Non-binding deals to avoid clashes in air and at sea offer some security
- Following the breakdown in relations as a result of the US trade war against China, every effort has to be made to reduce the risk of confrontations
Mounting American belligerence towards China is cause for disquiet not only for the Chinese, but the region. Guidelines for warplanes flying over the South China Sea agreed to at a recent meeting of defence ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) are therefore timely. Just as at sea, the risk of an accident in the skies above the disputed waters escalating into conflict has to be avoided. China, the United States and other Asean partners would do well to sign up to the guidance.
The non-binding code is a set of communications protocols to improve the safety of air lanes. It complements existing multilateral guidelines for navy vessels agreed to by 21 countries to reduce the chances of accidents at sea. Inaugural joint maritime field training exercises between China and Asean began off the Guangdong city of Zhanjiang on Monday. Such cooperation acknowledges that prosperity can be assured only with regional stability.
But while such agreements are useful in helping avoid disputes, the near-miss of a Chinese destroyer and an American warship earlier this month in the South China Sea raises questions about their effectiveness. The vessels came within 40 metres of each other near two Chinese man-made islands in the Nansha group, also known as the Spratlys. Under President Donald Trump, the US has significantly stepped up such operations under the banner of “freedom of navigation”, although they are also plainly aimed at provoking Beijing. Tensions were further raised on Monday when two US warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait, the second such incident in less than four months. US Defence Secretary James Mattis warned in June that China faced “larger consequences” for allegedly militarising the South China Sea and there are reports of an American show of military force being planned for next month.
Coming amid a breakdown in relations as a result of the US trade war against China, every effort has to be made to prevent the likelihood of incidents at sea or in the air. Non-binding deals, while not offering full security, are, as Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said, like seat belts – “not completely protective, but at least you’ll find some protection”.