One of the greatest risks to world peace is a clash at sea between the United States and China. The risk of confrontation has grown steadily as Chinese power has increased, and especially since 2012, when China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, took power and introduced a far more assertive approach to China’s disputed territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. In East Asia’s littoral regions, China’s naval capabilities now rival those of the United States, and Beijing has proved itself increasingly willing to threaten close U.S. allies such as Japan with belligerent rhetoric. Most alarming, Beijing has cast territorial disputes in sharply nationalistic terms, promising Chinese citizens that compromise will not be tolerated. Xi seems to have abandoned former leader Deng Xiaoping’s view, expressed on a 1978 visit to Japan, that China’s maritime claims were “not an urgent issue” and that “if our generation does not have enough wisdom to resolve this issue, the next generation will have more.”
But despite recent high-profile disagreements, it is still possible for Washington and Beijing to prove Deng right. U.S.-Chinese maritime relations are based on more than frigates and fringing reefs. Wise handling of those relations should build on preexisting but little-known efforts to improve bilateral cooperation in the global ocean commons. Over the past two years, U.S. policymakers have opened a new space for these efforts, based on an emerging consensus in both countries about the importance of the ecological health and economic productivity of the global ocean. Bilateral ocean cooperation shows great promise in helping lower tensions and protect global oceans, and as the State Department prepares to host its next—and perhaps last—Our Oceans Summit this month, U.S. policymakers should focus on how U.S.-Chinese ocean cooperation can realize its full potential into the future.
To appreciate the importance of U.S.-Chinese cooperation for the world’s oceans, it helps to understand China’s development vast fishing fleet has historically stayed close to home, but since the 1980s it has become a major force in waters much further afield. As of 2010, around 1900 Chinese fishing vessels operated in the waters of 32 countries, some as far away as West Africa, generating an annual catch worth $1.8 billion. China has also become a major player in other parts of the global maritime economy, including the race to tap deep-sea mineral resources. And thanks to Beijing’s major investments in oceanographic and marine scientific research, China is now one of the few countries capable of exploring the deep ocean.
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