Japan’s illegal nationalization of China’s Diaoyu Islands as well as Philippine navy’s arrest of Chinese fishermen near Huangyan Island were all examples of foreign provocation leading to Chinese reaction and resistance. Nevertheless, the United States chose to interpret these events as examples of China using its strong economic and military power to engage in maritime expansion and coerce its Asian neighbors. These events happened to occur at a time when the United States had to retreat on a limited scale from Middle East in the aftermath of the financial crisis and sovereign debt crisis at home. This inevitably caused US allies in Asia to question the ability and determination of the United States to deliver its security commitments in Asia. In such a background, the United States obviously needed to do something to pacify its allies by showing strong opposition to “Chinese territorial expansion” at sea.


II. US Naval Deployment Against China


The basis of US policy towards China after the Cold War has been a “hedging” policy which is essentially a combination of the tactics of “containment” and “contact”. During the Junior Bush Administration, to combat terrorism, the United States placed its military and strategic focuses on the Middle East without caring too much about China. When Obama became president, the United States began to introduce the so-called “Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy” to target China and curb its growing sea power.


1. Constructing naval bases and forces in West Pacific

Defining itself as the “ultimate guarantor” of global maritime interests, the United States aspires to “restrain and deter potential rivals” in Asia-Pacific sea areas.[9] To achieve this purpose, the United States contracted with Singapore to use the latter’s Changi Base soon after it handed Subic Naval Base back to the Philippines in 1992. In April 2000, the United States and Singapore agreed to construct a deepwater wharf for aircraft carriers at Changi and the construction was completed in March 2001. In 2012, without abandoning the Philippines altogether, it pressured the Philippines into allowing US Army the access to the latter’s Subic Naval Base to US army semipermanently in 2012. Moreover, it proposed to lease Thailand’s U-Tapao Base and Sattahip Base, negotiated to long-lease Indonesia’s Morotai Island or Biak Island as a military base and even considered stationing troops in Darwin, Australia. Additionally, it invested $12.6 billion to expand its base in Guam, making the project the largest and most expensive one in West Pacific after WWII.[10] In July 2012, by taking advantage of the Sino-Japanese dispute over Diaoyu Islands, it deployed in Japan advanced weapons such as Osprey transport aircrafts and F22 jet fighters to further improve its military intervention capabilities. Given these new deployment measures, no wonder Panetta, the US secretary of defense, announced during the Shangri-La Dialogues in May 2012 that the United States would deploy 60% of its naval forces in Asia-Pacific by 2020.

Taiwan has been traditionally regarded by the United States as a strategic post to contain China’s rise in the Pacific region. Since 2000, both the Junior Bush Administration and the Obama Administration have repeatedly sold weapons to Taiwan, causing the value of arms sales to grow continuously. For example, the two arms sales to Taiwan from January 2010 to September 2011 added up to $12.25 billion in value. The scale of arms sales to Taiwan has not gone down even though the cross-strait relations have been improving in recent years. If we include the $6.463 billion arms sale in October 2008 into our statistics, we can see that the total value of US arms sales to Taiwan after May 2008 (when the cross-strait relations began to grow less tense) was actually more than the total of US arms sales to Taiwan over the previous seven years.


2. Frequent joint military exercises with Asia-Pacific countries

Military exercises are important means for the United States to strengthen military partnerships and deter strategic rivals. Since 2000, the United States has organized many joint military exercises with Asia-Pacific countries. For example, after 2000, it organized the Balikatan military exercise with the Philippines and the “Cobra Gold” exercise with Thailand and Singapore. Not only has the frequency of exercises been increased, but also the number of participating countries. Viewed from this perspective, 2010 was virtually a “year of US military exercises” in Asia-Pacific. According to incomplete statistics, in the second half of 2010, the United States launched more than 20 joint military exercises in Asia-Pacific. Especially worth noting was the visit of US aircraft carrier “Washington” to Vietnam in 2011 when the two countries launched their first joint exercise in the name of joint search, rescue and emergency treatment. At the call of the United States, 22 countries joined the United States in October 2012 to launch a “pan-Pacific” military exercise that was unmatched in scale. The exercise even involved Russia, America’s former rival. Although the United States denied that such an exercise was targeted at China, it was largely viewed as “gunboat diplomacy against China” [11] in consideration of the number of participating countries, locations, contents and time of the exercise. These joint military exercises in East Asia were in general led by the United States and supported by its military allies such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. They involved almost all East Asian countries except China. Although Panetta voluntarily invited China to join the 2014 “pan-Pacific” exercise during his visit to China in September 2012, the intention of the United States to target and contain China through such exercises cannot be concealed.


3. The introduction of an “air-sea battle” strategy

In February 2010, an “air-sea battle” strategy against China’s “anti access” and “area denial” capabilities was officially proposed by the United States in its “Quadrennial Defense Review”. The purpose of the strategy was to increase the combat power of the US army by applying advanced weapons in both navy and air force and enhancing the synergy between navy and air force. The key components of the strategy included (1) increased interconnectivity between navy and air force; (2) strengthened data links and networking weaponry capabilities; and (3) disrupting, destroying and defeating enemies by intensive, networked and integrated attacks on key nodes of enemies’ military systems. The United States did not deny that part of the “air-sea battle” was indeed against China. For instance, Randy Forbes, chairman of Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces under US House Committee on Armed Services, indicated very clearly that the United States would fund adequately air-sea battles so that US surface ships could integrate air defense with cruise missile defense to combat China’s “anti access” and “area denial” capabilities.


4. Strengthening short-distance surveillance over China by aircrafts and ships

In recent years, the United States strengthened its short-distance surveillance over China by aircrafts and ships. Every year, it conducted hundreds of times of air surveillance over China by aircrafts. In April 2001, a US reconnaissance aircraft engaging in illegal activities to the southeast of China’s Hainan Island collided with a Chinese aircraft. In 2002, US navy ship “Bowditch” collided with Chinese fishing boats when it was mapping the seabed terrains of China’s EZZ at the Yellow Sea just 60 nautical miles away from Chinese coast. From March to November 2009, American military tracking ships and oceanographic survey ships frequently penetrated into China’s EZZs. The most typical example was the “Impeccable Incident”. In March 2009, US navy ship “Impeccable” was intercepted by Chinese ships when it was engaging in spying operations in China’s EZZ to the southeast of Hainan Island. Eventually, “Impeccable” had to flee with the escort of a US destroyer, making the event a typical example of “Sino-US maritime confrontation”.


5. Actively meddling into maritime disputes in Asia-Pacific

During the Cold War, the United States generally kept “neutral” over the maritime disputes in East Asia. After the Cold War, however, the position and attitude of the United States on related issues began to grow blurry and more in favor of parties other than China. After 2000, especially in recent years, the United States eventually gave up its neutral position and became completely partial to countries like Japan and the Philippines.

On the South China Sea issue, the United States provided various forms of support to countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. For example, it supplied war ships and precision-guided missiles to the Philippines and warmed up relations with its traditional rival Vietnam by putting aside historical grievances and engaging in joint military and security exchange programs. Further, it restored the suspended cooperation with Indonesia’s special forces by signing a “framework agreement on defense cooperation”. On the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of ASEAN Regional Forum held in July 2010, Hillary, while advocating the idea of “free navigation on South China Sea”, openly declared that since South China Sea did concern US national interest “a multilateral regime on the issue of South China Sea should be established”. Hillary’s public reference of South China Sea as “West Philippine Sea” in November 2011 also evidenced that the United States had realized the strategic importance of South China Sea to its leadership in Asia-Pacific.[12]

On the issue of Diaoyu Islands, the United States took a position in favor of Japan too. In 2010, the Sino-Japanese relationship underwent some upheavals due to Japan’s illegal detention of Chinese fishermen and fishing boats. At that time, US officials showed up frequently to support Japan. In September 2010, Hillary confirmed in public repeatedly that Article 5 of the Treaty of Security and Safeguard between Japan and the United States (TSS) would be applicable to the case of Diaoyu Islands and that if Japan suffered armed attacks, Japan and the United States would take joint actions. Meanwhile, Gates, the then US secretary of defense, also confirmed that the United States would perform its duties under TSS as in the past. In 2012, when Japan’s nationalization of Diaoyu Islands created a great turmoil, Nuland, the spokesperson of the US Department of State, not only said that the Diaoyu Islands case should be governed by TSS but also openly referred to Diaoyu Islands as “Senkaku Islands”. Additionally, on December 4th, 2012, the US Senate passed an amendment to National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 in which Japan’s jurisdiction over Diaoyu Islands was recognized.

In all the disputes over islands or territorial waters described above, the United States chose to side with countries disputing with China and encourage them to challenge China openly. This undoubtedly worsened regional situations and made the disputes even more difficult to settle.


III. The Prospect of Sino-US Maritime Cooperation for Security


The deployment of strategic posts by the United States in Asia-Pacific created some military pressure upon China and therefore caused the security environment of China to deteriorate. However, in retrospection of the history over the past four decades since the normalization of Sino-US relationship, we can see that although the United States normally kept alert over and maintained pressure on China, the two countries did not stop their cooperation on many frontlines. Although the efforts to contain and deter China by the United States have been intensified to an unprecedented scale in recent years, the interdependence and magnitude of interwoven interests between the two countries have also grown to an unprecedented scale. Therefore, there still exist possibilities for the two countries to cooperate on the issue of maritime security. In practice, the two countries have already made efforts in this direction.


1. China constitutes no serious challenge to US maritime superiority

Although some people in the United States described China as a maritime threat, the US navy still keeps a dominant position in West Pacific and globally. According to 2010 statistics, the total tonnage of US fleet was around 2.6 billion, more than the combined tonnages of all other 17 fleets ranking after it (of the 17 fleets, 14 belong to US allies). Besides the dominance in tonnage, the US Navy is equipped with the most advanced weapons in the world including centralized and networked weaponry systems. In terms of overall missile capabilities, the US navy’s missile capability exceeds the combined capacities of all other 20 navies in the world ranking after it[13]. In terms of the total number of battleships, the US Navy is at least matching the sum of Chinese and Russian navies (203 vs. 205), but the total tonnage of US navy is 263 times of the combined tonnages of Chinese and Russian navies.[14] Therefore, we can see that China has not posed a serious challenge to the US maritime superiority at all. Echoing the needs of domestic politics and foreign policies, efforts to depict China as a maritime threat have obviously other purposes and agendas.

Since the financial crisis in 2008, the sovereign debt of the United States has been on the rise. As a result, the United States made plans to cut its fiscal deficits. It was estimated that in the next 10 years at least 487 billion dollars of defense spending would be cut. However, defense spending cuts hurt the interests of military industrial groups. To minimize military spending cut and maintain investment into military R&D, some conservative hawkish figures deliberately fabricated the story of “China threat”, hoping that they could take this opportunity to upgrade US military and deploy high-tech weapons to the fullest extent. Moreover, depicting China as a maritime threat would give the United States an ideal excuse to return back to Asia-Pacific and force its Asia-Pacific allies to shoulder more defense budgets.


2. Both countries need strengthened maritime cooperation

As two major economies in the world, China and the United States have common interests on issues such as protection of sea lanes, cracking down on crimes at sea and maintaining maritime order, etc. Since 9/11, the common interests between the two countries, especially in non-traditional security areas such as counter-terrorism and piracy-fighting, have grown considerably. Just as stated in the 2012 version of the Strategic Guideline for the US Department of Defense, “over the long term, China’s emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the U.S. economy and our security in a variety of ways. Our two countries have a strong stake in peace and stability in East Asia and an interest in building a cooperative bilateral relationship”.[15] Panetta, the former US secretary of defense, also noted in his speech in the Shangri-La Dialogues that the purpose of deploying the majority of US naval forces in Asia-Pacific was not to contain China, but rather to incorporate China into a relational framework to meet a series of challenges including humanitarian aid, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, drug trafficking, piracy, trade and transportation, etc. This statement was of course not to be fully trusted, but at least it partially reflected the wishes of the United States to cooperate with China to meet common challenges. The same opinion was held by Robert Kaplan too who believed that the two countries could find space to cooperate in areas such as piracy-fighting, counter-terrorism, disaster relief. He suggested that China and the United States should launch joint patrols at international sea lanes to protect energy transportation.[16] In August 2013, Chang Wanquan, Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister, made a visit to the United States. During the visit, China and the United States eventually agreed to further their exchange and cooperation in areas such as humanitarian aid, disaster relief, anti-terrorism, piracy-fighting and peace-keeping.


3. The foundation of Sino-US maritime cooperation has been laid

After the Kitty Hawk Incident in 1994 and the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996, the US army began to seek dialogs with China. The two countries eventually signed an agreement on incident prevention at sea. During Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s visit to the United States in 1997, Sino-US dialog on maritime security as a topic was officially included in the joint statement of the two state leaders. In January 1998, an agreement on the establishment of consultation mechanism to strengthen military and maritime safety was signed between China’s Ministry of National Defense and US Department of Defense. Considering that the two countries experienced a series of clashes over issues from security to application of international law in the past, the consultation mechanism as a platform to implement the consensus reached between the leaders would doubtlessly play an indispensable role in promoting Sino-US military relationship by strengthening the understanding and communication between Chinese and US navies and preventing their misunderstanding and misjudgments at sea. Following this spirit, the two countries organized a series of high-level visits and warship visits to each other, launched joint military exercises and arranged military academic and technical exchanges. For example, in 2009, the US Chief of Navy Operations was invited to attend activities celebrating the 60th anniversary of Chinese navy’s founding; in 2012 and 2013, the two navies launched two joint piracy-fighting exercises in the Gulf of Aden and cooperated well with each other in related escort operations. The consultation mechanism and cases of successful cooperation described above doubtlessly laid a solid foundation for the two countries to consolidate their relationship and further their maritime security cooperation in the future.


4. The formation of a new mode of major-country relationship between China and the United States facilitates maritime security cooperation as well

The initiative by the Chinese leadership to construct a new mode of major-country relationship with the United States after 2012 received positive feedback from the United States. Describing Sino-US relationship as the “most important bilateral relationship”, President Obama confirmed that he was willing to cooperate with China for the construction of a Sino-US partnership based on the new mode of major-country relationship. In June 2013, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States, the leaders of both countries stressed the importance of Sino-US relationship and suggested that China and the United States should and could create a new path essentially different from the historical path of power clashes. They believed that the two countries, based on the principles of “no conflict or confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”, could also find a new path for their maritime and military security cooperation. During Chang Wanquan’s visit to the United States, the two countries eventually reached five consensuses to strengthen the relationship between the two armies. These consensuses have since then played an important role in guiding, facilitating and deepening maritime security cooperation between the two countries.


IV. Conclusion


Peace and development are two major leitmotivs of the contemporary times. Resort to force or threat to use force do not conform to Zeitgeist. In today’s world of globalization, China and the United States not only find their interests highly intertwined but also see their interdependence growing to an unprecedented scale. As two major countries in the world with worldwide influences, China and the United States are not only the guarantors of regional stability, but also promoters of world peace. Although the two countries experienced competition and misjudgment on the issue of maritime and military security, they, in consideration of the extensive common interests and good political wishes for cooperation that they both share, should be able to handle properly the frictions and disputes between them and expand their cooperation, so that the general relationship between the two countries and two armies can be exalted to a new height. As long as the two countries respect each other’s core interests and security concerns and avoid touching each other’s strategic bottom lines, they will have common grounds to resolve their disputes and engage in maritime cooperation. To cooperate pragmatically and efficiently at sea, the two countries should not only organize more high-level visits, joint military exercises and mutual warship visits, but also work together in non-traditional security areas. In addition, they should create between them a mutual notification mechanism on major military events as well as a code of conduct on military security in the waters and airspaces of high seas. Further, they should control and manage efficiently disputes and crises between them and expand the scope of cooperation in a step-by-step manner. Only by these means can they raise the level of cooperation, truly cooperate with each other on a win-win basis and eventually create a better prospect for Sino-US relationship and Asia-Pacific security at large.


Source: China International Studies November/December 2013 p46-62

[1]Li Fanjie is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Modern International Relations, Tsinghua University.

 Lisle A. Rose, Power at Sea: The Violent Peace, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007, p. 231.

[2] Robert M. Gates, “A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the pentagon for a New Age”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2009,

[3] Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., “The Pentagon’s Wasting Assets: The Eroding Foundations of American Power”, Foreign Affairs, July /August 2009, pp. 23,33.

[4] U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2010 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, November 2010, pp. 89-91,

[5] Bronson Percival, “The South China Sea: an American Perspective”,

[6] “Cooperation from Strength: the United States, China and the South China Sea”, Center for a New American Security, January 2012, p. 17.

[7] Walter Lohman, “Spratly Islands: The Challenge to U.S. Leadership in the South China Sea”, The Heritage Foundation, February 26, 2009.

[8] “Maritime Issues and Sovereignty Disputes in East Asia”, Testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary Scot Marciel before the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Committee on Foreign Relations, July 15, 2009, http://

[9] Dean Cheng, “Sea Power and the Chinese State: China’s Maritime Ambitions”,

[10] Praveen Swami, “US to Build? The Super Base on Pacific Island of Guam”, The Telegraph, October 25, 2010.

[11] Yann Huei Song, “The Overall Situation in the South China Sea in the New Millennium: Before and After the September 11 Terrorist Attacks”, Ocean Development &International Law, 2004, vol. 26, no.1, p. 85.

[12] Patrick M. Cronin, “Cooperation from Strength, the United States, China and the South China Sea”, Center for a New American Security, 2012, p. 7.

[13] Jean-loup Samaan, “Security Governance in the Maritime commons: The Case for Transatlantic Partnership”, Orbis, Spring 2011, p. 318.

[14] Geoffrey Till, Asia’s Naval Expansion: An Arms Race in the Making? Routledge, December 2012, pp. 227-228.

[15] U.S. Department Of Defense, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, January 2012, p. 2.

[16] Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York, 2011, p. 291.