Tuesday 12 Oct 2021 | 02:09 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 12 Oct 2021 | 02:09 | SYDNEY

Crisis and Confidence, one year on


Rory Medcalf


13 July 2012 09:26

Whatever sweet nothings cloy the public communiqués at the end of this week's ASEAN security meetings in Phnom Penh, the real diplomatic records will devote plenty of space to intrigue and tension over the South China Sea.

The ten ASEAN states have failed to agree on the contents of a maritime code of conduct, and the hard part – negotiating with China – has not even begun. More fundamentally, no resolution is in sight to the heart of the problem, involving territory, resources and nationalism. This message was clear during a conference I spoke at recently in Washington. Between the Chinese participants on one hand and those from Vietnam and the Philippines on the other, there was little hint of compromise.

So the immediate challenge continues to be how to minimise the chances that an incident at sea will escalate into wider confrontation, or something worse.

In June 2011, the Lowy Institute produced a major report, Crisis and Confidence, which looked broadly at maritime tensions across the Indo-Pacific, especially those involving China. With co-authors Raoul Heinrichs and Justin Jones, I used this MacArthur Foundation-funded project to focus on the need for risk-reduction measures at sea, based on the assumption that conditions of geopolitical mistrust would endure.

Now is a good time to take stock of what that report anticipated correctly, what it overlooked, and what an evolving research agenda in this field might look like. Here are a few initial thoughts.

No sea is an island

Crisis and Confidence did not look at the South China Sea in isolation but rather as part of a wider Indo-Pacific commons in which all maritime trading nations have a stake. This judgment remains right both as analysis and a point of departure for policy. As well as China, the US and the ASEAN claimants, it is striking that Japan, India and other nations continue to take a close interest in the fate of the South China Sea, not least because they see it as a test case for how a powerful China might manage disputes and challenges to its self-image and interests. 

Further to Michael Wesley's argument, the South China Sea does indeed matter, including as an economic artery and a geostrategic laboratory. Some of the troubling tactics witnessed there (eg. provocative patrolling by civilian agencies) are being replicated in the wider region, for instance this week in the East China Sea dispute between China and Japan.

China's position is not set in stone

Our report recognised that it is inaccurate to say that China is being relentlessly assertive at sea. There is a continuing internal debate in China on these issues. But our report underestimated the role of multiple bureaucratic actors and interest groups in this debate, including civilian maritime agencies which might in fact become more adventurous than the PLA Navy in asserting their version of China's interests. Some useful distillation of ideas in this space has begun, but there is plenty more scope for original research that would be of real policy value.

The US and its allies and partners need to get their own houses in order

It is not good enough simply to berate China for its 'assertiveness' or to demand that Beijing hold all its agencies accountable for their actions (though this is a reasonable expectation). Crisis and Confidence emphasised the need to improve coordination and communication within and between the US and allied and partner nations, to ensure that faults in their own crisis-response mechanisms should not be part of the problem. Events since 2011 have borne this out: in particular, the US cannot afford to be seen to giving diplomatic cover to risk-taking by the Philippines or Vietnam.

As for enhancing its own moral stature on these issues, the US needs Congress to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a point noted in our report and the subject of a renewed political push in Washington.

It is in China's interests to build and sustain operational dialogue with all its potential maritime security competitors

The quality and coverage of confidence-building maritime security dialogue in Asia continues to be poor. It is still not an accepted foundation of policy in China that confidence-building measures are needed most precisely when strategic trust is absent.

Still, the news has not all been bad. One recommendation of our 2011 report was that China and India set up their own regular maritime talks, to build understandings before their expanding interests brought their navies into regular close contact. As it happens, preparations for the first China-India maritime dialogue are now underway.

Regional diplomacy has a role

Nobody is pretending that the ASEAN Regional Forum or its ilk can save the day in the absence of political compromise by key players. But a regional security institution that censors itself from discussing a critical regional security concern would be erasing its own credibility. Airing concerns about maritime security differences needs to be part of the normal discourse at these meetings, a point on which US President Obama set a valuable precedent in his intervention at the November 2011 East Asia Summit in Bali.

And, despite their reputation for caution and consensus, regional bodies may be able to contribute more than talk. As I argue in a recent opinion piece, a body like the ASEAN Regional Forum could sponsor an international information centre, a clearinghouse for reports and data on incidents in the South China Sea. This builds on just one of many good ideas proposed by Bonnie Glaser in a recent report which any sensible activist-minded government should recognise as a rich seam of possible initiatives.

But, like Crisis and Confidence, it is far from the last word. Sad to say, producing research and policy ideas on managing Asia's maritime troubles is set to be a growth industry for a long time yet.