China-us Maritime Cooperation: Features and Future Efforts

China International Studies (English) - - Contents - Zou Yanyan & Hou Yi

With increasing frequency of bilateral maritime confrontation, China and the United States, by engaging in more maritime cooperation, will give new impetus to enhancing mutual political trust, moderating hostilities and reducing maritime miscalculations.

As the entanglements of the United States into China-related maritime disputes become more frequent, the academic circle has spent much time, in recent years, conducting in-depth research into the motives and strategies of the US to meddle in the maritime disputes between China and some of its neighbors, as well as the strategic competition between China and the US on maritime issues.1 However, little attention has been given to China-us maritime cooperation. This article aims to outline the history and current situation of China-us maritime cooperation, and explain both the potential highlights and difficulties of developing further maritime cooperation between the two countries.

History and Features of China-us Maritime Cooperation

China-us maritime cooperation began soon after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The State Oceanic Administration (SOA) of China and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States signed the Marine and Fishery

Science and Technology Protocol on May 8, 1979.2 The ensuing three decades saw the deepening of bilateral policy interaction and practical cooperation in maritime affairs, which can be divided into three periods:

First, the initial development of China-us maritime cooperation from 1979 to 1996. In addition to the signing of the Marine and Fishery Science and Technology Protocol, China and the US also conducted a series of joint research projects, such as the ones on the sedimentation process of the Yangtze River estuary and the East China Sea shelf (1980-1983), the oceanicatmospheric interaction in tropical Western Pacific (1985-1989), and the coupled ocean-atmosphere response experiment (COARE) in the same region (1992-1993).

The second phase, heralding a stage of stable development in China-us maritime cooperation, was from 1997 to 2005. After exchange visits by the heads of state of both countries, a joint communiqué was issued announcing their commitments to the establishment of constructive strategic partnership in 1997. Against this backdrop, China and the US further increased their exchanges of personnel and sharing of technical data. China sent a group of experts to the United States for study and training, registering a rapid development in its accumulation and management of maritime technical data. The biggest breakthrough on maritime cooperation during this stage was the Agreement on Establishing a Consultation Mechanism to Strengthen Military Maritime Safety between China and the United States (hereafter abbreviated as MMCA). The signing of MMCA in 1998 began the dialogue for setting up a consultation mechanism between the two countries on the principles and procedures of maritime military security, enabling maritime and air forces from both sides to avoid accidents, misunderstandings or miscalculations and promote cooperation on counter piracy and humanitarian rescue efforts.4 By so doing, China and the United States displayed their shared intention and

2 Zhang Kun, “The Bright Future for China-us Maritime Cooperation”, China Ocean News, December 25, 2009, p.1.

3 Ibid.

4 “Agreement on Establishing a Consultation Mechanism to Strengthen Military Maritime Safety between China and the United States,” January 19, 1998,

determination to build confidence on maritime military issues. The signing of MMCA was conducive to avoiding misperceptions and maintaining maritime military security, and thus it is of great historical significance in the development of China-us maritime relations.

The third phase started from 2005 and continues to the present, witnessing the expansion of bilateral maritime cooperation. Since 2005, the cooperation has grown in both form and substance, and has been playing a more prominent role in the overall bilateral relations. It not only covers environmental protection and scientific and technical cooperation, but also extends to the fields of joint law enforcement and maritime security cooperation. Maritime cooperation has gradually been absorbed into the framework of the China-us Strategic and Economic Dialogue (hereafter referred to as S&ED). During the 4th S&ED in 2012, China’s SOA and the US’ NOAA signed the Framework Plan for Ocean and Fishery Science and Technology Cooperation for 2011-2015, which laid down the priority areas and direction of development for future cooperation.5 Maritime cooperation was thus regarded as an important component of the succeeding S&EDS and both sides made a series of achievements thereafter. 13 maritime agreements were concluded on the sideline of the 7th S&ED in June 2015, accounting for 10% of the total set out in the List of Outcomes of the Dialogue. China and the US also convened a special meeting on maritime protection. It is noticeable that maritime cooperation was made an independent chapter among the published List of Outcomes starting from the 7th S&ED, which not only highlights the importance attached to it by the two countries, but also indicates that it has become an important area for bilateral cooperation.

At the same time, the two countries have made progress in their joint law enforcement and maritime security cooperation. Both countries take advantage of the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum (a six-country forum 5 “China and the United States Defines Priorities and Direction for Future Ocean and Fishery Scientific and Technical Cooperation,” State Ocean Administration of China, May 4, 2012, ldhd/clz/201211/t20121107_4155.html.

comprised of Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States) to proactively engage with each other in dialogue. At the forum, both sides have exchanged their views on handling and monitoring offshore oil spills. In recent years, the two coast guards have expanded their cooperation into joint law enforcement patrols, personnel training and field exercises, contributing positively to maintaining maritime security and stability in the North Pacific.6 In addition, bilateral naval exchanges have also increased and the Chinese navy has conducted more joint military exercises with the US navy. The two navies held joint anti-piracy exercises in the Gulf of Aden in 2012 and 2013,7 showing their shared commitment to fighting piracy and maintaining maritime security. In September and November 2013, the Chinese and US navies conducted two joint humanitarian rescue exercises8 in Hawaii, enhancing the emergency response capabilities of the two navies to nontraditional security threats. In 2014 and 2016, the Chinese navy was invited to participate in the RIMPAC multilateral maritime joint exercises organized by the US navy.9

The Chinese and the US navies have maintained high-level exchange visits. The Chinese navy has sent delegations to the United States more than once, and the two sides have held candid and in-depth consultations on managing crises, deepening practical cooperation, and establishing a new type of naval relations, which has yielded some progress.10

From the above-mentioned three-phase development of China-us maritime cooperation, it can be seen that, ever since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States, the two countries have, through cooperation on oceanic science, maritime law enforcement, maritime security, sustainable use of maritime resources and maritime rescue operations, achieved much progress in their maritime cooperation in spite 6 Gao Zhiguo, ed., China Ocean Development Report (2014), China Ocean Press, 2014, p.40.

7 Li Ding, “Chinese and US Navies Conduct Joint Anti-piracy Exercises,” August 25, 2013, http://finance.

8 China Ocean Development Report (2014), p.314.

9 Gao Zhiguo, ed., China Ocean Development Report (2015), China Ocean Press, 2015, p.319.

10 Yang Qiong, “Chinese Navy Commander Wu Shengli Returns to Beijing after Successful Visit to the United States,” September 15, 2013,

of the twists and turns in their overall relations. The cooperation can be characterized as follows:

Smooth growth in cooperation in non-sensitive areas

The United States, a major power in fishery research, is one of the countries with the closest marine and fishery scientific and technical cooperation with China. The two countries have, up to now, held 19 Joint Working Group (JWG) meetings under the framework of the Marine and Fishery Science and Technology Protocol. China’s SOA and the US’ NOAA endorsed the Framework Plan on Ocean and Fishery Scientific and Technical Cooperation for 2016-2020 at their 19th JWG meeting, further strengthening the foundation for bilateral cooperation on research in marine ecosystems, marine acidification and marine life resources and expanding cooperation on marine ecosystem protection, ocean observation and polar

expeditions. Aiming to incorporate their resources, including experts, capital and technology, both sides have also decided to set up a Joint Experts Group (JEG) and implement an annual report system.11 According to statistics from the Science Citation Index Expanded (SCIE), 237 articles on Chinaus cooperation were published by 46 fishery periodicals from 1980 to March 2011. More than 30 articles on their maritime cooperation have been published annually since 2008.12 The ocean-related scientific and technical cooperation, marine life resources protection, marine disaster forecasting and climate observation have been among the important topics discussed at each S&ED. During President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United States in September 2015, China and the US reached a total of 49 agreements on enhancing their maritime cooperation and consultation.13

Objectively speaking, Chinese scientists have, by interacting with their US counterparts, acquired sophisticated professional knowledge, scientific technology and management expertise and they are equipped with the world’s most sophisticated technology. Many high-level scientific and management talents have been produced, making positive contributions to promoting the development of Chinese oceanic science and technology. For example, aiming to promote bilateral exchanges of oceanic information and technical cooperation, China and the US established the Coordinating Group on Exchanges of Oceanic Information (hereafter referred as the “Working Group”) in 1985. By means of exchanges of information between China’s

China-us maritime scientific and technical cooperation provides an important platform for the development of overall bilateral relations and will have significant impact on solving many global issues in the 21st century.

National Oceanic Data Center and the National Oceanic Information Center of the US, China obtained global oceanic observation data ranging from marine hydrology, marine meteorology, marine geology, geophysics to marine biochemistry.14 This data has played an important role in China’s marine disaster relief efforts, marine exploration, marine surveys and research, as well as its national defense buildup. The exchange and cooperation on oceanic science and technology between China and the US is certainly an interactive and two-way win-win process, and both sides benefit from it. The scientists from both sides have shared important data and information, giving a strong impetus to the development of the world’s oceanic science and technology. China-us scientific and technical cooperation provides an important platform for the development of overall bilateral relations and will have significant impact on solving many global issues in the 21st century.15

Gradual advance of maritime law enforcement and security cooperation

The Chinese Coast Guard and the US Coast Guard have so far preliminarily established friendly cooperation on conducting frequent exchange visits by law enforcement personnel and vessels. China and the US regularly hold meetings on oceanic and fishery law enforcement. The Chinese law enforcement officers, aboard US Coast Guard vessels, have conducted joint operations with their US counterparts against illegal large-scale pelagic drift-net fishing activities on the high seas, resulting in substantive achievements. For instance, when the US Coast Guard vessel Boutwell was implementing a joint law enforcement operation in 2007, it discovered in North Pacific the Chinese fishing vessels Lu Rongyu 2659, Lu Rongyu 2660 and Lu Rongyu 6105, which were suspected of engaging in illegal drift-net fishing. The law enforcement officers of China-us joint

operations seized the fishing vessels and escorted them back to China.16 The 7th S&ED in particular released a List of Outcomes on bilateral maritime security and marine law enforcement.17 The 8th S&ED in 2016 reaffirmed both sides’ “commitment to promoting maritime professionalism and conduct at sea. In accordance with the outcome of President Xi Jinping’s State Visit to the United States in 2015, the two sides decided to continue developing the rules of behavior on surface-to-surface encounters between the two coast guards. Both sides in principle support the development of a document of cooperation between the China Coast Guard and the United States Coast Guard.”18

In terms of maritime military security, the Chinese navy conducted highlevel meetings and visits of naval warships with its US counterpart. The two navies have collaborated well in escort operations in the Gulf of Aden, holding many exchanges to discuss the form of cooperation.19 The Chinese and US navies have conducted several anti-piracy joint exercises in furtherance of their command and coordination capabilities. It has been noted by some foreign scholars that the China-us anti-piracy joint operations in the Gulf of Aden have ushered in a new era of maritime security in the region.20

China and the United States are both countries of important influence in the North Pacific region. Strengthening cooperation on oceanic law enforcement and maritime military security gives significant meaning to the effective fight against illegal marine activities, maintaining maritime security and normal order, and enhancing mutual understanding between the two navies and law enforcement agencies. Nevertheless, it needs to be pointed out that, because of a variety of institutional obstacles, the two countries still

have military trust deficits, and there are still many challenges to overcome on oceanic law enforcement and maritime security cooperation.

Strengthening institutional cooperation

With many years’ efforts, China and the United States have institutionalized platforms for cooperation in many fields covering both nonsensitive areas such as science and technology and environmental protection, and more sensitive ones such as maritime military security. The cooperation mechanisms are ever improving. The SOA has co-sponsored the regular China-us Forum on Oceanic Science with the NOAA since 2008. Both sides have held discussions on topics of maritime disaster relief, ocean observation and application service, oceanic climate change and oceanic scientific and technical policies of the two governments,21 and actively explored the areas and form of cooperation. China and the US have set up an institutionalized bilateral communication mechanism on Arctic affairs. The two countries led the formation of the Pacific-arctic Working Group (PAG), which has held occasional meetings and become the major platform for information exchange and cooperation on ocean expeditions in the Arctic Ocean.22

Since its signing, the MMCA between China and the US has played a significant role in promoting the development of military relations, increasing mutual understanding and confidence, enhancing maritime military security and deepening practical exchanges and cooperation between the two navies. Attributable to mutual efforts, the Ministry of Defense of China and the Department of Defense of the United States have signed agreements on establishing a notification mechanism of each other’s major military activities and the code of conduct for the air and sea,23 laying a new foundation for deepening exchanges, mutual confidence and cooperation, particularly

maritime cooperation, between the two militaries. This is important to lessen maritime misperceptions and reduce maritime military misunderstandings. The current China-us maritime consultation and cooperation mechanism has created a tentative framework for effective interaction on maritime affairs between the two countries. However, there is more to be done, as the code of conduct needs to be more specific, and the substance of some cooperation mechanisms needs to be enriched.

Challenges Facing China-us Maritime Cooperation

China and the United States, as two major maritime powers, share a common interest in a safe maritime environment, safe maritime navigation and sustainable maritime development. Both sides have made efforts to strengthen their cooperation on maritime affairs. However, this cooperation still faces some challenges: First, the deficit in mutual trust and the prominent structural contradiction between China and the US remains the biggest factor constraining the bilateral maritime cooperation. The two countries differ fundamentally in their political systems and social values. There exists a risk of conflicts in the process of power shift between China, the new rising power in the international system, and the US, the only superpower in the world.24 With its rising international influence and comprehensive national strength, China has been the object of the United States’ deepening strategic mistrust in recent years. The US has thus had reservations about sharing its technology with China and there has emerged a subtle change of attitude toward cooperation. Since the 18th session of the Joint Working Group, China and the United States have not actively engaged in maritime scientific and technical cooperation, besides maintaining normal communication and cooperation in the working group on fishery resources. The underlying

24 Liao Yunlu and Cai Shangwei,“research on Media’s Public Opinion Making in the Dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands,” Journal of the Provincial Level Party School of CPC Sichuan Province Committee, Issue 1, 2013, p.20.

reason behind this is that the two sides have differences on the exchange and sharing of maritime data. The Chinese side regard some key information and data as essential to its core national interests, while the US believe that the cooperation prerequisites data access and transparency. The US therefore preconditions its cooperation with China on accessing the Chinese data, pressuring China and rendering some talks on cooperation fruitless.

Second, the heightened strategic competition between China and the US is holding back bilateral maritime cooperation. One of the important aspects of the US global strategy is to prevent China from challenging the US domination of global maritime order. As China further accelerates developing into a strong maritime power, recent years has seen an increasing intention by the US to contain China in the maritime arena. Driven by its national interests and desire to maintain its hegemony, the US has been pursuing its Pivot to Asia strategy, constantly increasing its military installations in the Asia-pacific region and strengthening its forward deployment, thus escalating tensions with China in the East and South China Seas. The US has openly stepped into the maritime disputes between China and some of its neighbors, announcing explicitly the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with Japan applies to the dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, voicing support to the Philippines in the latter’s pursuit of international arbitration. Furthermore, the US blatantly sent its warships and airplanes into the waters and airspace adjacent to the related isles and reefs of China’s Nansha and Xisha Islands. Faced by the provocative acts of the US, China has to respond with firm counter-measures. This has exacerbated the maritime differences between the two countries, and damaged their bilateral maritime cooperation.

Third, both China and the US have different interpretations of the maritime international order, as well as maritime international law.

Deficit in mutual trust and the prominent structural contradiction between China and the US remains the biggest factor constraining bilateral maritime cooperation.

Although the US has repeatedly made public its respect for international law and international norms, it has not yet ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The US regards, in practice, the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of other countries as “international waters” and conducts unscrupulous military reconnaissance in them. The US has, under the guise of freedom of navigation, even challenged other countries’ jurisdictions over their territorial seas. For example, the US has so far conducted dozens of so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, which includes flying over the airspace of China’s islands and reefs, trespassing in its territorial waters and conducting military surveys in its exclusive economic zone.25 These activities are aimed at maintaining the dominance of the US navy in the region. Although there is no article in UNCLOS stipulating whether warships’ innocent passage through territorial waters is subject to approval of the coastal state, Articles 19, 25 and 30 of UNCLOS clearly state that the passage of foreign vessels through the territorial waters of coastal states shall not be prejudicial to peace, good order and the security of the coastal state. The coastal state may take necessary steps in its territorial sea to prevent passage which is not innocent. Based on this, China’s Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone stipulates in Articles 6 and 8 that “Foreign ships for military purposes shall be subject to approval by the Government of the People’s Republic of China for entering the territorial sea of the People’s Republic of China.”26 China and the US seriously differ over of the right of naval vessels to innocent passage, and frictions have unavoidably arisen from this. However, it is notable that during the 8th round of the China-us Dialogue on Maritime International Law and Polar Affairs in April 2016, both officials and experts from responsible departments of the two countries held discussions on the dispute settlement mechanism of UNCLOS, indicating that both sides are willing to

engage in dialogue on some sensitive areas, which is undoubtedly a positive development.

Reflections on Deepening China-us Maritime Cooperation

With developing globalization, the new century has ushered in a growing number of non-traditional security threats, such as maritime terrorism, piracy, and cross-border crimes. In the meantime, maritime pollution, due to the rapid growth of urbanization and industrialization, has become the cardinal threat endangering human health. Different from the traditional security threats centered on military power, the non-traditional security threats spread from national to regional and global levels. No country, even the United States, can tackle these threats alone.

Therefore, China and the US, as respectively the biggest developing country and the most developed country in the world, have an indispensable responsibility to maintain global maritime safety and the global marine ecosystem. The two countries have to conduct maritime cooperation, beneficial not only to the national interests of each country, but also to the fundamental interests of mankind. Against the backdrop of an increasing frequency of maritime confrontation, China and the US, by engaging in more maritime cooperation, will give new impetus to enhancing mutual political trust, moderating hostilities and reducing maritime miscalculations.

It is necessary for China, while maintaining its maritime rights and interests and building itself into a major sea power, to incorporate bilateral maritime cooperation with the US into the strategic blueprint and overall framework of constructing a new type of major-country relationship between the two countries. Based on the existing cooperation, China should seize the favorable opportunity of both sides being expected to move in the same direction and the mutual willingness to promote maritime cooperation.

First, strengthening inter-governmental communications, promoting mutual understanding and respect of mutual interests and concerns, and properly handling differences and sensitive issues. China should, on one hand,

maintain its firm position on major issues of principle related to maritime sovereignty and relay to the US its determination to safeguard its sovereignty over Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands and its South China Sea territories and waters, urging the latter to play a constructive role in the above-mentioned issues. On the other, China should deal with the maritime-related issues in its relations with the US with restraint and rationality, doing its best to avoid escalating frictions and confrontations. China should, through high-level meetings and other diplomatic channels with the US, also seek and find new ways to further promote bilateral maritime strategic dialogue, exchanges of maritimerelated personnel, coordination of maritime policy and cooperation in nontraditional maritime security fields.

Second, increasing the interactions of executive departments and further enhancing bilateral cooperation on maritime science and technology, environmental protection and fishery. The two sides should, starting from the principle of mutual respect and win-win outcomes, and based on the current agreements and cooperation framework, continue to upgrade the early harvest from their existing cooperation and set up a regular and institutionalized consultation mechanism on maritime cooperation. Emphasis should be put on discussing cooperation and joint exploration on the lowsensitive and non-traditional maritime security areas, such as protection of the marine ecosystem, maritime disaster relief, maritime scientific and technical innovation, and the blue ocean economy. Specific cooperation agreements should be signed, a plan of actions with a timetable for their implementation drawn up and a China-us joint communiqué on maritime consultations released on a regular basis. China and the US are recommended to set up a working group on communicating and sharing information about their maritime cooperation aimed at coping with major maritime disasters,

China and the US, as respectively the biggest developing country and the most developed country in the world, have an indispensable responsibility to maintain global maritime safety and the global marine ecosystem.

maritime emergencies such as oil spills, ship wrecks, airplane crashes and typhoons. In short, both China and the US should make full use of their advantages to achieve information sharing, ensure prompt communication in the event of emergencies and make timely contingency plans to tackle them.

Third, enhancing collaboration between maritime law enforcement agencies, expanding cooperation areas and uplifting the bilateral cooperation to a new level. The two sides should, based on maintaining the exchanges of law enforcement personnel, increase the frequency of exchanges and expand talents training. It is imperative the coast guards of China and the US establish a maritime monitoring and early warning system to be informed of the current state of maritime issues and achieve timely information sharing. The maritime law enforcement agencies of the two countries are advised to put in place a consultation and verification mechanism on important information and brief the other side in a timely manner on information forecasts and analysis, and hold consultations on any maritime emergencies that might cause serious consequences, so that they may conduct effective joint maritime law enforcement and rescue operations.

Fourth, further enhancing bilateral cooperation on maritime security. China and the US should, by adopting a gradual approach, actively maximize the intertwined interests of the two countries and steadily promote exchanges and cooperation on maritime security, while pushing forward the participation of the Chinese navy into handling international maritime affairs and engaging in maritime military activities. The two sides should work together to produce new progress on high-level military exchanges, institutionalized interaction and joint exercises and training. In addition, the two countries should proportionally increase the frequency of their bilateral or multilateral maritime military exercises and explore the feasibility of conducting cross-disciplinary maritime military exercises in sea waters under China’s jurisdiction.

Fifth, promoting people-to-people exchanges and cooperation on maritime affairs. Both China and the US should, from the strategic perspective, promote people-to-people exchanges on maritime affairs

and enhance social and public opinion basis to further expand the multidisciplinary and wide-range collaborations, and inject new vitality into their bilateral maritime cooperation. The two sides should strengthen interaction and exchanges on maritime cooperation through academic conferences, exchanges of experts and dialogues among the younger generation. The two sides should establish a training channel for maritime talents pool via sisterschool relations and collegiate collaboration between the maritime institutions of higher learning. China and the US should also enhance maritime publicity advocacy among their peoples. More importantly, the two countries should make maritime people-to-people exchanges a priority and continue to promote the process by making full use of the existing China-us High-level Consultation on People-to-people Exchange.

Sixth, putting the maritime cooperation into the framework of constructing a new type of major-country relationship between China and the US. Maritime cooperation and potential conflict between China and the US should become a topic of increasing importance in constructing a new type of major-country relationship between the two sides. Based on equal consultations, mutual benefits and win-win principles, the two countries should, on one hand, take full advantage of the existing cooperation platforms and mechanisms to further enrich the form and substance of their maritime cooperation. On the other, they should also gradually expand the scope and areas of maritime cooperation to raise it from the “low sensitive” areas to “sensitive” areas in a timely and appropriate manner. China and the US should, through dialogue and partnership, maximize their shared interests while minimizing the US’ unilateral and unconstructive actions against China. China shall, together with the US, participate in the international governance on non-traditional maritime security areas. While safeguarding effectively its national maritime sovereignty, maritime jurisdictions and maritime interests, China should, through practical cooperation with the US, properly manage and handle their differences to reduce the risk of conflicts and maintain maritime peace and stability in the region.

PLA Navy’s guided missile destroyer Xian exercises vessel intercept and boarding with US Navy’s destroyer Stockdale in RIMPAC 2016, the second time PLA was invited to this biennially held international maritime warfare exercise.

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