Is military diplomacy a contradiction in terms? Not according to two prominent Australians, who have recently been talking up the prospects for bilateral and multilateral military exercises as a way of managing security tensions in Asia.
Recently former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd outlined a roadmap for security cooperation in Asia, especially between China and the United States. This was one of his most clear and thoughtful speeches – a pity he had not given it while in power – and emphasized the need for practical confidence-building measures and cooperation between the U.S. and Chinese militaries.
Then at the end of December, Australia’s serving defense force chief, General David Hurley, gave an interview in which he discussed the possibility that Australia would host joint exercises with Chinese forces, and possibly also trilaterally with the Americans, as a way to build habits of communication and predictability. This followed a bilateral exercise off the coast of Sydney with three visiting Chinese ships, building on earlier drills in 2007 and 2010.
The idea that constructive interactions like this can build trust and reduce risks of conflict is a fine one. Australia has long been active in using its defense force, especially its navy, as a diplomatic influence multiplier, and is unusually well-suited to act as a convener and location for such activities. This need not only be with its American ally and the Chinese but also with other Asian maritime players with which Canberra has good or improving defense ties, notably Indonesia, Japan and India.
Yet it is important for policymakers and observers to be realistic about the limits of such indirect confidence-building measures – indirect because they typically take place away from zones of confrontation and tend to concentrate on uncontroversial issues like disaster relief rather than the use of force.
There’s little doubt that seasoned military officers harbor no illusions when they take part in exercises with foreign counterparts. For them this is as much about showing competence or gathering intelligence as it is about sharing skills or building patterns of operational predictability and communication, though these are genuine objectives too.
Certainly in the past decade China has greatly stepped up the tempo and depth of its indirect defense diplomacy – ship visits and low-intensity exercises – with other nations in the Indo-Pacific Asian region. But this does not seem to have translated into heightened trust or operational communication in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
As naval expert Geoffrey Till argues in a comprehensive new book on Asia’s naval expansion, it is debatable whether positive rhetoric and cooperation in, for instance, counter-piracy can provide ‘sufficient defense against naval modernization turning into destabilizing competition.”
A more important test of strategic goodwill and an international diplomatic priority for 2013 should be to encourage China’s navy and other maritime forces to engage constructively with their counterparts in a much more direct form of confidence-building. That is, establishing protocols and communication links for preventing or managing incidents in contested waters. This happens to be another part of the regional security formula proposed in Kevin Rudd’s recent speech, and I have argued for some time that it is essential to limiting the risks of war in maritime Asia.
Here the onus is on frontline players – China, Japan, the United States, Vietnam, the Philippines – rather than well-meaning middle powers such as Australia.
But progress on this front will first require a basic political decision by China – and other claimants, notably Vietnam – to eschew the use of risky seamanship and provocative maritime maneuvers as policy tools in advancing maritime claims. As things stand, it is likely to be another uncomfortable year in the waters along China's perilous edge.