Sonntag, 26. Februar 2012

Turn threat into advantage? NATO should seek maritime cooperation with China

Whenever China´s new carrier undertakes a test journey, Western strategists go nuts. Think tankers, journalists and bloggers publish an inflationary number of analyses. Most of them consider China´s naval rise as a threat. However, the PLAN´s rise is unavoidable. So is there an opportunity for NATO to turn the overhyped threat into an advantage? The answer is yes.

The Overhype
At the beginning of the Libya crisis China ordered one of its frigates operating in the Gulf of Aden to head to Libya forevacuating Chinese citizens. Of course, it has been argued, this would be another step for China towards a global naval power. However, there is nothing special about ordering a vessel, as many other countries like South Korea also did, to set sail for a single evacuation journey. 

Now, whenever China´s carrier Shi Land leaves Dalian Shipyard discussions boost about a PLAN carrier force´s global implications. Even if neither one of China´s SU-33 fighters, nor one of its choppers has ever touched the Shi Lang´s deck. The same is true of China´s stealth fighter (J-20), who's tests can be watched on YouTube and are analyzed in detail by professionals and bloggers. So, the whole world, not to mention government´s intelligence, is looking in the closest possible way on every single detail of the PLAN. Has any other military rise ever been more transparent?

Of course, China´s naval rise is a major part in all the maritime conflicts in the East China and South China Sea. Nevertheless, this, too, should not be overhyped. With the US prioritising the pacific theater and all countries in the region investing massively in their armed forces, not war, rather a balance of power and foremost a prestige race looms on the horizon. Moreover, the 2011 East Asian Summit in Bali proved that either a diplomatic mitigation or solution of these conflicts is far more likely than any major military confrontation.

Unavoidable rise
Therefore, it may be time for analysts to calm down a bit. China does what all other emerging powers like India and Brazil do, too. It looks for the means to gain prestige and to protect its interests. Furthermore, China has the financial, material and technological resources to aggrandize the PLAN in the coming decades. Hence, the PLAN´s rise is no more a spectacular event, rather a foreseeable process about to happen anyway.

China will gain carriers with full operational capability one day; maybe helicopter carriers (LHD), too. Surface ships´ and submarines´ numbers and quality will increase and, likely, the PLAN will establish permanent bases in the Indian Ocean (Li/Weuve 2010). However, this is all going to happen in the far future. Hence, if one knows it, one can prepare, can take on the initiative and convert the foreseeable process into an advantage.    

Turn threat into advantage
Due austerity, NATO countries´ naval capabilities are going to shrink further. In the longer term, when it comes to support of UN missions, humanitarian aid and disaster relief, combating piracy, and securing sea-lanes, NATO countries may not be able to provide the capabilities needed. Thus, other players will have to do their share to secure the maritime commons.  

Here is an opportunity. An emerging China would like to prove that it is a responsible maritime player and step in with its capabilities, where the West is not or cannot be present. However, the PLAN has no experience in any kind of joint operations. Therefore, NATO, with its longstanding experience, could help China to gain the experience and ability to conduct these and, thereby, integrate China in a stable global naval order. China as responsible actor in a stable maritime order - no matter how it looks like as long as it is stable - would be a real advantage for NATO members. The PLAN might do the work to secure maritime commons that NATO member states see as vital to both their own and global interests, but that NATO is no longer capable of securing.    

If this were to become a concrete proposal, of course, many people would argue that China might stant to gain significant intelligence about NATO´s naval techniques and abilities. However, like in case of China, the internet is full of analyses of NATO member´s navies and what Chinese intelligence may not have learned from open source intelligence (OSINT), it has pretty sure already learned from its signal and cyber intelligence (SIGINT). Thus, intelligence concerns should not be overhyped, too.

Implementation: Three-step approach
So how to do it? For the implementation, a three-step approach is needed. The first step is to build mutual trust. If you want earn trust, you have to go in advance. The PLAN should be invited for friendly visits in the North Atlantic area, monitoring or participation in naval NATO exercises. Moreover, PLAN commanders could be invited to visit NATO institutions like the NATO Defence College or Allied Maritime Command HQ Northwood.

After a certain amount of trust is established, it would be time to take the second step. This means NATO should hold joint exercises with the PLAN: training in support of UN missions, search and rescue, humanitarian aid, disaster relief and non-combat evacuation operations. China should be made aware that exercising face-to-face with NATO is a major prestige win for the country, which may increase China´s willingness to go this step. Such exercises could easily be undertaken in the Indian Ocean where NATO and PLAN meet anyway and, furthermore, where joint NATO-PLAN operations for humanitarian reasons are most likely.  

This also the area where the third step, of course with an eye turned on India´s worries, should be undertaken after steps one and two created enough trust. Here, joint operations for combating piracy and terrorism as well as securing sea-lanes of communication could be practiced to together. Through these three steps the Chinese navy, which has no combat experience worth mentioning, could learn and to practice the theoretical knowledge already earned from OSINT and SIGINT (may be even HUMINT?) and parallel be integrated as a responsible player, of course with prestige looked for.

The US may not favor these three steps due intelligence concerns and its shift towards the Asia-Pacific. However, there is no problem, because European countries, who should carry more burdens in NATO anyway, could do this work and, thereby, use a NATO-ticket to become a trust building interface between the US and China. Sailing on this lane might be a good way to strengthen transatlantic partnership in America’s Pacific Century

Further Reading
Li, Nan; Weuve, Christopher 2010: China's Aircraft Carrier Ambitions. An Update, IN: Naval War College Review, 63 (1), 13-32.   

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