In tracking Asia’s maritime tensions in 2015, what I will be looking for above all is evidence that China is actually following through on its newfound commitments to risk-reduction and crisis-management.
For much of the time since Chinese maritime assertiveness increased, from 2009 onwards, the guiding attitude seemed to be that Chinese forces were willing to countenance risk as a tactic. In my discussions with Chinese security thinkers, I frequently encountered the view that China was not willing to embrace practical confidence-building measures (CBMs) – like hotlines and an ‘incidents at sea’ agreement – until some kind of strategic trust had been established. In other words, the Chinese view seemed, paradoxically, to be that there was no point pursuing risk-reduction measures until fundamental strategic differences had been resolved – by which time, CBMs would no longer be needed.
It has been mildly heartening in recent months to see some movement in this position. The CBMs agreement between President Xi and President Obama, the decision to move at last towards operationalizing a China-Japan hotline, and the constructive rhetoric at the Xiangshan Forum and President Xi’s recent speech – all of these are signals that the PLA is now ready to talk the talk on maritime crisis-management.
The big question for 2015 is, will they walk the walk? After all, Chinese strategic goals presumably have not changed; it is not at all clear that the behavior of the various Chinese maritime security actors has become more stable or predictable; and the annual Asian summitry season, with its imperative for suspending security tensions in favor of political consensus-building , is now over. The test of China’s goodwill is yet to come.