Managing Maritime Disputes and Tensions in Indo-Pacific Asia
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Managing Maritime Disputes and Tensions in Indo-Pacific Asia

Managing Maritime Disputes and Tensions in Indo-Pacific Asia

Rory Medcalf

Remarks at the Fifth Xiangshan Forum

Beijing, 21 November, 2014

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Executive Summary

I commend the organisers of this conference for recognising the need to focus on this particular problem, which they have identified as that of managing maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific.

I am going to interpret this session a little differently. In the next few minutes, I will offer some thoughts on key principles for managing not only maritime disputes but also tensions in our shared region, which I would describe as Indo-Pacific Asia. What happens in these waters matters to all nations in the region and in the world with an interest in maritime commerce and in peace.

As I see it the challenge ahead is in two parts. To preserve peace, stability and the conditions for prosperity, I think our countries face two big tasks together.

The first challenge is to manage maritime disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, so that they do not lead to conflict. The main problem here is about risk: in my view, we need to ensure that no country uses risk – or uses other countries’ fears about risk - as a method to advance its claims and interests.

And the second challenge is to develop cooperative approaches to the changing balance and the changing presence of maritime forces across the wider region so that this does not lead to worsening strategic competition and mistrust. For example, as China substantially modernises its navy, as China’s navy becomes more active in the Indian Ocean, as India becomes more active in the Western Pacific, and as the United States and its allies change the distribution of their forces in the region. How can these changes be managed so as to enhance stability?

So, we have two big challenges, but I think there are some common principles in addressing both challenges. I would suggest at least four such principles.

First, and above all, we need to minimise risk. What I mean is we need to minimise the risk of incidents at sea or in the air; incidents that could lead to miscalculation or escalation. That means avoiding the deliberate creation of incidents. It also means clear rules of behaviour, clearly understood by all sides, and effective, operational channels of communication, in real time. There is some good news on this front. In this regard, I welcome two recent positive steps: the reopening of dialogue between China and Japan on maritime confidence-building measures; and of course the MOU agreed by President Xi and President Obama.

These are small but important beginnings, and the whole region and the whole world will be watching to see them implemented in good faith. I am confident that, if it wants to, China can achieve effective CBMs at sea with the US, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and others, as well as on land (as it has with Russia and India). CBMs are not a precursor to trust, they are a building block to trust – we need them precisely when complete trust is absent.

Second, related to the first point, it is in the interests of all nations to adhere to the principle of the non-use of coercion, intimidation, the threat of forces or the use of force.

Third, there is a need for mutual respect for the dignity and perceptions of other nations. This means a few things. It includes acknowledgement of the fact that different parties may hold genuinely different views about territorial claims. It includes developing a sense of diplomatic empathy – respect for the different historical experiences of other powers: eg. Chinese present-day sense of rising above past humiliation; Japan’s present-day sense of anxiety; Vietnamese or Philippines present-day sense of relative weakness.

And fourth, pursuing a cooperative and transparent approach to the modernisation and the projection of maritime force. For instance, as Chinese naval forces become a more familiar sight in the Indian Ocean, other powers would welcome more engagement and cooperation along the lines of the successful counter-piracy work our countries have done together, with China, or Australia’s cooperation this year with China, Japan, South Korea and others in the search for the missing airliner MH370. Architecture like the East Asia Summit and the ADMM+ could provide a mantle, not only for dialogue and exercises, but in time for cooperative military activities too, such as disaster relief operations. On the other hand unilateral activities – or activities conducted without notification or that remain secret until detected – are not helpful for building long-term cooperation and trust. Again, the recent US-China MOU on notification of military exercises is a step in the right direction.

I hope these four points help shape a constructive discussion today.

Areas of expertise: Indo-Pacific strategy; Australian security and foreign policy; Australia’s key security relationships including the Quad; strategic impacts of the rise of China and India; maritime security; nuclear issues