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In Bali, ARF must bite as well as bark

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COMMENTS

22 July 2011 08:32

It's rare that an institution with as dull a title or vague a mandate as the Association of South-East Asian Nations Regional Forum makes headline news. But tomorrow's meeting of the ARF in Bali is likely to do just that.

It will be a critical test of Asia's ability to manage maritime security tensions, in the South China Sea and beyond.

A failure by foreign ministers to discuss openly the region's maritime security problems will marginalise the ARF. Silence on these issues would also damage the credibility of other parts of the region's emerging diplomatic architecture, notably the East Asia Summit (EAS), which is due to meet at foreign minister's level in Bali today.

Reducing risks of war at sea in Asia should be squarely on the agenda of these meetings, otherwise they face irrelevance. Activist middle powers like Australia are well-placed to take the diplomatic lead on this front.

A vital challenge now facing Indo-Pacific maritime Asia is the risk of armed conflict arising from 'incidents at sea' – confrontations between forces from China and other nations, notably the US, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. A major Lowy Institute report, Crisis and Confidence, has recently highlighted the increased frequency and intensity of such incidents since 2009.

That report, which is drawing serious attention in international debates on maritime security, distinguished between direct and indirect confidence-building measures (CBMs). The latter are typically far removed from the direct issues of zones of contention, and accordingly have little impact on the risks of conflict. Diplomatic efforts are much better deployed in focusing on the first kind of CBMs, such as hotlines, regular operational dialogues and the formulation of rules of the road for preventing incidents arising or escalating.

In this light, there has been much-exaggerated good news in the announcement this week of progress by China and Southeast Asian countries towards guidelines for a declaration on conduct in the South China Sea. It sounds impressive but it will have almost no impact on the risks of incidents at sea.

Study the language closely: this is, at best, a broad agreement on guidelines for the implementation for a nine-years-stale, non-binding declaration on conduct. The focus is on uncontroversial or so-called 'non-traditional' security issues like environmental protection, marine science and transnational crime. It is not a proper code of conduct on the behaviour of each nation's naval and auxiliary forces – which is part of what is really needed. Such a code is not a policy priority, at least as far as China is concerned.

Thus, in busy, contested and strategically vital waters, there remains no agreement on rules to manage the risk-taking behaviour of opposing forces at sea. There is also a worrying lack of continuous communication channels between the militaries of the countries concerned. And the overlapping territorial claims are not even beginning to be resolved. Twenty-seven foreign ministers, including the US Secretary of State and her Chinese counterpart, are in for a torrid Saturday in Bali.

Photo by Flickr user genericavatar.

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