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China Rising: How to Prevent a Naval War Between the U.S. and China

To ensure the safety of seafaring vessels and to prevent escalation, the United States and China should sign an ‘Incidents at Sea Agreement.’ 

In March of 2009, the USNS Impeccable naval surveillance ship sailed through the international waters of the South China Sea on its usual patrol. Over the next few days, Chinese planes and ships aggressively approached the Impeccable, nearly causing collisions. Had the Impeccable responded with force, an international crisis would have ensued. The likelihood of an international crisis arising from such an incident is at an all-time high. Even the United States’ top naval commander in the Pacific officially noted that, “there’s potential for an incident in the South China Sea to intensify." The only existing framework to prevent escalation is the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) signed in 1998 between China and the U.S. to strengthen communication, which merely mandates annual meetings between the two parties. The MMCA’s ability to prevent discord has been pushed to the brink as it does not setup quick communication between the two navies and does not guide how the two interact while operating in the same area. 

There is, however, a stronger framework that has proven to work. In 1972, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed an agreement accounting for the potential of vessels of their navies to collide and/or interfere with ships of the other nation. This Incidents at Sea Agreement acted as a confidence-building measure between the two superpowers and prevented escalation. Despite this success, China and the U.S. have not yet instituted these measures. In light of recent events, however, it is imperative that the U.S. and China sign an Incidents at Sea Agreement. Without this confidence-building measure, the miscalculation and eventual escalation from an incident such as the Impeccable seems inevitable. 

Analysis 

Combining the Obama Administration’s new emphasis on East Asia and Chinese modernization, escalation of any incident between the two powers seems inevitable. With the history of collisions building up, any escalation or miscalculation would disrupt the $5 trillion of global trade, carried by half of the world’s trade fleet, through the South China Sea region.6 With $5 trillion of international trade passing through the region, including 60,000 vessels per year and 13.6 bbl/d of oil, about equivalent to the amount passing through the Straits of Hormuz, the South China Sea’s Malacca Strait is a crucial chokepoint. The exit from Iraq, and the eventual drawdown of troops in Afghanistan creates an opportune moment for the United States and China to commit to East Asian security. In January 2011, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates indicated that the stage was set for “taking the military-to-military relationship to the next level.” This strengthening of relations has created the environment necessary for the critical first step to preventing escalation in the South China Sea: the signing of an Incidents at Sea agreement. The agreement’s necessitated communication structure between the two navies will allow for quick responses to potentially escalatory situations while serving as a cornerstone to building the bilateral relationship necessary for resolving issues between the two nations. 

Next Steps 

The process of indicating cooperation should formally begin by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus engaging in a high-profile visit to their counterparts in China. While visiting, the Secretary of Defense should re-iterate the Obama Administration’s tone of portraying China as a mutual partner in security and trade. Emphasizing the high risk of continuing the current policy (citing the USNS Impeccable and the E3/Interceptor collision of 2001) and the inadequacy of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement to deal with the risk, the Secretary of Defense should indicate the U.S. government’s wish to sign an Incidents at Sea agreement with the People’s Republic of China.

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