U.S.-PRC Maritime Cooperation: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 12

The Pacific Forum-2007, held in Shanghai from May 18-19, was an effort by China to promote maritime cooperation. The international oceanic conference, which the author attended, was sponsored by maritime-oriented universities, interested organizations and the local government, and themed “Harmonious World, Harmonious Ocean.” While saccharine sounding, it purposefully exhibited China’s impressive maritime economic growth, oceanic environmental problems and the newly constructed Yangshan Deepwater Port, potentially the country’s largest such facility. The port, still expanding, is located surprisingly far offshore—southeast of the Pudong area of Shanghai, 30 kilometers away in the East China Sea between two islands and linked to the sprawling new Lingang mainland handling facility by the recently constructed six-lane Donghai Bridge. Concurrent with this major port development, the Jiangnan Shipyard is leaving its historic site on the Huangpu River to make way for the Shanghai Expo 2010 and moving to Changxing Island in the Yangtze River to become the world’s largest shipyard. These latest additions to the spread of Shanghai’s extensive maritime infrastructure not only reflect China’s spiraling economic growth but also are clear indicators of its burgeoning transformation into a maritime nation.

Another superlative aspect of China’s emergence as a maritime power is the stunning surge in the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). While committed to deterring or defeating Taiwan and thwarting U.S. intervention, the PLAN’s focus increasingly represents a more general—and ambitious—goal of attaining the means of projecting power across the sea lines of communication (SLOC) and protecting the ocean commerce on which China’s economy relies. Such an objective explains certain aspects of its modernization, such as the aggressive construction of a new class of nuclear attack submarines (SSNs). The successful development of the SSNs would allow the PLAN to deter would-be disrupters of Chinese energy supplies, the majority of which are transported by sea. Moreover, sea-lane security presents a rationale for the development of an aircraft carrier, a type of ship that would serve only as an easy target in a Taiwan scenario—where China’s land-based airfields are more than sufficient—but would allow for the Chinese military to project its power across maritime regions far beyond the range of land-based aircraft.

Indeed, these developments indicate that China’s senior leaders and strategists are increasingly concerned with traditional and non-traditional threats (e.g. piracy, smuggling, terrorism and other disruptions by non-state actors) to ocean commerce. The recently released U.S. Department of Defense annual report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007 confirms the concerns of China’s most senior leaders. The DoD report states: At present, China can neither protect its foreign energy supplies nor the routes on which they travel, including the Straits of Malacca through which some 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports transit – a vulnerability President Hu refers to as the “Malacca Dilemma” [emphasis added by author] [1].

Corroborating this assessment, the vice chairman of a major Chinese security think-tank asserted to this author in April that China is looking beyond Taiwan to sea-lane security missions for the PLAN. He noted, however, that the task is too large for the PLAN and even for the U.S. Navy to undertake alone; cooperative efforts would be required. (This unprecedented statement interestingly implies that the U.S. Navy may not have been relegated to the singular role of a prospective disrupter of oil flow to China.) Aware of U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Mullen’s recent invitation to PLAN Commander Vice Admiral Wu Shengli for China to join the “Thousand-Ship Navy”—a freeform voluntary transnational network of navies—the vice chairman offered two minor caveats with respect to initiating exercises and operations between the two navies [2]: (1) Historic sensitivities favor beginning bilaterally, and then perhaps folding in Japan and South Korea as well as other regional navies; (2) Asking China to cooperate in Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) operations would be a step too far, given Beijing’s concerns about Pyongyang’s reaction.

By and large, the invitation has been well received by the Chinese military, and Admiral Wu expressed interest toward the idea, pending further discussion during Admiral Mullen’s mid-June visit to China (AFP, April 10). A senior PLAN officer well connected to China’s military leadership expressed to this author in late April unreserved support for U.S.-China cooperation in conducting exercises and coping with threats to the security of the SLOCs. A recently retired but also well-informed PLAN officer expressed similar support in April, cautioning only that a wary Beijing may be painfully deliberate in considering participation in more complex exercises and in operational cooperation at sea [3].

Proposals for increased bilateral military relations were again repeated in May when the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, visited Beijing and met with General Guo Boxiong, the senior-most vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. Admiral Keating stated his desire to increase the quality and level of challenge in U.S.-China military exercises and expand exchanges among lower-ranking troops as quickly and broadly as the Chinese government would allow. General Guo, in response, called for more military exchanges to further promote bilateral ties. In a remarkable exchange during this visit, Admiral Keating said China’s interest in developing an aircraft carrier fleet is “understandable.” He stressed the difficulty and complexity of developing, building and operating an aircraft carrier, and added that the United States would be willing to help if China decided to proceed with the construction of the carrier (VOA, May 12).

Admiral Keating’s offer of assistance attracted attention in the media as well as among the Chinese participants at the Pacific Forum-2007. While the Chinese doubted that the United States would lift arms sanctions imposed after June 1989, they accepted that help not involving weapon technologies was conceivable—possibly conceptual lessons from the U.S. Navy’s decades of preeminence as a carrier navy. A respected Chinese security specialist wryly suggested to this author that U.S. “help” might not go any further than a pedantic repetition of Keating’s warning about the difficulty and complexities of a carrier acquisition program. Major General Yang Chunchang of the Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing, according to a Hong Kong paper, “was concerned about (the implications of) Keating’s remarks,” reflecting wariness that help from the U.S. implies prying or even spying [4]. As these reactions illustrate, there is much progress to be made in building trust, but Mullen and Keating have begun the process and drawn attention to the issue.

Other recent developments have received less notice. A symposium at the U.S. Naval War College last December entitled “Maritime Implications of China’s Energy Strategy” might have been dominated by assertions that China is grabbing global oil reserves and that competition over energy resources will inevitably lead to a conflict between China and the United States. Instead, the thrust was toward potential cooperation with respect to energy and maritime affairs. Voices in the U.S. Congress have also joined the campaign for cooperation in these areas. As early as late 2005, the co-chairmen of the U.S.-China Working Group in the U.S. House of Representatives advocated, “First, increasing military-to-military ties will correspondingly increase goodwill between our two nations. Second, military-to-military contact will increase our military’s understanding of China’s military capabilities….As the relationship between the United States and China evolves into the premier international relationship of the 21st century, many challenges lie ahead. The rise of China is unavoidably intertwined with the future of the United States. For this reason, we must approach the relationship…look[ing] toward interdependence rather than antagonism…” [5].

To thrive, any potential maritime cooperation requires a foundation of improved bilateral relations and broader strategic cooperation between the United States and China and with other regional countries. This has propitiously developed, even if it is largely unappreciated. A quiet but momentous evolution of a new Northeast Asia security framework has occurred, prominently evidenced by the Six-Party Talks. This has been marked by an astonishing change from a significantly adversarial situation where the United States and China were clearly not on the same team—if not openly hostile—to a remarkably better situation where the regional security framework, although not formal or structured, is clearly inclusive of a China no longer seen primarily as an outsider and troublemaker. Moreover, Washington accepts, and even expects, Beijing to play a constructive role on security issues and take the lead where it can be most effective. The foundation on which maritime cooperation can be built is already in place and growing stronger as Beijing and Washington view each other as partners in resolving crucial matters, including North Korea’s nuclear status and coping with terrorism.

Meanwhile, the described ongoing modernization of the PLA, although dramatic, must be kept in perspective. One must appreciate that there are concerns in both Beijing and Washington derived from the legitimate need for deterrence and the prospects of hostile actions between their military forces. China views the United States as a potential adversary in a Taiwan scenario—although both sides have compelling reasons for avoiding conflict. Chinese leaders are likewise fearful that the United States seeks to contain China’s rise as a great power and suppress its economic growth. From Washington’s viewpoint, a more capable PLA is the major military that the U.S. must deter or be able to defeat.

This raises the specter of a highly undesirable outcome. China could turn its back on its longstanding declaratory policies concerning non-expansion and non-aggression and become a threat—where new capabilities and opportunities would translate into belligerent intent. Washington would be seen as having imprudently or unwittingly abetted China’s growing and now misdirected global maritime power and military modernization by offering cooperation with U.S. forces. In this scenario, China would move boldly to consolidate territory: Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands. It could also aggressively extract disputed seabed resources—adding to the list the Chunxiao oil and gas field in the East China Sea. These fears of an aggressive, hegemonic China are as legitimate as the previously mentioned U.S. need to maintain a fulsome military capability for an armed conflict with China over Taiwan.

Given the potential for conflict, the promotion of mutually beneficial cooperative efforts and fostering of a China that is a responsible stakeholder in a world of maritime cooperation seems to be the logical step forward. Moreover, such a U.S. policy toward China would not diminish the capability of a still vastly superior U.S. force to counter Chinese actions if necessary. Yet, obstacles stand in the way of the advancing of the United States and China as partners on the high seas. While the thirst for energy in China and the United States could potentially lead to an armed conflict between the two countries, it is just as likely, if not more so, that the common need for such security could lead to, and even promote, bilateral cooperation. Such an outcome is indeed possible if both governments establish maritime cooperation as a goal and work diligently and imaginatively to resolve problems and emphasize positive approaches and common interests, as General Guo and Admiral Keating have recently demonstrated.

This maritime cooperation might encompass coordinating governmental policies, consulting about problems and disputes and conducting cooperative naval activities between the PLAN and USN (and other navies as well). One can envision the PLAN joining the U.S. Navy and subsequently other navies, notably the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, as a partner on the high seas, moving to meaningful exercises and coordinated operations to ensure freedom of navigation and provide enhanced maritime security, to curb piracy, smuggling, terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as well as to conduct humanitarian assistance—as Beijing wishes it had been better able to do for the tsunami relief operation in 2004 and 2005.

It is possible to envision that in the coming years the commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific would routinely consult with the PLA Chief of the General Staff on how their forces might react together to an emerging crisis, emergency, natural disaster or need for humanitarian assistance. From the naval perspective—whether called the Thousand-Ship Navy or more prosaically referred to as Sino-American maritime cooperation—the goal should be a new cooperative environment wherein the PLAN and the U.S. Navy, with the enthusiastic approval of their governments, consult, cooperate and operate together to protect ocean commerce, preserve the peace, prevent confrontation and build better relations between what will be the two most important and powerful navies in the world.


1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2007. p.8

2. See Admiral Michael Mullen, “We Can’t Do It Alone,” Honolulu Advertiser, October 29, 2006, available online at: https://www.navy.mil/navydata/cno/mullen/Honolulu_Advertiser_October_29_2006.pdf.

3. Based on authors interviews with anonymous PLAN officers.

4. Martin Walker, “Walker’s World: China’s war chest,” UPI, Washington, May 23, 2007, https://www.upi.com/International_Intelligence/Analysis/2007/05/23/walkers_world_chinas_war_chest/1042/.

5. Extracted from an essay published by NBR: Congressman Mark Kirk and Rick Larsen, “Congress and the Updating of the U.S.-China Relationship.” NBR Analysis, volume 16, number 5, December 2005, National Bureau of Asian Research, Seattle. Available at https://www.nbr.org/publications/analysis/pdf/vol16no5.pdf.