|The Chinese Navy destroyer Qingdao (DDG 113) U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ben A. Gonzales|
There is "at sea" cooperation in one area of the world. But underlying that fact is the bigger story, the size of China's fleet:
China is closely cooperating with the navies of Japan and India in patrolling against piracy off Somalia, a sign of the country's greater willingness to work with other nations in safeguarding global trade despite mixed sentiments among Chinese toward the country's main Asian rivals.
"Chinese collaboration with other navies should be welcomed. The hope is that such cooperation will have a positive normative effect on the civilian and military leadership," said Toshi Yoshihara of the U.S. Naval War College.
China joined the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy patrols in late 2008, displaying the fruits of a 500 percent increase in defense outlays over the past 13 years that has allowed the Chinese navy to acquire latest-generation submarines, surface ships, and aircraft, along with an aircraft carrier now undergoing sea trials. In the gulf, it regularly rotates squadrons usually composed of a two warships and a support vessel, accompanied by special forces soldiers.
"It's politically expedient for them to 'go along to get along,' including cooperating with Japan," Rubel said.
Such pragmatism has limits, however. Rubel and Yoshihara say multinational cooperation isn't likely to produce a kinder, gentler Chinese navy when it comes to what China considers its sovereign "core interests," particularly in waters closer to China.
"I don't see this happening anytime soon, but it is certainly worth the effort to shape Chinese norms and perceptions," Yoshihara said.
And whatever breakthroughs are made with Japan and India, the Chinese navy's relationship with the U.S. Navy will remain problematic, particularly with plans by Washington to deploy 60 percent of its fleet worldwide to the Pacific by 2020.