28 October 2011

Crisis and Confidence: Major Powers and Maritime Security in Indo-Pacific Asia

Rory Medcalf and Raoul Heinrichs with Justin Jones, Crisis and Confidence: Major Powers and Maritime Security in Indo-Pacific Asia (Sydney: Lowy Institute for International Policy, June 2011).

The sea lanes of Indo-Pacific Asia are becoming more crowded, contested and vulnerable to armed strife. Naval and air forces are being strengthened amid shifting balances of economic and strategic weight. The changing deterrence and warfighting strategies of China, the United States and Japan involve expanded maritime patrolling and intrusive surveillance, bringing an uncertain mix of stabilising and destabilising effects.

Nationalism and resource needs, meanwhile, are reinforcing the value of territorial claims in the East and South China seas, making maritime sovereignty disputes harder to manage. Chinese forces continue to show troubling signs of assertiveness at sea, though there is debate about the origins or extent of such moves.

All of these factors are making Asia a danger zone for incidents at sea: close-range encounters involving vessels and aircraft from competing powers, typically in sensitive or contested zones.

While the chance that such incidents will lead to major military clashes should not be overstated, the drivers – in particular China’s frictions with the United States, Japan and India – are likely to persist and intensify. As the number and tempo of incidents increases, so does the likelihood that an episode will escalate to armed confrontation, diplomatic crisis or possibly even conflict. An accumulation of incidents could also play into a wider deterioration of security relations among major powers.

This report, part of the Lowy Institute’s MacArthur Foundation Asia Security Project, explores the major-power maritime security dynamics surrounding China’s rise. It focuses on the risks and the management of incidents at sea involving Chinese interactions with the United States, Japan and India. Sino-Southeast Asian and Korean Peninsula maritime tensions are also touched upon, given their potential to draw in major powers. For now, the risk of major-power conflict arising from maritime incidents is centred on China’s frictions with the United States, Japan and other nations in East Asia. But maritime tensions could reach across the wider Indo-Pacific region, as the power and interests of China and India expand.

The region is ill-prepared to cope to with the perils arising from incidents at sea. Asia’s infrastructure of maritime confi dence-building measures (CBMs) – such as military dialogues, real-time communication channels and formalised ‘rules of the road’ – is generally flimsy and little-used.

This report examines the limits of and prospects for confidence-building at sea among major powers in Indo-Pacific Asia. It canvasses the range of CBMs available. ‘Indirect CBMs’ include ship visits, combined exercises, operational cooperation on transnational issues like piracy, and wide-ranging defence exchanges and dialogue. More substantial ‘direct CBMs’ include continuous communication channels and formal Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) agreements.

A major obstacle to progress on effective maritime CBMs is revealed to be the clash of views about the value and purpose of such instruments, particularly between the dominant strains of policy thinking in Beijing on one side and the United States, its allies and partners on the other. These differences in turn relate to clashes of interests, notably over military strategies and sovereignty – hence for instance China’s confrontational opposition to US surveillance in its Exclusive Economic Zone. The prevailing view in Beijing is that strategic ‘trust’ should precede major advances in maritime military diplomacy. In Washington and elsewhere, the standard view is that CBMs are needed precisely when trust is absent. Still, there is a continuing policy debate within China, suggesting modest prospects for progress in managing incidents at sea.

The report concludes with some realistic recommendations to reduce risks of crisis and escalation under conditions of continued mistrust. These include:

• renewed efforts to build a confidence-building regime with China in tandem with US strategies to maintain deterrence and reassurance to allies under the new ‘AirSea Battle’ concept

• sustained efforts to shift China’s internal debate in favour of continuous military dialogue with the United States and Japan

• proper implementation of US–China and Japan–China maritime security hotlines to allow real-time responses to incidents

• improved crisis-management and coordination mechanisms within and between US allies and partners, including as an example to China

• new bilateral talks, notably a Sino-Indian maritime security dialogue

• efforts by medium powers, notably Australia, to maintain defence engagement with China even at times of major-power tensions

• serious attention to maritime incidents in multilateral security forums

• keeping open the possibility of future discussion on INCSEA or other risk-reduction agreements between the United States and China. It would be in US interests to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea ahead of any such negotiations. …