The United States is trying to organize an international “Thousand Ship Navy” via greater cooperation between the United States Navy and the many nations the U.S. is allies, or simply on good terms, with. Formally called the GMP (Global Maritime Partnerships) the effort is simply a continuation of international naval cooperation American admirals and diplomats have built over the last century. One of the more notable of those efforts, CTF (Combined Task Force)-151, which began operating in 2009 to deal with the pirates off Somalia, was a big success. Over a dozen nations contributed ships and many others (like China and Iran) cooperated with CTF-151 without being a part of it. While organized largely as an American led effort, the task force command regular rotated among member nations and most of the time an American officer was not in charge.
The U.S. now wants to build a global naval alliance to deal with more than pirates, but to do using the techniques that worked so well off Somalia. In other words, GMP is an effort to be better prepared for the next emergency that naval forces can be the solution for. This not only involves threats to world trade (90 percent of which moves by sea) but also natural disasters (most of which have all, or most victims near the coast) and threats to world peace in general, like Chinese claims on the South China Sea and Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz and block most world oil trade.
There are some 12,000 warships in service worldwide. Only about 35 percent of those can go beyond the coasts they guard (as part of the navy, coast guard or police). That’s over 3,000 seagoing warships and most of them are American or on good terms with the United States. Now most of those seagoing ships cannot easily move to distant parts of the world like the U.S. ships can, and do, frequently. But with GMP member navies could quickly organize a local force of hundreds of ocean going warships and even more coast patrol vessels.
Russia, China and the other usual suspects (North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and so on) are expected to oppose GMP, but most nations are initially favorable to the concept. After all the U.S. Navy has been organizing international naval exercises for decades and American naval officers have long sought to establish personal relationships with their peers around the world.
For most industrial nations, and many third world countries that have periodic food shortages, loss of sea trade is a serious problem. So anything that can make the sea lanes safer is all good. Throughout the Cold War (1948-91) the U.S. unofficially provided for the security of the sea lanes. But the American fleet has been shrinking since the 1990s and is no longer able to be the worldwide guardian of sea travel. The GMP will take up that chore, with the U.S. Navy as a major component of an international force.
Meanwhile, a lot has changed in terms of naval power since the 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the second largest fleet in the world rapidly decaying in the 1990s. Russia lost about 80 percent of its naval power since the 1990s. It is still the second largest fleet in the world (soon to be replaced by China) and the 1990s U.S. Navy found itself with over half the naval combat power in the world, and even more of the kinds of ships that can be sent anywhere on the planet. At the start of the 21st century the world found itself in the third century of either Britain or the United States being the dominant naval power. The U.S. may well remain dominant for the rest of the 21st century, but not as dominant as it was in the second half of the 20th century.
When the Cold War ended, all navies shrank, even the U.S. Navy. But those of the European nations were reduced the most. In the Pacific, Japan, South Korea and China continued to expand their fleets. So did India. But the U.S. naval forces in the Pacific are still the major player in that region. Nevertheless each region had its own local major naval power.
Europe is still dominated by the Russian fleet. Despite the sharp (over 80 percent) decline in the Russian military in the 1990s, this still left them with the most powerful combat force in Europe. That's largely because most European also cut their military spending, and manpower, in the 1990s. Russia is much less of a military threat to Europe than it was during the Cold War because their ground forces now largely consist of paramilitary troops, and army combat units that are no longer trained for offensive warfare. Russia can still invade neighbors, as it did in Georgia and Ukraine, but that was done mainly with special operations troops, mercenaries, local militias and paramilitary troops.
The Middle East is still dominated by Israel. Iran is powerful more because of the large number of men in uniform. Their weapons and equipment are in poor shape and largely obsolete. Because of Israel's dominating land combat power, many Middle Eastern nations spend a lot of money on ballistic missiles. These would be the only weapons they would have a chance of doing any damage to Israel with. None of the Middle Eastern powers have significant naval forces and Israel is seen as the major force at sea, as well as in the air and on land.
The Americas are still dominated by the United States. Because of decades of combat, and recent upgrades in training and equipment and the number two naval power is Brazil because it is the largest nation in South America, and has a large and well equipped military.
East Asia is, as usual, dominated by China. But the Chinese fleet has much to fear from Japan and South Korea.
African Nations have a strange lineup with only one significant naval power; South Africa. But the South African fleet largely destroyed itself with recent upgrades, corruption and reduced budgets. There are lots of new ships but no money to operate them or even maintain qualified crews.
South Asian Nations are, as always, dominated by India. Pakistan is a distant second.
Meanwhile there’s a major fleet expansion under way in East Asia (including Australia but not India). Current plans call for some 300 large warships (corvettes and larger, including subs and large amphibious ships) and over 500 smaller patrol, minesweeper and coast defense ships to enter service in the next decade. Some 60 percent of these ships are being built by China, with 5-10 percent of them for export.
This naval arms race is mostly about the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) overlaps, especially in the South China Sea. China seeks to seize control over all the disputed areas by patrolling these contested waters more frequently and aggressively. International law (the 1994 Law of the Sea treaty) recognizes the waters 22 kilometers from land as under the exclusive and unquestioned jurisdiction of the nation controlling the nearest land. That means ships cannot enter these "territorial waters" without permission. However, the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the EEZ of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage by any ships (including warships) or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. China has already claimed that foreign ships have been conducting illegal espionage in their EEZ and will be expelled for that. But the 1994 treaty says nothing about such matters. China is simply doing what China has been doing for centuries, trying to impose its will on neighbors or anyone venturing into what China considers areas under its “traditional” control.
For the last two centuries China has been prevented from exercising its "traditional rights" in nearby waters because of the superior power of foreign navies (first the cannon armed European sailing ships, then, in the 19th century, newly built steel warships from Japan and the West). However, since the communists took over China 60 years ago, there have been increasingly violent attempts to reassert Chinese control over areas that have long (for centuries) been considered part of the "Middle Kingdom" (or China, as in the "center of the world").
China prefers to use non-military or paramilitary ships (like those of its coast guard) to harass foreign ships it wants out of the EEZ or disputed warfare. This approach is less likely to spark an armed conflict and makes it easier for the Chinese to claim they were the victims. China cannot afford a war. Currently China and its allies (North Korea and Russia) are at a disadvantage at sea, because all the other neighbors oppose Chinese claims and are allied with the United States and Australia. China trades with all these nations, especially the United States and faces economic and political catastrophe if it lets this shoving match escalate to a shooting war. But a war of intimidation and bluff is considered winnable, especially once Chinese naval forces grow larger, which they are on track to do in the next decade. China is opposed to the GMP because it already has to deal with one in its own neighborhood.