How to Avoid Crisis and Find Trust in the South China Sea | CHINA US Focus

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How to Avoid Crisis and Find Trust in the South China Sea

Rory Medcalf, Director, Lowy Institute, Sydney
July 18, 2011
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Is it possible to stabilize security tensions between the United States and China without a breakthrough in political trust? And what can Washington do to convince Beijing of its goodwill on this front, without jeopardizing America’s strategic credibility and reliability as an ally in East Asia?

The visit to China by the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has not produced satisfactory answers to either of these core questions about Asia’s strategic future. Of course it is good to see US-China military dialogue occurring once more, after Beijing’s suspended it for most of 2011 to register disapproval of US arms sales to Taiwan. But the public messages from Admiral Mullen and his Chinese counterpart, General Chen Bingde, PLA Chief of the General Staff, suggest there has been little meeting of minds or worldviews.

For years, America has used such dialogues to urge China to increase the transparency of its military capabilities and intentions. Now the tables are somewhat turned. China has used the visit to chide the United Sates publicly over the size of its military budget, its surveillance operations close to the Chinese coast and its combined exercises with allies in the South China Sea -- where China has recently held its own maneuvers.
 
To be sure, some good has come of the visit. The announcement of three new bilateral confidence-building measures (CBMs) is welcome.  But two of these -- anti-piracy and humanitarian exercises – are what might be termed ‘indirect’ CBMs. They have essentially no immediate impact on areas of friction and risk in maritime interaction: the tensions in the South and East China seas.
 
The third is a more direct measure: a one-off dialogue on operational safety. This could have some effect in reducing risks from incidents at sea associated with China’s increasingly assertive maritime behavior in recent years. Such episodes are increasing in frequency and intensity, from the 2009 tangle between Chinese auxiliary vessels and the US surveillance ship the USNS Impeccable to the repeated ‘buzzing’ of Japanese destroyers by Chinese helicopters and the recent confrontations involving Chinese, Vietnamese and Philippines ships in the contested South China Sea.
 
In a context of heightened strategic competition, national pride and resource-security needs, these events are far from trivial. They carry with them the real possibility of escalation to diplomatic crisis, exchanges of fire or even wider conflict.
 
As my co-authors and I argued in a recent major report published by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, much more substantial CBMs than one-off US-China meetings or exercises will be necessary in order to minimize the possibilities of major-power conflict at sea in the years ahead.  For instance, a continuous operational dialogue between US and Chinese forces is essential.  And the idea of a formal “Incidents at Sea Agreement” – setting maritime rules of the road to prevent accidents or provocations getting out of hand – should be kept alive, even though presently neither Beijing nor Washington seems ready to enter negotiations.
 
But there is no sign from the Mullen visit that China is prepared to suspend its demand that some kind of overarching political trust precede such vital, practical steps.  Rather, last week’s events would seem to bear out the assessment that China and the United States are divided by a profound difference of perception about the nature and purpose of military CBMs.
 
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.
 
What remains unclear is what Beijing realistically means by political trust, or how we might know when that state has been attained. The implication seems to be that the United States needs to pay much greater respect to Chinese concerns on so-called core interests: Taiwan, Tibet, and China’s claim to the South China Sea. Key questions relate to whether Washington can go much serious distance down these paths without compromising the interests of its Asian allies and partners, its own interests in Asian stability and a rules-based international order, or indeed its values.
 
Conversely, it is difficult to see how the prevailing views in Beijing will change without, for instance, a maritime incident exploding into a wider crisis that is neither under China’s control nor in its interests. If Beijing really is waiting for ‘trust’ defined as US accommodation of China’s self-styled core interests, it could find itself waiting forever – while the perils of conflict continue to mount.
 
A glimmer of hope stems from the fact that there is a submerged and continuing policy debate within China about the value of enhanced military diplomacy with the United States. My research consultations suggest that some Chinese analysts are quietly concerned about the same risks that trouble other regional maritime nations. This suggests that it is worth persisting with the kind of messages about practical confidence-building that Admiral Mullen presented in Beijing last week.
 
But until Beijing can get beyond the paradoxical argument that it will allow substantial military CBMs with the United States only when they are no longer needed, we will see tensions continue to accumulate in the waters of East Asia.

Rory Medcalf is Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute. A former Australian diplomat and intelligence analyst, he is principal author of Crisis and Confidence, a recent major report on maritime confidence-building measures in Asia.

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