Fishing vessels sail in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor, July 2012. 
Siu Chiu / Reuters

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.

GONE FISHING

To appreciate the importance of U.S.-Chinese cooperation for the world’s oceans, it helps to understand China’s development as a civilian, not just a military, maritime power. Take the massive growth of China’s distant-water fishing fleet. Most of China’s 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.

China’s newfound stature as one of the world’s foremost oceanic powers has led to its greater engagement in global ocean issues. In addition to the economic interests at stake, a greater range of Chinese government entities are now interested in maritime issues, creating a constituency for international engagement on matters of shared concern. These entities include the Bureau of Fisheries, responsible for regulating the fishing fleet; the Ministry of Transportation, which oversees ports; the China Coast Guard; and the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), whose broad responsibilities for ocean management include marine pollution control and the development of the “blue economy,” which emphasizes the sustainable use of ocean resources. Historically, these agencies have been almost entirely focused on their domestic responsibilities. Today, however, each has individuals or offices devoted to relationships with their counterparts abroad, especially in the United States.

The Chinese government’s increased willingness to cooperate on global ocean issues comes at a critical time, when more concerted international efforts are required to protect oceans from environmental devastation. Many of the world’s major fish stocks, including in Chinese and other East Asian waters, are at risk of collapse from overfishing, and climate change is wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. Aside from the threat of ocean acidification, which is relatively well known, increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are also altering ocean temperatures and oxygen levels, reducing the habitable zones of some marine species. Less acute, but in many places more evident, is the accumulation of trash in the world’s oceans, which can enter marine food chains and kill or injure animals who ingest it. Along with the United States and other major maritime nations, China is a significant contributor to each of these environmental problems, and its cooperation is essential to seriously address them.

A man inspects dried fish in Hangzhou, December 2009.
A man inspects dried fish in Hangzhou, December 2009.
Lang Lang / Reuters

COMING TOGETHER

China and the United States both appreciate the looming environmental catastrophe, and are working together to head it off. Ocean conservation was first put on the foreign policy agenda at the 2014 Our Oceans Summit, convened at the behest of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and attended by the head of China’s SOA. The substantive elements of bilateral cooperation were launched at the 2015 Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which for the first time included a high-level special session on conserving and protecting the oceans, featuring Kerry, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and the administrators of SOA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. China and the United States subsequently agreed to several important maritime initiatives. These included the expansion of an existing effort by the U.S. and Chinese Coast Guards to combat illegal fishing; an agreement to work together within the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations responsible for setting catch limits in different parts of the ocean; the creation of a partnership to reduce the flow of waste into the ocean; and joint research on ocean acidification in the Southern Ocean. 

Perhaps more important, the development of substantive bilateral ocean cooperation has paid dividends at the multilateral level. In 2014, China joined with Russia in opposing a U.S. proposal to create an international Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Antarctica’s Ross Sea, often considered the world’s last pristine ocean wilderness. China’s opposition ensured that the proposal failed to win approval by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), an obscure international body charged with protecting the Antarctic environment. In 2015, however, China acknowledged the importance of the Ross Sea in a joint statement with the United States, and at CCAMLR’s 2015 meeting China dropped its objection to the Ross Sea MPA, leaving Russia as the lone and increasingly alienated barrier to approving the proposal. In 2016, U.S. engagement with China scored an even more important victory by securing a pledge from Beijing to consider adopting the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), an international protocol that prevents signatory states from provisioning vessels engaged in illegal fishing, or from offloading illegal fish catches.     

These may seem like small steps, but in fact they represent enormous progress in promoting Chinese engagement in multilateral ocean governance. Beijing has historically been deeply suspicious of multilateral cooperation concerning natural resources, and the fact that it has publicly committed itself to consider adopting the PSMA, the most important multilateral effort to combat illegal fishing, represents a major step forward. But at the same time, it is clear that China’s engagement in global ocean governance will remain cautious and contained for the foreseeable future. In particular, Beijing is likely to continue to view ocean and maritime issues primarily through the lens of its economic interests, especially that of its large fishing industry. Given these structural limitations on China’s willingness to pursue ambitious ocean conservation initiatives, the greatest promise of U.S.-Chinese maritime cooperation lies in its potential to help stabilize the broader relationship between the two powers.

The greatest promise of U.S.-Chinese maritime cooperation lies in its potential to help stabilize the broader relationship between the two powers.

A GREEN BRIGHT SPOT

One of the more remarkable developments during the Obama administration has been the emergence of environmental issues, particularly climate change, as the most productive area for bilateral cooperation between China and the United States. U.S. officials frequently refer to climate change as the “bright spot” in relations with China. But although the achievements of climate cooperation are real, the prominence of environmental issues also reflects the deterioration of dialogue on other matters, especially the East and South China Seas. The real promise of current U.S.-Chinese ocean cooperation, therefore, is to help stabilize bilateral relations in the maritime domain. Joint efforts to conserve and protect the oceans are no substitute for sustained dialogue on military matters. But developing maritime issues as a major area of the bilateral relationship can foster a sense of mutual gain from working together in the global ocean commons, in stark contrast to the sense of rivalry that obtains in the strategic arena.

Whether that spirit of mutual gain and productive engagement can be extended to other elements of the U.S.-Chinese relationship, however, depends in large part on the next administration. On the U.S. side, the ocean cooperation agenda is closely tied to Kerry’s personal interest in the marine environment, and has yet to gain widespread support within the national security establishment. Yet this weak bureaucratic foundation stems more from the agenda’s low profile than from direct opposition, and ocean cooperation is an area ripe for further development. Indeed, an expanded agenda might serve as a useful template for deepened bilateral engagement with other major maritime nations, including Brazil, India, and Indonesia.

In order to realize the potential of U.S.-Chinese ocean cooperation, the next U.S. administration should take a number of steps. First, it should institutionalize the agenda by establishing a regular Bilateral Maritime Cooperation Dialogue, which could be held on the margins of future Our Oceans Summits, and would cover the full range of joint initiatives in the maritime domain, including fisheries management, maritime law enforcement, and scientific research cooperation. Institutionalizing dialogue on such issues is critical to ensuring that the gains made during Kerry’s tenure, especially with respect to the Ross Sea and PSMA, are not lost in the next administration.

Second, the next administration should aim to connect specific elements of U.S.-Chinese bilateral cooperation to comparable multilateral initiatives, especially those taking place under the aegis of the Asia-Pacific Economic Community and the Association of South-East Asian Nations. Promising issues include maritime search and rescue, marine litter prevention, and tsunami monitoring and forecasting. These connections could help leverage bilateral cooperation to build regional confidence, and perhaps eventually to reduce tensions among Asia’s competing maritime powers.      

Crucially, it will take a sustained, long-term commitment to realize these gains. In that sense, U.S.-Chinese cooperation on ocean issues represents a bet on the value of building trust and lowering tensions in the maritime domain. Admittedly, its success is far from assured—nothing quite like this has ever been tried before. But beyond its impact on the overall bilateral relationship, U.S.-Chinese maritime cooperation has already delivered substantive gains for the world’s oceans, and it is worth pursuing for this reason alone. Even if Asia’s seas continue to be a scene of territorial conflict, they should not be prevented from being a scene of cooperation on other scores.

  • SCOTT MOORE is a former Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow at the U.S. Department of State, where his responsibilities included U.S.-Chinese environmental cooperation. The views expressed here are his own.
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