VietNamNet Bridge - Incidents and confrontations at sea pose a major challenge to peace and security in Indo-Pacific Asia.
This chapter considers the responses available - in theory - to military professionals and policymakers in reducing the likelihood of and dangers from such encounters. These include engagement, dialogue, combined exercises, operational cooperation, formal agreements on maritime 'rules of the road', and arrangements for communication and crisis management. For the sake of simplicity, we term these collectively as confidence-building measures (CBMs).
CBMs can take a wide range of direct or indirect approaches to the problem of incidents at seas. Some - for instance, 'hotline' communications channels or formal 'Incidents at Sea' (INCSEA) agreements - may be directly related to disputed zones, potentially threatening actions or offensive capabilities.
Other approaches which we term 'indirect CBMs' may have a less tangible or immediate relationship with the incidents-at-sea problem, although they might still exert a positive inﬂuence in the long run. These include broad military to military dialogue, educational exchanges, combined exercises between the forces of potentially unfriendly nations, or even their operational cooperation in facing common challenges. And, in principle, CBMs may be bilateral or multilateral.
To introduce a necessary tautology, the purpose of CBMs is to build confidence between countries about each other's military activities and intentions. But confidence can have multiple meanings. Some definitions of CBMs focus on confidence as essentially the strengthening of trust.
As will be explored in the next chapter, even the meaning of 'trust' in the context can be contentious. If trust is taken to mean the full harmonisation of strategic goals and interests, it would be extraordinary to imagine it could be achieved through military arrangements and understandings alone. Other definitions of CBMs are mercifully less ambitious, focusing on confidence as relating to transparency, communication, predictability, reassurance or, at a minimum, a common understanding of how to interpret each other's military activities - thus reducing the risks of miscalculation caused by the combination of mistrust and misinformation.
Clearly, CBMs must be tailored to the circumstances of a particular security problem and the interests of the key players. No one size fits all. Maritime security concerns in Indo-Pacific Asia vary across sub-regions. For instance, measures that may suit the maritime sovereignty disputes of East Asia will not necessarily fit the emerging great-power dynamic in the Indian Ocean. Nonetheless, there are some common interests that might be leveraged in managing or reducing tensions at sea across the wider region: most fundamentally, the shared interests of all trading and coastal states in the safety and security of shipping on the global commons.
Below we set out the menu of CBMs that have been envisaged or implemented to deal with maritime security differences. Subsequent chapters will explore their applicability to the China-centric problem of incidents at sea in Indo-Pacific Asia.
Many activities often termed CBMs are in fact forms of engagement and cooperation that are geographically remote from or in other ways only indirectly related to the main issues, zones or capabilities of contention and concern. These
• 'Goodwill' ship visits: these might involve diplomatic receptions, commemorative events, combined exercises with the host nation, and refuelling and replenishment.
• Periodic bilateral dialogues, typically covering a wide range of issues. These could range from leaders-level conversations to meetings of ministers, senior officials, senior military officers or working groups.
• Combined exercises involving the forces of different nations. These are typically focused on so-called 'non-traditional' transnational security issues, such as disaster relief or counter-terrorism. Bilateral and multilateral exercises vary considerably in scale and complexity, depending on the nations involved and their level of commitment. The reassurance they can offer about the other side's capabilities and intent is limited. Rather, their main benefit is generating some predictability in understanding how and why the other side operates and reacts. These activities can also develop procedures for interoperability, particularly communications capabilities.
• Operational cooperation, again typically on transnational issues like piracy or disaster relief. This can range from loose coordination of parallel missions to conceivably more ambitious forms of combined activity involving unified command structures. Such operational experience can consolidate the gains made through exercises. On this front, much positive comment has been made about the experience of other navies working loosely with the Chinese in anti-piracy missions in and near the Gulf of Aden since early 2009.
• Agreements, exercises or other collaboration focused on maritime safety issues quite separate to the risks from confrontational incidents at sea. These could include traditional search-and-rescue activities or more specialised efforts, for instance related to submarine resuce.
• Educational exchanges: for instance, at staff colleges.
• One-off meetings, visits or conferences.
• Any activities undertaken by the 'second track' of scholars and retired military personnel and officials.
Indirect CBMs can also have a multilateral character. The wide-ranging - if often superficial - security discussions of multilateral bodies are intended in part to serve an indirect confidence-building purpose. Indeed, the whole concept of CBMs gained traction during the process of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in the 1970s and 1980s. At first glance, it would seem that the Indo-Pacific has some potential in this regard. After all, in the past few decades a cluttered regional diplomatic architecture has been created.
Yet this crowd of institutions is ill-equipped to handle regional security problems. All states across the region have obvious common interests in the security of commercial maritime traffic and the prevention of major-power war. But this alone is hardly enough to persuade powerful states to invest inclusive regional institutions with direct management of their maritime security disputes. Moreover, the unwieldy and overlapping memberships of most multilateral forums in Asia make it difficult to see how they could manage bilateral differences between their strongest members.
Slight and gradual progress has been made in the region's most inclusive forum devoted specifically to security issues: the ARF. Its 27 participants include the 10 ASEAN states plus Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, the United States, Papua New Guinea, North Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan, East Timor, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Its mandate is to provide a setting in which members can discuss security issues and develop cooperative measures to enhance peace and security. The activities typically labelled as CBMs under ARF auspices fit our category of indirect CBMs, although they are often merely conferences of experts or rudimentary exchanges of perspectives rather than any kind of coordinated practical undertaking.
Indeed, the ARF did not hold its first practical CBM - a modest disaster-relief exercise - until 2009, 15 years after the organisation was created.77 This hints at the difficulties in convening inclusive multilateral security exercises - let alone operations - as a way of building trust and predictability between powerful states with competing strategic interests.
Rory Medcalf, Raoul Heinrichs, Justin Jones