Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 16:37 | SYDNEY
Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 16:37 | SYDNEY

Chinese naval proposal wrong-headed


Rory Medcalf


24 November 2009 08:15

If China wants its anti-piracy naval presence in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden to be recognised as essentially defensive and legitimate, then a recent proposal about creating maritime zones of exclusive national responsibility is precisely not the way to go about it.

As I’ve written previously, China’s naval deployment against piracy provides an excellent opportunity for such countries as the United States, Japan, India and Australia to build patterns of cooperation and trust with the PLA Navy.

But of course we should make no assumptions about China’s willingness to cooperate; rather, the whole point of the exercise is to test and try to expand the boundaries of such willingness.

That is why this recent media report from China contains some disturbing implications. Media reports in China, as in many countries, are often used to trial new thinking underway in official circles.

Thus last year the idea of sending Chinese warships to the Gulf of Aden was raised several times by commentators in the Chinese press several weeks before it was announced as policy. If this new report is a sign of future policy, then other powers should be concerned, for a few reasons.

Foremost, the suggestion by scholar Yin Gang that ‘clarifying areas of responsibility is the best way forward’ would seem to mean that China would be allocated — or designate unto itself — its own exclusive patrolling zone in sensitive international (or perhaps Somali) waters far from its own shores.

I very much doubt that other powers would accept such a move — and nor should they — because it would suggest that China is not really willing to engage in serious coordination, cooperation or transparency at sea. Carving up national maritime zones in the Indian Ocean would both reflect and worsen mistrust. It implies the failure of multilateralism, not its success. The Cold War was all about zones, spheres, sectors: think occupied Berlin. And what would happen if ships from one country strayed into another’s chosen sector?

We also need to wonder how accurate is the article’s assertion that ‘the prospect of each country being given responsibility for a certain area of ocean’ is being welcomed by the shipping industry.

Second, it was intriguing that India received no mention in the article as one of the countries that China needs or wants to coordinate with in the Indian Ocean. Russia, NATO, Japan, but not India? This bodes poorly for China-India relations in India’s maritime neighbourhood. Ideally, India ought to be proactive in setting the tone for a cooperative relationship in its regional waters with its fellow rising power. But politically that will not be possible if China is essentially dismissive of India’s proper role in its own region.

China has as much right as any other trading nation to deploy ships to protect its interests far from home. But unilateralism by a rising power is the road to confrontation.

We all have an interest in bursting this trial balloon before it becomes policy.

Photo by Flickr user Roozbeh Rokni, used under a Creative Commons license.