Now China wants to divide up the sea

Maritime territorialism is a bad idea—but it might signal something worse

Rory Medcalf, over at the Lowy Interpreter flags a very important issue (via NRA). He draws attention to a media report that suggests China is considering maritime territorialism in the Gulf of Aden where navies from as many as 40 countries are engaged in anti-piracy operations. Not only that, but in what appears to be another manifestation of the kind of thinking that made a Chinese admiral recently offer to divide up the world’s oceans with his US counterpart, China is discussing this with Russia, Japan, EU and NATO. Mr Medcalf writes:

I very much doubt that other powers would accept such a move—and nor should they—because it would suggest that China is not really willing to engage in serious coordination, cooperation or transparency at sea. Carving up national maritime zones in the Indian Ocean would both reflect and worsen mistrust. It implies the failure of multilateralism, not its success. The Cold War was all about zones, spheres, sectors: think occupied Berlin. And what would happen if ships from one country strayed into another’s chosen sector?

We also need to wonder how accurate is the article’s assertion that ‘the prospect of each country being given responsibility for a certain area of ocean’ is being welcomed by the shipping industry.

Second, it was intriguing that India received no mention in the article as one of the countries that China needs or wants to coordinate with in the Indian Ocean.[Lowy Interpreter]

The first thing to note here is that such territorialism doesn’t make much sense given the vast expanse of the world’s oceans—or even the Gulf of Aden—compared to the number of ships that the world’s navies have. There is thus a very strong case for naval co-operation and co-ordination against maritime threats. It is inconceivable that Chinese maritime strategists are unaware of this.

So why is China floating what appears to be a foolish idea? Look at the countries mentioned in the media report—Russia, Japan, EU and NATO. What is common to them is that they—like China itself—are outside the Indian Ocean region. Furthermore, China has not been admitted to the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), a new platform for the navies of Indian Ocean littoral states. Beijing might be attempting to force its way into IONS by raising the bogey of an alternative organisation of extra-regional powers. (India’s unwillingness to admit China into IONS is par for the course, as China routinely attempts to keep India and the United States out of East Asian groupings)

But that is only a charitable explanation. China might be trying to gain exclusive control of key international waterways—an intention that is all the more disturbing given the rapid expansion of the PLA Navy’s capacity.

In any event, India must strengthen not only its naval operations in Indian Ocean theatres like the Gulf of Aden—something that we have been stressing for long—but also deepen maritime co-operation with the navies of the United States, Australia, Japan and Indonesia.