Sailing with Dragons: The Case for Increased Cooperation with the PLA(N)

February 24, 2015

At the conclusion of President Obama’s trip to China in November 2014, much of the media’s attention gravitated toward the climate discussions, overshadowing other initiatives. Less reported, but not without significant effects for future relations with China, was the formal approval of a series of globally accepted rules at sea, coined “behavior for safety of air and maritime encounters.” These rules reiterate previous agreements the U.S. and Chinese Navies have both signed up for, and prevent unwanted escalation with China on the high seas by enabling future joint operations, particularly counter-piracy efforts in the South China Sea.

Although the United States and China seem to agree that there is little benefit in going to war with one another, the maritime domain is the proverbial powder keg, and miscalculation in that domain could have far-reaching strategic implications. A misreading of intentions or an overly aggressive unit commander could set back the cooperation that both countries desire and perhaps lead to an escalation that neither wants. Rather than continue to test the waters with the Chinese Navy, it is time to operate collaboratively.

Why We Need Rules at Sea

As China’s regional aspirations grow hand-in-hand with their economic power, it is natural that the Chinese navy will seek to expand its capabilities and reach. Yet this also creates the potential for China to misuse naval resources against neighbors—and the United States. As a rising power, Chinese attempts to flex their maritime muscles and exert influence could lead to increasingly dangerous encounters. Some of the more notable examples of maritime brinkmanship over the last 15 years include:

Expanding Operations with the Chinese At Sea

The U.S. Navy has worked with China to prevent such incidents at sea prior to the summit in Beijing. The Navy developed and persuaded China to participate in the globally recognized Conduct for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). Signed in April 2014 at the 14th Western Pacific Naval Symposium in Qingdao China, CUES allows mariners to better communicate intentions. It also establishes a common set of rules of the road to prevent escalation when warships meet on the high seas. The accepted rules provide the proper vehicle for prevention of unwelcome encounters at sea.

The U.S. Navy’s efforts have not been limited to administrative deals. There is a desire to strike a balance between the inherent tension between the United States and the rising power of China, against the desire for China to share in the burden of securing the global commons. To achieve balance, and enhance China’s positive role in the maritime domain, the U.S. Navy is expanding operations with the Chinese Navy, including inviting them to participate alongside 21 other countries in the 2014 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), the world’s largest naval exercise. In the U.S. Navy’s latest efforts to improve the relationship with China, an American destroyer, the USS Sterett, recently conducted a counter-piracy exercise with Chinese warships in the Gulf of Aden.

Counter-Piracy Cooperation

Counter piracy exercises are a great step toward demonstrating global standards of behavior for maritime vessels by operationalizing tactical tools such as CUES. Bilateral exercises are the next logical step toward actual operations with China, and counter-piracy is a perfect vehicle for those operations.

The Chinese already conduct counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia and have done so since 2008. The global effort against piracy in Somalia appears to be succeeding, with the International Chamber of Commerce International Maritime Bureau reporting an annual drop in reported piracy attempts off the coast of Somalia from 139 in 2010 to three in 2014. Conversely, there has been a rise in piracy over the same time period in Southeast Asia, from 70 reported incidents to 141. With the rise in piracy in China’s backyard, which includes some of the most heavily traveled shipping routes in the world, the United States should expand its counter-piracy efforts to the South China Sea. This should not be a unilateral action, but rather an operation executed in partnership with the Chinese Navy and other regional players. The counter-piracy organization could be modeled on Task Force 151, a multi-national partnership involving 30 nations that continues to successfully contain piracy off the coast of Somalia. A multilateral organization in the South China Sea could include nations such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia, with leadership of the task force rotating every six months.

Conducting actual counter-piracy operations with China would be beneficial on multiple levels. First, it provides a potent counter-piracy force in the world’s fastest growing hot spot for piracy. Second, it allows the United States to develop a better military relationship with China and its neighbors. Finally, it demonstrates first-hand to the Chinese how an experienced naval power acts on the world stage. Ultimately, it would be difficult for the Chinese Navy to resist a greater role in enforcing global standards of conduct. Hard-liners within the Chinese Navy will likely resist conducting operations with the United States, arguing that cooperation legitimizes a local U.S. presence. But the larger benefits to world commerce and regional security outweigh those concerns and should mitigate America’s adversarial image.

Will there be additional challenges to joint counter-piracy operations with China and other ASEAN countries? Certainly. However there are ways to mitigate those challenges. The U.S. and Chinese Navies have already demonstrated they can work together along with ASEAN nations as in RIMPAC. Piracy in the region is focused primarily at chokepoints and inter-island routes throughout Indonesia and Malaysia allowing parameters to be established for the coalition to avoid contested territorial claims. Expanding the cooperation into counter-piracy operations is a low-tech way of building relations in the region against the common enemy of maritime piracy and certainly has room for expansion to other countries in the region, such as Australia and Japan.

A U.S. Naval presence in Asia dedicated to counter-piracy, using the Navy’s newest high speed ships such as the Littoral Combat Ship or the Joint High Speed Vessel, provides a strategic benefit without a large footprint. The United States has made great progress this year with China on trade and climate issues. And while the agreements at the Obama-Xi summit paved the way for the prevention of future escalation, we can do more.


Captain Robert N Hein is a career Surface Warfare Officer. He previously commanded the USS Gettysburg (CG-64) and the USS Nitze (DDG-94). He is currently the Navy’s Federal Executive Fellow at The Brookings Institution.  The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the Department of Defense. He can be reached at


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery