COMMUTERS BETWEEN MARIN COUNTY and San Francisco in northern California are getting used to a new spectacle during rush hour. Vast, ungainly container ships, bearing China’s flag and name, plough along under the glorious Golden Gate Bridge. They are bringing goods into the Port of Oakland—and taking back America’s trade deficit. Any pleasure yachts zipping around the bay give them a wide berth.
This is China as a Pacific power, a commercial rather than a naval one. According to statistics gathered by Michael McDevitt, a retired rear-admiral at America’s Centre for Naval Analyses, it is now the world’s largest shipbuilder; has the third-largest merchant marine, and by far the largest number of vessels flying its own flag; and boasts a 695,000-strong fishing fleet. It accounts for about a quarter of the world’s container trade. And almost all the steel boxes shipped on the world’s oceans are made in China, too.
Much of the security of that trade across the Pacific is the gift of America. China “free-rides” on the protection provided by the United States Pacific Fleet, based in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, so it benefits from America’s enforcement of the rules of sea-based activity. But in the western Pacific China has behaved provocatively towards some staunch American allies, testing the bounds of international maritime law.
That implicit challenge comes up often in speeches by American officials. Whether civilian or military, they use an oddly terrestrial metaphor when discussing America’s leadership in the world’s biggest ocean. It is all about enforcing “the rules of the road”, they say. One set of those rules are those on trade, which, as discussed in the previous article, America hopes to modernise via the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Another is about maritime security, particularly in the sea lanes through disputed territorial waters in what China calls its “near seas”. America argues that to safeguard those vital routes of commerce, any territorial quarrels should be settled according to international law, not by force and intimidation. Otherwise, says Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for Asia-Pacific, it is a dangerous world where “might makes right.”