Tuesday 21 Aug 2018 | 08:10 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 21 Aug 2018 | 08:10 | SYDNEY

No cure for incidents and accidents at sea

22 September 2010 15:52

Justin Jones is Navy Fellow at the Lowy Institute and is the maritime adviser to the MacArthur Foundation Lowy Institute Asia Security Project.

In The Australian on Monday, Professor Harry Gelber addressed the recent flurry of debate regarding China's rise and Chinese naval activities in particular ('West all at sea over Chinese Navy'). He wrote:

In a Pacific that has for decades seen multiple forms of US space-based, aerial, surface and sub-surface surveillance, it is beyond belief that the Chinese and Americans could not avoid "close approaches" if they wanted to.

Quite the contrary. The capabilities that Professor Gelber refers to are subject to, inter alia, the vagaries of atmospherics, meteorology, oceanography, hydrography, radar theory, sonar theory, and the laws of physics. Ships across the globe, sporting multiple radars and automatic identification systems, continue to collide in the middle of huge expanses of water for seemingly inexplicable reasons.

Similarly, it is not unusual to happen across a foreign warship without knowing of its presence (in the undersea environment, the problem is even more acute). Such an occurrence may not necessarily represent a failure of intelligence or surveillance. Put simply, it is a vast ocean out there.

An Incidents at Sea agreement (INCSEA) between the US and China, or indeed all regional navies, similar to the one struck between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War, will not prevent encounters between warships. However, it may ameliorate the potential for miscalculation between warships during these encounters.

Professor Gelber also writes:

One suggestion has been that military hotlines be set up to cope with tensions between the capitals involved. But is that necessary or useful' The original Soviet-US hotline was set up in the 1960s as a fax machine to avoid misunderstandings by voice. But now the internet offers multiple methods of instant communication. What would a fax add that cannot be done already'

I suspect that great power hotlines have moved on from faxes. Although, the issue of expression during instant chat remains a problem that I doubt even the use of emoticons could solve. Video teleconferencing, perhaps'

Whatever form it takes, the hotline between China and the US and the one between China and Japan (they do exist) are not designed necessarily to provide warning of military activities. Rather, they are designed as avenues for de-escalation between governments, should incidents occur. This strikes me as a useful diplomatic tool.

Photo by Flickr user toastforbrekkie, used under a Creative Commons license.