In November 2014, the United States and China concluded two major confidence-building measures (CBMs), which they announced at a bilateral summit. The CBMs include an agreement that each side will notify the other of major military activities, and a code of conduct for safe maritime and air encounters. Where the code of conduct is concerned, the ship-to-ship component for surface vessels is complete and the two nations have pledged to complete an air-to-air annex by the end of 2015. These agreements have theoretically been in the works since Washington and Beijing established the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) in 1998. The MMCA has born little fruit until now, but if these MOUs and follow-on accords are fully implemented, they could help to reduce the risk of accident between vessels and aircraft and lower the risk of inadvertent escalation between the US and China.

The goal of the agreements are broader than this, however. As with many other military-to-military agreements, The Notification of Major Military Activities Agreement and Rules of Behavior Memorandum of Understanding are based on the premise that if two potential adversaries know more about one another’s military intentions, they are more likely to be able to avoid dangerous and destabilizing misperceptions. The Notification of Major Military Activities Agreement aims to encourage the parties to alert one another about major developments in security policy and strategy, and to allow for reciprocal observation at major military exercises. The Rules of Behavior MOU develops a code of conduct for ship-to-ship encounters at sea. Unlike other confidence-building agreements, however, these new MOUs for U.S.-China confidence-building have two unique features: Under their terms, notification of the other party is voluntary, and; information that parties report to one another is to be kept confidential. Taken together, these two features make it especially difficult for interested observers to know if the agreements are, in fact, being implemented.

Under both the Notification of Major Military Activities and Rules of Behavior MOUs, participation and implementation by the United States and China is voluntary and non-binding. The code of conduct agreement relies heavily on existing multilateral agreements, namely the COLREGs agreement, which is considered binding, and the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea agreement developed by the Western Pacific Naval Symposium. The United States preferred to apply existing international agreements to the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, rather than sign a new, compulsory agreement. More broadly, this may reflect the fact that the U.S.-China military relationship is still embryonic, and the parties may have been wary of the implications of compulsory notification, observation, and rules of behavior. When two parties are attempting to foster cooperation between them, however, one important feature is reciprocity—the exchange of mutually beneficial actions. Even if an agreement is voluntarily, the two sides can still choose to engage in reciprocity, but the nonbinding character of these accords means that reciprocity is not guaranteed and cannot be assumed.

The agreements also state that assessments that the United States and China conduct under the MOUs are to be kept confidential, and neither side is to make disclosures to any third party without written permission from the other. The recent CBM agreements allow the US and China to provide written summaries of their proceedings to third parties and for public release, but the confidentiality provision means that outside observers will not be able to observe the degree to which the MOUs are being implemented. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Defense and PRC’s Ministry of National Defense are the two agencies authorized to implement the memoranda, so it seems that other agencies within each government may not receive detailed assessments of progress unless the other side authorizes interagency information sharing.

Presumably, the U.S. and China opted for voluntary and confidential notification measures because these features made it easier for both sides to reach an agreement on CBMs in the first place. Binding agreements would obviously have been more restrictive, and non-confidential accords would have been inconsistent with the original MMCA and would also have subjected the states’ military activities to greater public scrutiny. Without confidentiality, both sides may have feared that the other would use assessments to score political points on the global stage.

Other agreements with similar aims, however, such as the 1972 US-Soviet Incidents at Sea Agreement, do not contain these provisions, and the voluntary and confidential nature of the U.S.-China MOUs combine with curious effect. Because the MOUs are not compulsory, observers cannot assume that either or both sides are implementing them fully, and because they are confidential, we cannot expect to receive the evidence that would allow interested observers to know whether its provisions are being followed. For those of us who are eager to track progress on U.S.-China military confidence-building, it would seem that the best available metric is a negative one: We will know that the agreements are not being implemented if one or both governments publicizes the fact that there has been a dangerous encounter between vessels or aircraft. A repeat USS Cowpens or P-8 aircraft incident will tell us that these CBMs are not progressing as intended. But if they are serving their purpose in whole or in part, we may expect to hear relatively little of them.

Ultimately, analysts’ and experts’ ability to monitor the MOUs’ implementation is of secondary importance at best: CBMs exist for the purpose of building military relationships, and if these voluntary, confidential CBMs bear fruit, then perhaps they will result in more binding and more public agreements later as the military-to-military relationship deepens.

The United States and China both want to expand the scope of the military notification agreement. The United States has pressed to include missile launches, and some PLA officers have said privately that China wants to be notified of US arms sales to Taiwan. Neither of these proposals has been acceptable to the other side, however. Additionally, the code of conduct agreement is likely to become a template for China and Japan’s East China Sea crisis mechanism, which they aim to implement by mid-2015. Whether and how these unique agreements can be expanded between the U.S. and China, and whether they will serve as a useful templates for other mil-to-mil efforts remains to be seen. Asia security watchers should remember, however, that the best sign these CBMs are working may be if we don’t hear much about them at all.

About Mira Rapp-Hooper

Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper is a senior fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She was previously director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow in the Asia Program at CSIS

About Bonnie Glaser

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy. She is concomitantly a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a senior associate with CSIS Pacific Forum and a consultant for the U.S. government on East Asia.