“U.S.-China Maritime Confidence Building” by David Griffiths*

*Moderator's Note: This article is an executive summary of a monograph by CFPS Resident Research Fellow David Griffiths that was published this summer by the US Naval War College Press.  The full publishing information is, U.S.-China Maritime Confidence Building: Paradigms, Precedents, and Prospects (China Maritime Study No. 6), Newport, RI: US Naval War College, July 2010.  All six works in the series are available on-line here.

U.S.-China Maritime Confidence Building”

“Although China and the United States publicly emphasize their commitment to positive and constructive mutual engagement, all is not well at sea. Confrontation and accidents continue to occur despite more than a decade’s existence of a Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) aimed at “strengthening military maritime safety”. When these events do happen, the outcomes do not always unfold as either government might have intended or desired. Precedents exist for better managing the maritime military-to-military interaction. Consequently, it is bad policy and in no one’s interest to perpetuate a relationship in which a tactical-level accident or misjudgment could trigger an unwanted political crisis.

Situation Management. Governments use navies to implement policy and send diplomatic signals about issues such as freedom of navigation or sovereignty rights. But there is no point in sending a message if it is likely to be misunderstood, misinterpreted or manipulated to advantage by the recipient. Furthermore, despite the best of intentions, accidents and misunderstandings will happen in the complex and demanding modern maritime environment. Maritime operations are too intricate for landlubberly legalism or political posturing. They are too important to be conducted by best guesses about intentions, especially when things get exciting and the testosterone and adrenaline start flowing. And when things do go wrong, the resulting political implications can be too serious to be addressed by rhetoric and dogmatic adherence to rigid positions. Interaction at sea must be co-managed responsibly, not left to chance or improvisation.

The Requirement. If there are no robust situation management arrangements in place, then unintended consequences can lead to the brink of an unwanted crisis, sometimes to the detriment of otherwise carefully crafted political plans and policies. This is neither good policy nor sound strategy. In 2009, both Presidents committed to improving and developing military-to-military relations. Policy makers therefore need to take a critical look at prevailing paradigms, precedents and prospects for a transformative approach to military-to-military relationships at sea.

Paradigms and Policy. A paradigm is a framework for interpreting events or circumstances.  Unexamined social and political paradigms can become unspoken and often unconscious assumptions upon which strategies and plans are based. But assumptions are treated as fact for practical military planning purposes and thus need to be identified explicitly and reviewed constantly. An incorrect assumption can invalidate an entire plan. Consequently, policy-makers need periodically to look for possible “paradigm traps”. Examples to consider include the assumption that a rising sea power is necessarily a threat; that a “clash of civilizations” is inevitable; or that security through superiority is necessarily a sustainable strategy. Ultimately, being secure means enjoying some level of mutual cooperation and confidence, irrespective of relative strength.

Confidence Building Paradigms. Maritime confidence building has deep roots in history, not least because mariners of all nations share a common seagoing culture. This is a useful basis for a transformational approach to relationship building. The pursuit of “confidence building measures” is, however, another potential paradigm trap.  Sometimes sustaining a dynamic process of transforming the security relationship from a flawed present to a more stable and less risky future may be sufficient, or even more appropriate, with or without production of a tangible “measure”.

A Case Study in Transformative Confidence Building. An incident four decades ago dramatized the risk of unmanaged minor incidents escalating into potential acts of war between nuclear powers. That prospect worried knowledgeable authorities then, just as it should worry decision makers now. It led to a remarkably unconventional and creative process of mutual problem solving that not only created an excellent incident management tool but also served as a catalyst for further practical cooperation. In addition, it served as an inspiration (if not always a specific model) for a wide variety of military maritime safety agreements around the world, some of which are described in the Appendix. Experience elsewhere has shown that a successful situation management mechanism can make a fundamental change in a relationship and allow both governments to manage conflicting political objectives, even when confrontations occur.  Such a mechanism should not attempt to resolve strategic and political problems but rather focus on safe management of operations whenever maritime forces interact while implementing government policy – especially when those operations become confrontational, either accidentally or for deliberate policy reasons. It must enable commanders to communicate intentions, resolve ambiguity and clarify misunderstandings on-scene. Equally important, it must enable senior officers to consult frankly and openly afterward, allowing them to understand the issues in detail and to make appropriate recommendations to their respective governments.

Adjusting Course. It is vital that the military subordinates of political leaderships share a professional relationship of mutual respect and understanding so that unintended consequences of military actions do not damage the national interest of either party. Two steps would advance that goal: first, improving mutual understanding and, second, establishing robust practical mechanisms for relationship management. Such mechanisms should include real-time communication at all levels, from tactical to strategic, in order to enhance mutual safety, reduce risk, avoid misunderstanding and ensure that the intentions of each government are fulfilled. A difficult situation developing at sea is no time to stop communicating in order to signal diplomatic displeasure. On the contrary, that is the very time when communication becomes most vital, otherwise both parties risk losing control over events and having to deal with unwanted consequences. Furthermore, the post-event consultation mechanism must include frank, candid and honest dialogue about facts – privately and without political posturing – so that both sides can understand what happened and decide how to prevent re-occurrence. Political posturing has no place inside a professional incident management forum.

Transforming the Maritime Military-to-Military Relationship. The MMCA was a good start at confidence building but, in its present form, is an inadequate mechanism for managing complex and fast moving events. Both governments have a common interest in providing their respective military professionals with appropriate “political space” to develop a “sailor-made” professional mechanism for risk reduction and situation management. This could transform the way the military-to-military relationship is managed, especially when policy and positions differ and naval forces are tasked to send political signals. Precedent elsewhere has proved that even deliberate confrontation can be managed in a professional, safe and controlled manner. With well-designed mechanisms in place, it is even possible to turn negative confrontations into positive results. There is nothing to lose and much to gain from drawing on the wide range of experience and good examples from around the world. That needs doing now, before another simple mistake, misunderstanding or accident creates a serious problem that neither government intends or wants.”