Australians may be preoccupied with election politics, but the big strategic problems of their Indo-Pacific Asian region have hardly gone away. It was therefore refreshing to see Foreign Minister Bob Carr this week speaking at a conference on the security challenges in the South China Sea, with nary a journalist in sight.
Credit must go to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute for convening this event, and for involving a range of scholars and security practitioners from China and Southeast Asia in difficult but necessary conversations about how to reduce the risk of conflict in the contested waters at the centre of Indo-Pacifc Asia.
In his speech, Senator Carr pointed to a Lowy Institute report, Crisis and Confidence, as getting to the heart of the matter and providing one of the foundational questions for the conference: how to get beyond the current impasse where some countries, notably China, won't institute basic risk-reduction or 'confidence-building' measures (CBMs) aimed at preventing crises until they have achieved a level of political and strategic 'trust' that would make CBMs redundant.
The worrying thing is that, several years since Asia's maritime tensions began to flare, the region seems to have moved no closer to resolving this supposed chicken-and-egg problem. I say 'supposed' because there's no doubt in my mind that the whole point of CBMs is to reduce risk of war when trust is absent.
It seems there's no doubt in some other minds either. A senior Chinese participant at the conference confirmed to me that China continues to see trust as the essential precursor to operational CBMs. I look forward to doing more research in this area, but I fear it will still take more than any number of conferences and reports, and probably nothing short of a crisis, to change the minds that matter in Beijing.