The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One has triggered much drawing of parallels between the situation in 1914 Europe and 2014 Asia – states interconnected by trade yet prone to nationalism, and with rising wealth translating into growing military capabilities. Yet contemporary Europe’s links with Asia are about much more than debatable history lessons. Stability, prosperity and open maritime routes across Indo-Pacific Asia are essential for the world’s biggest trading economy, the European Union (EU).
In turn, the EU can offer Asia’s security something more than history. It has multilateral legitimacy and neutrality – with neither territorial interests nor bilateral alliances in the region – and has already worked with Asian partners in security areas ranging from disaster relief to peace processes and capacity-building to counter-piracy. Building on this, the EU, Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other stakeholders could now help ease regional tensions by boosting transparency: setting up an information sharing centre on the South China Sea.
The situation in the South China Sea has characteristics of a looming security crisis, complete with unpredictability, the interests of major powers, territorial differences, nationalism and competing propaganda narratives that cloud rational decision-making. We are not suggesting a third world war could begin over uninhabited rocks. But it is probable that disputes will worsen, leading to coercion and perhaps a limited clash. Even a skirmish would do lasting geopolitical damage, deepening mistrust and making resolution harder.
In recent months, the tempo of incidents has increased, with China’s deployment of an oil rig to waters contested with Vietnam, and confrontations between paramilitary vessels on both sides. Collisions and injuries have occurred, with accusations and counter-accusations flying thick and fast. Sooner or later an incident is likely to turn lethal.
Nor has the temperature gone down in waters claimed by China and the Philippines, where Chinese forces are alleged to have blockaded the re-supply of a tiny Philippines troop detachment based in the hulk of a ship deliberately grounded on a disputed reef. The Philippines is now putting its hopes on a legal challenge to China’s territorial claim, through a case before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, in The Hague, but so far China has refused to acknowledge or respond to this appeal to the rules.
One step towards a de-escalation of tensions may involve cutting through the fog of the information battle being waged on all sides. All stakeholders in the security of the South China Sea, including the EU, have an interest in contributing to a clear, objective information picture of what is actually going on. And this is exactly the area where the EU and ASEAN can build on the promising start they have made in building up crisis management capabilities.
Part of the problem in the South China Sea is misinformation and unverified accusations of mutual blame, in which media and social media have become tools for competing narratives. For instance, China and Vietnam now regularly release footage of those boat collisions they think can be blamed on the other side. Thus part of the solution would be for those affected by instabilities in the region – and that includes the EU – to develop a clearer sense of what is going on, 24/7.
One non-provocative, non-forceful and reasonable step for stakeholders like the EU would be to work with Asian countries to improve the information and operating picture in these vital sea lanes.
The nations of Asia have cooperated well in the past to manage shared maritime security problems like piracy and maritime crime; for instance setting up effective piracy information sharing centres such as The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) and the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). At the same time, the region has existing security forums mandated to discuss and address regional security challenges – the most prominent one in recent time being the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM+) including ASEAN+6, Russia and the United States. Yet, only the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) established in the early 1990s, includes almost all significant Indo-Pacific maritime states as members, as well as the EU in recognition of Europe’s legitimate stake in Asian security.
Outlined in the EU-ASEAN Bandar Seri Begawan Plan of Action for 2013 to 2017, the EU and ASEAN have made an encouraging start in working together on capacity-building and information management in responding to crisis situation. The European External Action Service (EEAS), the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Humanitarian Affairs (ECHO), the ASEAN Secretariat and the Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) could effectively draw on their successful first steps in cooperation – the ARF Disaster Relief Exercise (DiREx) 2013 as a prime example – and the EU’s recent lessons learned in crisis management and the centrality of information management – culminating in the EEAS Crisis Response System. The EU’s own fresh experience in developing a comprehensive approach to security will assist ASEAN to deliver on the increasing demand for crisis management in its region.
Building on the legitimacy of all stakeholders being involved, the ARF would therefore be a logical body to establish an information-sharing process or centre on the region’s maritime security challenges, including incidents at sea related to territorial differences.
This could be set up in a neutral venue, such as Singapore, with staffing and funding from any combination of ARF members willing to contribute. Countries would be encouraged to report maritime incidents to the centre, with its multinational staff then tasked with collating and publishing these reports. Staffing the centre with diplomatic, naval and other maritime security professionals from a range of countries would put some pressure on complainant states to consider the credibility of the information they might submit. In theory, the centre might also be mandated to investigate particularly dangerous incidents, and identify measures and procedures to reduce risk at sea.
Of course, such a relatively ambitious confidence-building step by the ARF could be subject to veto by one or more of its member states, given that the ARF makes decisions by consensus. But even the process of the ARF’s full membership having openly to consider a proposal for a maritime security information centre would serve the worthwhile purpose of raising awareness of the strategic risks in the South China Sea.
And the EU could thus contribute in deed as well as declaration to the stability of a region so essential for European trade, prosperity and security.
Rory Medcalf is Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute and a Nonresident Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. Dr. May-Britt Stumbaum is an Associate Editor of European Geostrategy. As an expert on European and American security relations with the Asia-Pacific region, she heads the ‘Asian Perceptions of the European Union’ research group at the Free University of Berlin. They both write here in a personal capacity.