The divergent views held by China and the United States on maritime security—ranging from legal definitions to deployments—have recently been on display in the Yellow and South China seas. With concerns expanding into the Indian Ocean, questions persist as to whether the maritime realm will become an arena of cooperation or conflict. As part of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS)-Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy workshop on “U.S.-China Cooperation: Impact on Asia-Pacific Security,” this roundtable discussion explored maritime relations. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated this panel.

Trends at Sea 

One U.S. participant cited the following global maritime trends drawing countries into contact and contest:
  • Increasing globalization;
  • Greater reliance on the world’s oceans and waterways in the quest for resources;
  • Dependence on maritime for increases in Gross National Product (GNP);
  • Large numbers of unresolved maritime border claims.

Asia-Pacific Arms Race

  • Increased Militarization: A U.S. panelist noted that there is an escalating arms race among a variety of Asia-Pacific actors, matched by an increase in uncompromising diplomatic stances and a lack of strategic trust. These factors have contributed to an increase in the militarization of territorial disputes and incidents at sea, resulting in frequent crises and their subsequent ad-hoc resolutions. 
  • Strong Rhetoric: The U.S. expert voiced concern over harsh rhetoric from Chinese political and military elites about the country’s sovereignty in the Yellow and South China seas. The moderator noted Chinese concerns over U.S. regional reconnaissance missions, as well as aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine deployments, exacerbate Chinese threat perceptions, prompting tougher statements. 

UNCLOS and China’s Alternative Model

  • New Model: One U.S. panelist argued that China seems to be advocating an alternative model to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This stance and a lack of details on this model have damaged U.S.-China military relations. A Chinese expert responded that the United States, despite adhering to its provisions, has not ratified UNCLOS. The U.S. expert argued that the convention constitutes a set of laws, as well as internationally recognized customs and practices. 
  • Multilateralism: A U.S. participant maintained that Beijing’s dissatisfaction with UNCLOS reflects China’s rejection of multilateralism and preference for bilateralism in the resolution of disputes. He argued that this model erodes the ability to build mutual trust through military-to-military contacts, confidence-building measures, and joint training or exercises. A Chinese participant posited that China, while dissatisfied with the current framework, has not yet formulated a new maritime model. 

Clarification and Collaboration

One U.S. panelist argued that the chances of potential conflict or tension would be greatly diminished if China released a clear statement that: 
  • clarified its maritime claims; 
  • eliminated strategic ambiguity; 
  • defined its alternative model; 
  • voiced the rights and obligations of coastal states and the international maritime community; 
  • identified a viable regional consensus approach to dispute resolution. 
The moderator asked whether a new round of UNCLOS negotiations would help to clarify these views, compelling the United States and China to find common ground. A U.S. expert responded that all parties should rely on customary practices. Both a U.S. and Chinese panelist agreed that any new consensus approach, most likely involving a revised UNCLOS, would have to satisfy all parties involved to be effective. 

Three Levels of Maritime Security

One Chinese expert noted the potential for instability along the Gulf of Aden, Straits of Hormuz, the coastline of South Asia, the Straits of Malacca, and the South China Sea. He argued combat against terrorism, drug and weapons trafficking, and piracy requires better coordination. As the Gulf Cooperation Council, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation possess limited, if any, security functions, future security measures could include: 
  • Transparency: Advance notice of naval exercises and movement of ships.
  • Confidence: Joint multilateral naval and coast guard exercises, joint naval training, shared resources and experiences, a joint task force for high sea policing, and joint naval hydrographic operations. 
  • Collective Security: A collective security system via a multilateral Indian Ocean security forum, naval cooperation, and checks and balances to prevent regional or extra-regional hegemonic claims.

Indian Ocean and SLOCs

  • Major Powers: A Chinese participant noted that the United States remains a significant power in the Indian Ocean. Nonetheless, a lack of a hegemonic structure in the area may lead forces to “scramble for supremacy.” He cited India, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), South Africa, Pakistan, and China as among the most influential future actors in the Indian Ocean.
  • Creating a Multilateral Forum: Both China and India have a competitive interest in securing a stable supply of oil, argued one Chinese panelist. To avoid competition leading to tension, he proposed creation of a regional conflict resolution forum, similar to the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, ASEAN Regional Forum, and West Pacific Naval Symposium for the Indian Ocean. An Indian expert added that such mechanisms would be most beneficial if they included Pacific Ocean countries, as both waters share many of the same challenges. 

Dicussants: Ed Smith, Pan Zhenqiang, Han Hua, Charles Salmon, Sui Xinmin, Mohan Malik, Su Hao, Carlton Cramer, Hu Yumin, Yang Xiaoping, Lou Chunhao, David Fouse, Li Li, Steven Kim