Tensions in Asia are rising over unresolved territorial disputes and sovereignty issues. In contrast to the immediate post-Cold War period, recent tensions are characterized by the evident proclivity of some, if not all, parties towards the threat or use of limited force. As a much preferred tool of statecraft, maritime platforms tend to be the archetypical instrument for this sort of diplomacy.
The spike in maritime encounters in recent years have largely involved coastguard-type forces in disputed waters of the East and South China Seas. More recently, though, regular naval ships have begun to appear on the scene. Not only do heavily armed warships cast an ominous shadow over the coastguard vessels operating on the frontlines, at times they become involved, for instance by directing fire control radar at opposing military assets in the vicinity. Moreover, these numerous encounters between rival maritime patrols in the regional flashpoints are now being augmented by aerial encounters involving highly capable fighter jets and sophisticated surveillance assets.
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The risk of collision, especially in the constrained littorals that characterize the region, has risen as a result of these encounters. The risk is arguably higher in the air – one need only recall what happened to the Chinese J-8 interceptor that crashed after colliding with a U.S. Navy EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft off Hainan Island in April 2001. Dangerous close-proximity aerial and surface maneuvers aside, operational miscalculations prompted by misperceptions of the other party’s intent, fed by endogenous factors such as psychological stress at moments of high tension, may result in an inadvertent resort to force.
The risk rises further still if modern combat systems, characterized by long-range, short response time, high precision, and heavier destructive power are involved. As the stakes in a potential confrontation can be extremely high (involving, for instance, the loss of an entire platform and many of its crew) local commanders may feel compelled to escalate. And should over-zealous local commanders decide to take matters into their own hands, the outcome could be devastating.
Perhaps it is with such dire scenarios in mind that – notwithstanding the public hardline stances adopted by the countries to those disputes – efforts are afoot to develop mechanisms that can help manage potential crises stemming from inadvertent aerial and maritime standoffs. China and Japan, for instance, recently began informal talks on establishing one such mechanism. Even more notably, during the last Western Pacific Naval Symposium in April 2014 naval leaders agreed to adopt a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a non-binding standardized protocol of safety procedures for naval and aerial forces.
These ideas are hardly new. They originated from the Cold War when close-proximity aerial and maritime encounters pushed rivals to favor operational naval arms control mechanisms that comprise transparency, communications and constraint measures. The Soviet-U.S. Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) agreement inked in 1972 was the premier example of that era.
The recent spate of close-proximity aerial and maritime encounters in the Asian flashpoints bring to mind the Cold War. The geopolitical context today is of course very different, and it would be imprudent to overhype present developments. Yet the operational risks involved are similar. Mechanisms conceived during the Cold War, such as the INCSEA agreement, remain relevant in Asia. In fact, they are arguably more relevant than ever given the multiplicity of actors involved in this era of interconnectedness and interdependence amongst nation-states. We are no longer just referring to actors in the Western Pacific.
India, for one, has become increasingly active in projecting its naval presence into the Western Pacific. And it is not impervious to potential encounters. Back in July 2011, the Indian warship INS Airavat was reportedly harassed by the “Chinese Navy” when it was sailing northward from the Vietnamese port of Nha Trang to Haiphong. Both Beijing and New Delhi sought to downplay or even deny this incident. Even if this was an isolated case, it demonstrates that maritime and aerial encounters may no longer involve only resident actors in specific regions. Extra-regional actors may potentially be involved.
An Indo-Pacific Air-Maritime Crisis Management Framework?
So perhaps it is prudent to examine the plausibility of an Indo-Pacific framework for crisis management at sea and in the air. This would take into account the interconnectedness and increasing strategic and economic importance of both the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean seen in the context of the shift of the world’s economic and military balance towards Asia.
In addition, it takes into account Asia’s two rising powers – China and India – and their strategic forays, including the projection of military power into the two oceans. The reported visits by Chinese submarines to Sri Lanka signify Beijing’s firm resolve to not just maintain but elevate its military profile in the Indian Ocean. This is mirrored by India’s increasing naval presence in the Western Pacific, particularly in Southeast Asia.
While it may be presumptuous to assume that Sino-Indian aerial and maritime encounters will necessarily ensue simply because they have increasingly projected military power into the two oceans, it pays to be prepared. Misunderstandings and escalations of tensions stemming from close-proximity encounters might result in the absence of an existing mechanism. If Chinese and Indian ground forces can be involved in close-proximity incidents along the Line of Actual Control, is it not possible to envision similar encounters in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea?
Of course, there have been bilateral initiatives in this area in Southeast and Northeast Asian regions. But if an Indo-Pacific crisis management mechanism or framework is to be considered, it would be multilateral in nature.
One issue in multilateral operational arms control mechanisms is the sheer complexity imposed by multiple actors with diverse national interests, and the resultant potential for negotiations to be drawn out and vulnerable to stumbling over unreconciled differences. Still, a multilateral mechanism is possible judging by a recent initiative of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
ASEAN’s Direct Communications Link
Following a call made by Brunei during the 7th ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting in May 2013, the sultanate hosted the first workshop on establishing an ASEAN-wide Direct Communications Link (DCL) in February 2014. This was shortly followed by the adoption of the Concept Paper on Establishing a Direct Communications Link in the ADMM Process at the 8th ADMM in Naypyidaw Taw on May 20 this year. The DCL, essentially a hotline, aims to be a permanent, rapid, reliable and confidential mechanism available to ASEAN defence ministers. According to the Concept Paper, though, it can also be used to coordinate regional responses to emergencies and crises.
The plan is to implement the DCL in 2015 and progress towards this goal has been steady. ASEAN held a technical workshop on the DCL in Brunei on August 26-28, which discussed its operational concept as well as the technical parameters of the communication systems. If progress can be sustained, the DCL could be in place by the target date, which would coincide with ASEAN’s vision of creating a political-security community by 2015.
This DCL mechanism is a model worth looking at if an Indo-Pacific wide framework is to be considered in the future. However, this multilateral mechanism must first demonstrate its workability; only then will it be possible to consider expanding it into a wider arrangement. The ideal platform in this regard is the ADMM-Plus which was established in 2010, four years after ADMM, to include the eight extra-regional powers: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Russian Federation, South Korea and the U.S. The ASEAN Maritime Forum was also subsequently enlarged to become the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum, which includes the Plus-Eight partners. This “building block” approach is thus not unusual.
This wider arrangement couched within the Indo-Pacific geostrategic construct fits nicely within ASEAN’s objective of sustaining its centrality in an inclusive regional architecture. ASEAN can serve as an honest broker in an Indo-Pacific crisis management framework, encouraging mutual understanding amongst regional militaries and coastguards via a common regional platform. An Indo-Pacific air-maritime crisis management framework could naturally stem from this ASEAN DCL initiative, using ADMM-Plus as the avenue.
Koh Swee Lean Collin is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Darshana M. Baruah is a junior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation based in New Delhi, India.