Asia Pacific strategic mutual trust: new approaches and ideas

Commo. Carlos L. Agustin AFP (ret)I will delve on a topic I developed for the 4th Xiangshan Forum held in Beijing, China on ‘Nov 16-18, 2012 covering new approaches and ideas for strategic mutual trust in the Asia-Pacific region. This is essentially a summary of my paper, with citations deleted for brevity.

Strategic Mutual Trust

While not exclusive to the two major players in the current competition for strategic influence in the Asia-Pacific, the term “Strategic Mutual Trust” has been lately related more to the development of confidence building between the United States and China, and rightly so, since current instability in East Asia seems to have a distinct connection between two perceptions: that rising China wants to increase its military power in order to extend its hegemony beyond its borders, and that the United States wants to retain its hegemony and influence and intends to contain China’s growing influence.

The US “back in Asia” announcement in 2011 included the statement that “the US also chose to actively get involved in the territorial disputes between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea”, strengthened its security alliances with some of China’s neighboring countries, and advocated the establishment of the “Trans Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership” as a means of strengthening economic and trade relations with Asian countries, excluding China and other countries, including the Philippines and Japan.

This has brought the need to address US-China Strategic Mutual Trust and, as a US think tank stated, “weakened strategic mutual trust of the US-Japan-China trilateral ties that is in desperate need of crisis management.”

The ultimate objective of confidence building is to achieve security from perceived threats. General and specific steps undertaken towards the minimization of apprehensions and distrust constitute what are formally called as confidence-building measures (CBMs). CBMs are arrangements “between two or more parties regarding exchanges of information and verification, typically with respect to the use of military forces and armaments.”

Carlyle A Thayer has identified six major multilateral mechanism that have been created that could facilitate regional cooperation in addressing maritime security issues as well as the four major interrelated security challenges that confront the Asia-Pacific region.

The ARF and Strategic Mutual Trust

Some observers consider the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to be the organization that may be developed into a security community in the Asia Pacific region.

The first meeting of the ARF in 1994 outlined the three phases of the ARF’s tasks to fulfill its role in enhancing regional cooperation: Promotion of Confidence Building Measures (CBM), Development of Preventive Diplomacy Mechanisms; and Development of Conflict-Resolution Mechanisms.

A regional “CBM society” is thus being created through the various ARF activities: annual ministerial meetings, senior officials meetings, inter-sessional activities, and Track I and II Meetings. These meetings bring about vast social networks throughout the Asia Pacific, thus building confidence, trust, familiarity, and ease among states, which can be an important investment when crisis comes.

The following activities within the ARF, while perhaps not a complete listing, are worth mentioning for the purpose of developing Strategic Mutual Trust:

1. Military and defense arrangements are sustained in ARF deliberations;

2. The ARF continually engages the heads of defense academic institutions in a meeting series appropriately called the ARF Heads of Defense Universities, Colleges, and Institutes Meeting (HDUCIM). The Philippines’ NDCP hosted the 1st HDUCIM in 1997.

3. The ARF Experts and Eminent Persons (EEP) is a group of individuals it can, if desired, call upon in times of emergency and thus allow on-the-scene decisions which would be useful for the time being until such time that governments can work with it, around it, or put it away altogether.

4. ARF members are gradually improving their practice of issuing annual defense policy statements and publishing white papers on defense, many of whom have never done so. This practice increases transparency and openness in a region that, at the least, shuns away from such idea, and increases democratization.

5. Joint exercises by law enforcement and other government organizations, including Military exercises, are good for CBM. The 18th ARF Meeting adopted the ARF Work Plan on Maritime Security on 23 July 2012 which identified three priority areas: (l) Information/ intelligence exchange and sharing of best practices, including on naval operations; .(2) Confidence Building Measures based on international and regional legal frameworks, arrangements and cooperation; and (3) Capacity Building of maritime law enforcement agencies in the region.

6. The ARF has created Inter-sessional Support Groups (ISO) and Inter-Sessional Meetings (ISM) on various topics, to include: confidence building measures, search and rescue coordination and cooperation, counter-terrorism and transnational crime, peacekeeping operations, and disaster relief. These meetings serve a twofold purpose, that of suggesting areas where security cooperation can be advanced and providing networking opportunities for ARF members to build trust and “comfort” in the regional community.

New Approaches

Bolstering Defense Diplomacy

As an important element in defense and military affairs, CBMs spring from states’ inherent fear of unanticipated and miscalculated military attacks by other hostile or adversarial countries. They can be useful even at tactical level, as experienced in the use of the “communications hotline among opposing field commanders not in actual war.

The strengthening of such mechanisms is of unquestionable importance to the region where potential flash points of conflicts and historical rifts remain to have significant prominence in the defense assessments and threat perceptions of countries.

Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation (ZoPFFC)

Early this year (20 12), the Aquino administration proposed to transform the disputed SCS area into a “Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation” (ZoPFFC), designed to resolve the dispute rather than just manage tensions. The Jamestown Foundation ‘s China Brief describes the process as “a two-step process. The first is to “segregate” disputed from non-disputed areas. Essentially, this means declaring coastal waters, exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and continental shelves as “non-disputed” as these areas are governed by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Only the Spratly Islands is a truly disputed area and should be “enclaved” accordingly. The second step calls for the demilitarization of the Spratlys and the establishment of a joint agency to manage seabed resources and fisheries.

Joint development of the non-disputed areas will definitely help in moving forward but what area is outside the nine-dash line?

The ZoPFFC has been passed on to the ASEAN Maritime Forum, felt by some quarters as a “dead end due to Chinese opposition and the lack of consensus among the members of ASEAN”.

Joint projects and development

In the SCS, one form of CBM that is allowed under the “DOC” is the conduct of joint projects, as discussed in Beijing by ASEAN and China representatives in Jan 2012. Four working groups are to be created to examine joint projects in four areas: marine environmental protection, marine scientific research, search and rescue, and combating transnational threats. Future joint projects will be financed from a $476 million fund set up by China last November 20 I I . Whether these joint projects can be effectively implemented, and whether they will help reduce tensions, remains to be seen, as surmised in the Jamestown Foundation brief.

Regional Coast Guard

The Fourth ARF Inter-Sessional Meeting on Maritime Security (ISM MS) held at San Francisco, CA, USA, 14-15 June 2012 deliberated on the need for a regional coast guard. As gleaned from its report: Taking into consideration that not all countries have coast guards, the decision to develop a regional coast guard would be determined by the culture, national politics and history of individual states in the region. It requires careful analysis involving various stakeholders to decide whether or not to enhance existing regional maritime surveillance arrangements. An alternative approach to a regional coast guard is the development of a common information-sharing environment.

Multilateral Maritime Cooperation

Additionally, the ISM MS 4th Meeting reiterated support for an open, transparent and inclusive multilateral maritime cooperation. There are also, albeit not ARF per se, an existing regional cooperation among the coast guards in the Asia Pacific region, in particular the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum (NPCGF), the Heads of Asian Coast Guard Agencies Meeting (HACGAM) series, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (lOR-ARC), the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), while others are voluntary and based on confidence relationship-basis.

Bilateral and multilateral Trade

Development/expansion of bilateral trade seems to be a good way of developing mutual trust as perceived by Wang Yuzhu, an expert on ASEA from the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Using the China-Vietnam example, Prof Wang looked at joint development as “a good way of shelving disputes as suggested by Comrade Deng Xiaoping” The ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement is also another. Another is APEC whose primary goal is to support sustainable economic growth and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.

Discussion forums

Various fora for discussion are extremely valuable to encourage exchange of views. One such forum in print is the China-US Focus, as indicated in its mandate.

China-US Focus does not accept provocative or challenging commentaries.

Two forums hosted by China are the China- ASEAN Dialogue by Senior Defense Scholars (CADSDS) and the Xiangshan Forum. The China-ASEAN Dialogue between Senior Defense Scholars (CADSDS) series resulted from the announcement of President Wen Jia Bao’s offer during the 11th China-ASEAN Leaders Meeting in Singapore to host a “China-ASEAN Dialogue among Defense Scholars”. The Xiangshan Forum hosted likewise by the China Academy of Military Science (CAMS) is another such CBM discussion group.

It made its China-US Grand Strategy Proposal between Presidents Obama and Hu that “aligns the economic and national security of the U.S. and China and is not a treaty, does not require U.S. Senate confirmation, does not constitute a “G2″ or an alliance between the U.S. and China, or replace existing U.S. alliances. It is an improved framework for collaboration among all UN members pursuant to the Preamble and Article I of the U.N. Charter to achieve greater global geopolitical stability and economic development.”

The proposed “Strategy Agreement” was drafted by John Milligan-Whyte, Dai Min and Dr. Thomas Barnet “with input from China’s former Miinister of Foreign Affairs and US and UN Ambassadors, former Deputy Chief of General Staff of the PLA, former Military Attache to North Korea and Israel, former Vice Minister of Commerce and Secretary-General of the Boao Forum. The features of the proposal are summarized in an article by the authors on November 22, 20 I 0 in People ‘s Daily Online.

Many aspects of the Strategy however cannot be bilaterally resolved by China and the United States alone.


The idea of coming out with the theme Asia-Pacific strategic mutual trust: New approaches and ideas is indeed a valid one. There are so many approaches that can be discussed and supported.

Serious consideration, in my view, must be given to strengthening the ARF, and discussing some of these possible  courses of actions under the ARF system or other fora.

It is to the best interest of all the countries in the Asia-Pacific rim, and the world in general, that we continue to explore all means to maintain peace and harmony in the world. Our own very existence depends on it.