I participated on a panel about US-China relations on Press TV in New York City last week. One of the major themes was the recent "spat" between US and Chinese ships in the South China Sea, near Hainan island where China is reportedly building its first aircraft carrier. From a very insightful Time magazine article, "But despite the soothing words of the two top diplomats, it's a safe bet that more such incidents can be expected in the future. The Pentagon was quick to note that the mariners aboard the U.S.N.S. Impeccable (pictured here from the U.S. Navy website) were civilians working for the Military Sealift Command, while the Chinese side stressed that the confrontation involved local fishing boats. The reality is that the incident occurred because both sides are preparing for war — "shaping the battlefield," in military jargon — for a conflict that both hope will never happen." Indeed more of this sort of thing will happen.
Beyond the classic international relations 101 analysis that what we are seeing is tension between an established power, the United States, and a rising power, China, there are other issues at play. One is that there is disagreement over the interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; but that China and the United States are arguing about the law's interpretation--rather than whether the law should exist at all--is a good sign. It is further evidence that China wants to operate within the basic parameters of the international system.
But another is that as China increasingly relies on international trade for its prosperity, it will want a greater role in protecting its merchant fleet. Which gets me to the main point I made on Press TV: China may wish to have a greater say in the management of trade routes, but that will imply that it must also be willing to provide the global public good of safe sea lanes (as Robert Kaplan calls a "global commons" that benefits all nations). Unless China can provide public goods like these, its aggressiveness will be perceived as only that: aggressive.
Kaplan has written about this issue in a variety of places, including the recent issue of Foreign Affairs in his article "Rivalry in the Indian Ocean." From a Dec. 2008, Washington Post essay titled "A Gentler Hegemony: U.S. Hegemony May Be in Decline, but Only to a Degree," Kaplan writes here is "where we are now, post-Iraq: calmer, more pragmatic and with a military -- especially a Navy -- that, while in relative decline, is still far superior to any other on Earth. Near the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy had almost 600 ships; it is down to 280. But in aggregate tonnage that is still more than the next 17 navies combined. Our military secures the global commons to the benefit of all nations. Without the U.S. Navy, the seas would be unsafe for merchant shipping, which, in an era of globalization, accounts for 90 percent of world trade. We may not be able to control events on land in the Middle East, but our Navy and Air Force control all entry and exit points to the region. The multinational anti-piracy patrols that have taken shape in the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Aden have done so under the aegis of the U.S. Navy. Sure the economic crisis will affect shipbuilding, meaning the decline in the number of our ships will continue, and there will come a point where quantity affects quality. But this will be an exceedingly gradual transition, which we will assuage by leveraging naval allies such as India and Japan"--what Kaplan calls U.S. "elegant decline" in his Foreign Affairs article.