What's in a Confidence Building Measure?

By Mira Rapp-Hooper
Sunday, February 8, 2015, 3:00 PM

The latest installation of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative focuses on confidence-building measures, or CBMs.

Pioneered in the Cold War, CBMs are programs, activities, or agreements that aim to strengthen ties between two potentially-adversarial militaries. In so doing, CBMs aim to defuse tensions and the risk of destabilizing misperceptions between the states that sign them. In academic terms, CBMs endeavor to mitigate security dilemmas.

There has been a lot of talk of CBMs of late, particularly in maritime Asia, because there are at least three sets of agreements at various stages of negotiations among states in the Indo-Pacific region. These include the long-sought, binding maritime Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China in the South China Sea (which will probably be long-sought for a good while longer), a recently-rejuvenated Sino-Japanese crisis mechanism for the East China Sea, and two US-China agreements that were signed in November 2014. But when we get beyond the admirable and somewhat amorphous intended aims of these agreements, what’s in a CBM? Once these agreements are in place, how do we know if they are actually working? And what should we expect in 2015 from some of the proto-CBMs that have recently been put in place in maritime Asia? AMTI’s analysts focus on these questions.

Rory Medcalf argues that all military-to-military ties are not created equal, and that CBMs can be categorized as “direct” or “indirect” in character. Direct CBMs are measures that relate immediately to contested zones, contentious issues, and threatening capabilities, such as rules for avoiding dangerous encounters at sea or in the air. Indirect CBMs, by contrast, are not immediately germane to specific conflict areas, and include things like port visits or bilateral exercises. Indirect CBM measures may be as much intelligence-gathering efforts as they are about avoiding crises. As Medcalf notes, the United States and its allies have long admonished China for refusing to sign onto any meaningful CBM agreements, with Beijing maintaining the position that military transparency measures could expose its relative weakness. This appeared to have changed when the US and China negotiated two agreements in November—one a code of conduct for ship-to-ship encounters at sea, and the other for mutual notification of major military activities. In recent weeks, however, Washington and Beijing have been involved in a public spat over the United States’ decision to delay the visit of a US aircraft carrier to China pending the two countries’ negotiating a code of conduct for air encounters. In Medcalf’s terms, an indirect CBM was paused pending the implementation of a direct one, although other bilateral military exchanges will continue. This early hiccup raises the question of whether China is willing to “walk the walk” when it comes to these new agreements, he argues.

Bonnie Glaser and I explore in detail these new US-China CBMs and argue that they have some unusual features. Both the code of conduct for encounters at sea and the notification of major military activities agreement are voluntary and confidential. They are voluntary in that neither agreement is binding and the parties can discontinue their participation at any time. And they are confidential in that neither the US or China is to make any third party disclosures about their assessments under these agreements.

The voluntary, non-binding nature of the accords obviously means that reciprocity cannot be guaranteed (this worry was apparently part of the decision to suspend the aircraft carrier visit), and confidentiality will make it especially hard to know if the US and China are, in fact, notifying each other as they have promised to do and complying with the rules for ship-to-ship encounters. Presumably these features were necessary for Washington and Beijing to negotiate the agreements in the first place, but other landmark CBMs, such as the 1972 US-USSR Incidents at Sea Agreement, do not include these provisions. And while, of course, the purpose of these CBMs is to build ties between the US and Chinese militaries, these unique features mean that the implementation of these agreements will be especially hard for interested observers to monitor.

Indeed, the clearest metric may be if we continue to see dangerous US-China encounters at sea or in the air, similar to the U.S.S. Cowpens and Impeccable incidents, or the EP-3 crisis or P-8 aircraft incident. These will tell us that the CBMs are not working as intended. If, however, both sides are complying with these measures and confidence is being built, we may expect to hear relatively little of them at all.

The US-China agreements are important in their own right, as they aim to prevent crises and defuse tensions between the two superpowers, but they may also serve as models for future military agreements, such as those that are currently being built between China and Japan for managing the Senkaku Islands dispute in the East China Sea. In the month of January, Chinese and Japanese officials met through two different channels. One set of bilateral military talks met to establish China-Japan maritime and air crisis communication mechanisms. Another high-level consultation included all relevant maritime organizations on both sides, and established several working groups to increase dialogue between the two countries on East China Sea issues. China and Japan initially agreed to pursue an East China Sea crisis mechanism in 2012, but got nowhere after tensions spiked over the Senkakus in September of that year. The fact that talks have resumed and progress is being made can only be a positive sign, argues Tetsuo Kotani. Yet as both he and Zhu Feng argue, many challenges lie ahead for these ties.

As Zhu points out, defusing tensions in the East China Sea will require a broader Sino-Japanese thaw. At present time, there are no obvious signs that either Xi Jinping or Shinzo Abe intends to deviate from existing policy when it comes to the Senkakus, and this rigidity can be explained by domestic politics as much as anything else. Japan and China will continue to disagree over what issues belong in these maritime talks. There is little chance that the two parties will come to any agreement on how to treat China’s ADIZ, for example.

Perhaps most important is the fact that this recent, incremental progress on CBMs may not stand up to the long, dark shadow of the past. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which means that historical animosity and the nationalism it engenders will surely be thrust to the fore as both countries commemorate the conflict. Defusing these tensions, Zhu argues, requires a holistic Sino-Japanese rapprochement that will be much more difficult to come by than any CBM.

All five authors share some optimism that CBMs may play some role in helping China, Japan, the United States, and others avert crises and conflicts in maritime Asia. All five also recognize, however, that CBMs are no panacea, but one discrete type of military-to-military effort embedded in a messier bilateral relationship. CBM agreements attempt to identify and isolate particular aspects of a bilateral military relationship that may benefit from information sharing, but whether these benefits obtain and diffuse into broader forms of cooperation is determined by the bigger political picture and cannot be enumerated in an MOU or signed into being.