It’s hard to imagine that the risk of war in Asia could hinge on something as pedestrian and mundane-sounding as “confidence-building measures” or CBMs. Yet this obscure piece of security terminology, originating during the Cold War, is now front and center in discussions of the future of U.S.-China strategic relations.
Policymakers and military leaders in both Washington and Beijing are now making much of the question of what exactly constitutes a meaningful CBM. A public relations skirmish is underway about whether the other side is genuinely trying to build “confidence” and thus reduce the risk of conflict, or merely using loose undertakings about military diplomacy to mask unchanged stances of assertiveness or deterrence.
Strikingly, recent months have brought something of a subtle reversal of positions on this score. It was not so long ago that the United States and its allies and partners were regularly chastising China for refusing to engage in proper, practical CBMs, such as operational channels of communication or rules for encounters at sea. The Chinese position appeared to be that by undertaking CBMs, as with other forms of transparency, they would risk revealing their relative weakness, or alternately let slip that acts of maritime assertiveness were not incidents or accidents but rather part of a strategy to change the status quo.
Yet just as growing capability has allowed the PLA Navy and other Chinese maritime security actors to acquire one kind of confidence – boldness and self-assurance – so too has the Chinese security establishment in general been more willing to countenance another kind of confidence: making seemingly-generous offers of CBMs. This was underlined by developments in November last year, when Beijing signaled a willingness to reopen dialogue on a security hotline with Japan and, significantly, Xi Jinping signed a set of military confidence-building agreements with Barack Obama.
The question, however, remains how serious the Chinese are about following through. Which brings us to the latest and very public diplomatic spat between Beijing and Washington about the choreography of reaching fine-tuned agreement on preventing aerial encounters and, reportedly, a U.S. Navy “goodwill” visit to China by, of all the possible vehicles of diplomacy, an aircraft carrier. According to reports that Chinese military representatives publicly deny, the United States is holding back on such visits, and other aspects of the new kind of military relationship the PLA wants, until China follows through on turning risk-reduction agreements into reality.
If this was the first test of Chinese seriousness in trying to reduce risks of accidental military clashes, then it is time to begin wondering whether the November agreements were more a publicity stunt than a genuine policy departure.
As I’ve argued in earlier research on the subject, CBMs can be categorized in various ways, but most usefully as being either “direct” or “indirect” in character. A port visit by a foreign navy, even when it involves bilateral exercises, is ultimately just an indirect CBM: a form of engagement or cooperation that is geographically remote from and only indirectly related to the main zones, issues, or capabilities of contention and concern.
Such indirect CBMs are decidedly less effective at reducing near-term risks of tension or conflict than are what I would call direct CBMs: measures that are immediately related to contested zones, contentious issues, and threatening capabilities. Negotiating and implementing a set of rules for preventing fast-moving aerial encounters from escalating into conflict is infinitely more important than ship visits — which can be almost as much about mutual intelligence-gathering as about winning hearts and minds.
It’s still a step forward that China is talking the talk on CBMs. But already, 2015 has got off to a less than promising start on this critical matter.