Sino-US friction and Necessity of Maritime Cooperation By Baber Ali Bhatti

THE United States has been preserving and enjoying the maritime superiority since World War II. The United States’ overwhelming military presence and powerful trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific alliance system in the region form this maritime superiority. On the other hand, China has not had substantial position in maritime realm for a long time. In fact, issues of South China Sea, Taiwan and Diaoyu Islands are prominently attributed with China’s fragile air and naval forces in the past. After Cold War, the US was considered to be the sole great maritime power. With the shifting focus of China from land to naval development, the dynamics of naval superiority in the Pacific are changing. China’s strength and military modernization is changing the strategic pattern of the Pacific. It can, undoubtedly, be seen that the United States’ efforts toward maintaining and reinforcing Indo-Pacific maritime hegemony is likely to collide with China’s endeavouring to safeguard maritime rights and building capacity in future.

In this decade, maritime conflicts have consistently been the centre of Sino-US relations. Despite facing daily sea and air encounters and greater risk of military conflict, two countries are being more provocative at tactical level and hostile at strategic level. Though interdependence of interests and nuclear deterrence are optimistic factors, yet it will take a long time to form a new equilibrium meanwhile uncertainty and trouble will be guiding the relations between both countries before equilibrium replaces them. During that time, there are many possibilities of small scale armed conflict between US and China. China’s military force cannot challenge that of the United States worldwide in terms of capacity and strength of armed forces. However, in the sea area of the Asia-Pacific, the unipolar structure dominated by Washington is being replaced with a more balanced power distribution between the United States and China. This power transition has been mentioned by the security policy making and strategic community in various academic publications and conferences. Change in local power structure in Asia-Pacific is likely to occur with the rise of China. China’s primary focus to safeguard its interest is on western Pacific and therefore most of its national defence resources will be catering this area.

On the other hand, United States has to focus on worldwide to maintain its status as sole world power and can only use part of its national defence spending in the region regardless of the fact how much importance the US gives to ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’. Therefore, China is likely to match the US in terms of defence capacity in the western Pacific. Undeniably, there is a large gap between the US and China in military capabilities and quality. However, in East Asia, Chinese navy will most probably gain superiority given the power projection asymmetries between the US and China. This way, such superiority on the part of China is likely to compensate the quality disparity against the US. Moreover, the United States has a wider security network of alliance in the Asia-Pacific. The US has maintained alliance with many maritime nations in Asia-Pacific such as South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. Under the umbrella of the US, these countries are given more and more security commitments by the US regarding South China Sea, Diaoyu Islands and other maritime issues which involve China. To support this alliance network and endorse its commitment, the US has stationed heavy naval presence in the Pacific. China’s growing naval strength and strong naval presence in the region imply its response capacity. Any kind of conflict with China by any allied state can bring the US and China eyeball to eyeball. These circumstances make regional environment more vulnerable to any small scale maritime conflict which can be turned into war given the heavy naval military presence of both countries.

Therefore, the US and China despite their trade and power frictions, are needed to acknowledge the possibilities of military mishap and initiate some serious negotiations to coexist at sea. Both compromise and competition are strategically unavoidable. Crisis management and competition control can only be secured when two states are able to reach an understanding or make compromises. It can be stated that both the US and China have veto power over any Asia Pacific maritime security order. China would not necessarily obey the Pacific maritime rules and order advocates by the US. Similarly, the US would not be forced to follow any rule in western Pacific by any regional naval power. Therefore, both countries should chalk out some mechanism for coordination and new avenues must be explored for maritime cooperation. Given their heavy presence in western Pacific and potential of crises intensification, both countries should negotiate set of rules and codes that can govern naval military operations. The US and China are both needed to include strategic conscience in their policy designs for Indo-Pacific. Two countries must focus on maritime cooperation to avoid any unfortunate incident in foreseeable future. Dialogues on western Pacific must be commenced as soon as possible. Both countries are needed to establish the regimes on arms control and maritime armament development. They should carry substantial negotiations to reach necessary agreement on power balance and power distribution for peaceful maritime regional order.

—The writer is Research Fellow at Maritime Study Forum and an Advocate of Islamabad High Court.


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