A Chinese ship shoots water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel, while a Chinese Coast Guard ship, center, sails alongside in the South China Sea, off Vietnam's coast, May 7, 2014. Chinese ships are ramming and spraying water cannons at Vietnamese vessels trying to stop Beijing from setting up an oil rig in the South China Sea, according to Vietnamese officials (AP Photo/Vietnam Coast Guard).
A Chinese ship shoots water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel, while a Chinese Coast Guard ship, center, sails alongside in the South China Sea, off Vietnam's coast, May 7, 2014. Chinese ships are ramming and spraying water cannons at Vietnamese vessels trying to stop Beijing from setting up an oil rig in the South China Sea, according to Vietnamese officials (AP Photo/Vietnam Coast Guard).

Confidence – the lock on your door that protects you from the madman – has long been an object of obsession in East Asia. It is believed the pursuit of confidence building measures (CBMs) will yield, over time, to the building of trust. Much of the security architecture in the region developed around the notion of building confidence, including the ASEAN Regional Forum and associated Track Two meetings such as the Asia-Pacific Roundtable, the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, the North Pacific Cooperative Security Dialogue and, the most recent iteration, the Shangri-la Dialogue.

Select issue areas in East Asia have been particularly targeted for the building of confidence, partly because they are inherently well suited for it. Maritime Security is one such area because of the region’s maritime geography. The professions that pursue economic and other interests at sea are actually pretty good at getting along. Chinese and Japanese fisheries organizations managed their fisheries relationship for 20 years before the PRC and Japan established political ties. Since the conclusion of UNCLOS, Northeast Asian countries have been very good at concluding fisheries agreements with their neighbours that include the establishment of a joint fisheries management organization. Likewise, the civilian agencies that enforce a state’s authority over its maritime areas are pretty good at getting along as well. The Head of Asian Coast Guard Agencies Meeting gathers annually, as does the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum to share best practices, deepen educational exchanges, facilitate information exchange and discuss cooperation on issues such as search and rescue, environmental protection and counter piracy.

This brings us to the latest effort to build confidence in East Asia, the Code for Unalerted Encounters at Sea (CUES), concluded at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) in Qingdao in April. Far from being a new development, CUES has been a work in progress for over a decade. Based on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGSs), CUES is an Australian initiative designed to ensure that navy ships and aircraft follow the rules of the road. Although CUES is non-binding, it establishes some very clear rules and guidelines for what should happen when ships encounter each other in the increasingly crowded seas of East Asia.

Whether these rules will build confidence between navies remains to be seen. There is no doubt that the WPNS is general pretty collegial affair—men and women of sail gathering together without their political masters. However, interactions can be quite different at sea, particularly when one ship comes across another by surprise. CUES makes it impossible for a signatory to profess ignorance or misunderstanding of what to do under these circumstances. Although not legally binding, CUES outlines a common sense way to avoid accidents, which suggests that those that disobey it may be up to something untoward.

There are, however, limits to the ability of something like CUES to build confidence, much less trust, in maritime East Asia. By far the most dangerous incidents at sea arise when one navy deliberately chooses to act in a way that irritates or threatens another. Was the USS Cowpens close to China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, by accident on December 5, 2013? Did the Chinese LST that came to a full stop in front of the Cowpens do so by accident? Did a Chinese destroyer lock its fire control radar on a Japanese destroyer in January 2013 by accident?

More generally: What is the appropriate distance from which one country can observe the military exercises of another?  What are the appropriate means of observation? Whose ships do and do not have a right to be where, when, and why? CUES answers none of these questions. Many of the states that have signed CUES disagree on them.

CUES is an important and overdue step, but it will not prevent deliberate brinksmanship. For that one needs not merely CBMs, but a more congenial political climate. 

Next: Benoit Hardy-Chartrand on inter-Korean relations

CUES is an important and overdue step, but it will not prevent deliberate brinksmanship. For that one needs not merely CBMs, but a more congenial political climate.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.