East Asian regional security cooperation has been a long sought after but elusive goal for decades. Hindered by a lack of Chinese transparency, US distrust, and Japanese political uncertainty, options for serious dialogue and more importantly active participation in a long-term security regime for the region have been limited. The current struggle against piracy off the east coast of Africa offers a low risk opportunity for US-Japan-China cooperation, which may establish the foundations for productive future engagement.
The US military has set a positive tone by welcoming China's Navy into international anti-hijacking efforts. This overture should not be overlooked considering the rising level of distrust in the US over Chinese military intentions. Beyond occasional ports of call, both militaries have had very little contact.
Opportunities for cooperation are rare and potential conflicts, while far from inevitable are abundant. Recent history is replete with friction including China's missile downing of an aged satellite, US weapon sales to Taiwan and the sudden cancellation in 2007 by China of the USS Kitty Hawk visit to Hong Kong.
With a far more advanced and experienced military, the US should nevertheless welcome China as an equal member in the effort, stressing the multilateral approach to countering the piracy threat. In particular the US should look for ways to interact with the Chinese if and when a mutual anti-piracy engagement presents itself.
With a three-ship contingent en route including helicopters and special forces, China appears ready for military intervention focusing on at a minimum information gathering and interdiction efforts. China is clearly looking for opportunities to test their navy in its first significant projection of naval force in modern history.