The US Navy has formed the view that the November 2013 incident between the American cruiser Cowpens and the Chinese carrier group arose directly from the PLA Navy's lack of experience with oceanic operations and the formal and informal rules which govern interactions between foreign navies.
That's the implication in an address given by US Pacific fleet commander Admiral Samuel Locklear to the Navy Surface Association Conference in January.
In the past, the vast majority of encounters between the PLA Navy and other navies have been in the context of disputed maritime claims or military operations within national exclusive economic zones (EEZs). But the American cruiser was conducting the sort of surveillance conducted on the US Navy by Russian units for decades (and by the Americans on the Soviets) outside each other's territorial seas, but within their EEZs. The Cowpens' activities did not justify the aggressive behaviour of the Chinese units.
The PLA Navy is still, it seems, getting used to the idea of operating in the 'global commons'. It has some difficult choices to make about military operations in EEZs. Applying China’s current national rules to others' EEZs will drastically reduce its sea room, particularly with respect to Japan, but also in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere in the Pacific. It may be possible for China to engage in casuistry by asserting the PLA Navy's freedom to manoeuvre in another country's EEZ in which there is no local legislation prohibiting military operations, but this will quickly wear thin.
The more China seeks to restrict foreign military activities in its own EEZ, the more trouble it will face elsewhere as it seeks to project maritime power, either through the restraints it must accept on its own ships, or the reactions it will elicit from other maritime states if the PLA Navy does not restrain itself.
It will also be important that aggressive manoeuvring does not take place on the high seas. Understanding the protocols of behaviour will be all the more important as the PLA Navy increases its deployments away from mainland China. If operations such as the recent foray by a small task group into the Indian Ocean are not to become a source of international tension, it will be necessary for the PLA Navy to accept the presence of other nations' units in the vicinity of Chinese forces.
Admiral Locklear's 'cure' is equally significant. He suggests that an important reason for the invitation to China to participate in the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) multinational maritime exercise is 'so they can start to sense how this is done, multilaterally, multi-nationally, and we'll get a sense of where they need to work.'
Since Locklear also talked of the potential for China to become a provider of maritime security, it is apparent that the US works hard on playing a role in the inevitable learning process the PLA Navy (and China's leadership) must go through with the move from an outlook fundamentally based on territorial defence to one more in line with the responsibilities of a true maritime power.
Locklear's anxiety about North Korea was also manifest in the speech and, although he acknowledged Japan's concerns over the East China Sea, it was clear that the potential for trouble on the Korean peninsula is a much greater worry for him. In response to a question, he again emphasised the potentially positive role of China and the requirement for effective co-operation and understanding between China and the US.
There were some other notable points. Admiral Locklear reminded his audience that many of the anti-surface weapons currently in service, such as the Tomahawk cruise missile and the Harpoon anti-ship (and now land-attack) missile, had at least some of their genesis and much of the impetus for their development from the surface warfare community. He said 'our lack of urgency on the development of the next generation of surface launched over the horizon cruise missiles is troubling. We’re behind the mean.'
The sub-text is the extent to which surface-launched (as well as sub-surface-launched) cruise missiles have become such an important part of the US Navy's strike inventory, which until the 1980s relied almost wholly on the carrier air groups. The US Navy clearly wants to ensure that its strike capabilities remain distributed among as many platforms as possible. Contrary to much of the debate in the public domain in recent years, it is not all about the carriers.
Admiral Locklear also pointed to the requirement for an offensive mining capability to give his forces an asymmetric edge and this, perhaps more than anything else, reflected an acknowledgement of the changing balance in the Indo-Pacific and the need for new operational concepts. As Locklear said, 'We haven't talked about a mining for a long time...But (the) surface warfare community in my view has to embrace the mine community, has to embrace this as an asymmetric knowledge, a defensive capability, as an asymmetric capability that allows us to be dominant in a battlespace.'
Again, the theme seems to be one of multiplying and distributing offensive capabilities. We are likely to see a lot more of this sort of talk in the months and years ahead.
Finally, in response to an inquiry about his priorities in relation to US security partners in the region, Admiral Locklear commented: 'In the end, in this AOR (area of responsibility)...we have to rely on increased partnership capability; we have to rely on increased alliance capability. So that's what I've got on that one.' It is worth noting that Australia was one of the countries specifically mentioned in the question.