An answer to a fundamental question
11:06 | 06/06/2013

VGP – A fundamental question is how can all nations, especially powers, be motivated to act in accordance with international law. The answer could be found in PM Nguyen Tan Dung's Shangri-La address.

In an interview through email with VGP’s reporter, David Brown, a veteran US diplomat said PM Dung’s speech “eloquently addresses a fundamental question: how can all nations, and especially powerful nations, be motivated to act in accordance with international law?”

It seems that this is the first time, the idea of strategic trust was mentioned in a regional security forum. According to the retired US diplomat, “PM Dung underlined that it is not enough for a nation simply to proclaim its respect for international law, treaties and other agreements.  Strategic trust is the result of repeated demonstrations that this principle governs a nation’s actions.”

Regarding the question what should regional countries do to enhance strategic trust in order to settle the emerging security issues, including the East Sea issue? David Brown pointed out that “this is the heart of the matter.”

ASEAN seeks to bind outside powers such as China and the US to conduct themselves within the ASEAN area – including the East Sea – in a manner that respects international law and relies on it to settle disputes. 

The ten ASEAN members will likely succeed if they are able to act as one in response to external threats to any of their number, and if they are able to resolve internal disagreements on the basis of mutual respect for the principles of international law. 

As PM Dung eloquently pointed out, talk is easy, but only consistent actions can build strategic trust among nations.  When there is strategic trust, even the most difficult questions can be solved on the basis of mutual interest.

For the response of international newswires and scholars to the address, David said the international media took only brief notice of PM Dung’s remarks.  That is typical and not significant. 

The PM clearly stated Viet Nam’s fundamental position. In this context, it is the response of other nations’ diplomats and military strategists, which will be seen over an extended period, that is significant.

When asked about how will the idea of building strategic trust affect or shape the agenda of upcoming regional security forums like ARF, ADMM+ as well as summits between ASEAN and its partners, David Brown said he really don’t know but he stressed that “what counts is not words but actions.”

Carl Thayer, emeritus Australian professor

1. What is the strategic trust in your view? Is this a proper solution for the region in the current context?

Answer: Regional security analysts have long debated the concept of trust in international relations. It was once common to refer to "trust and confidence building measures." Because trust was so hard to define, the ASEAN Regional Forum adopted "confidence building measures" instead. Strategic trust refers to the perceptions of government officials towards another government that the other government's behaviour is predictable. Strategic trust is based on shared acceptance of common principles, norms and international law. It arises from the interaction between two states in carrying out joint practical activities. Strategic trust will reduce but never eliminate risk and doubt in one country about another country's intention and motivations.

It is often argued by some security specialists that China and the United States approach the question of strategic trust from opposite sides. The US constantly urges China to engage in military-to-military activities in order to build trust. China argues that there must be trust first before military-to-miliary activities. For example, China argues the US should stop selling arms to Taiwan. If the US does so, then trust between China and the US will rise.

2. How the idea of building strategic trust would affect or shape the agenda of the regional upcoming security forums like ARF, ADMM+, as well as summits between ASEAN and its partners?

Answer: When the ARF was founded it was supposed to progress through three stages: confidence building measures, preventive diplomacy and "elaboration of approaches to conflict" [this awkward expression was drafted because China objected to conflict resolution). Withy a year of its founding the ARF agreed that stages one and two could go in tandem because there was an overlap between confidence building measures and preventive diplomacy. The ARF, which is led by foreign ministers, also includes military representatives. The ARF conducts several practical exercises. The agenda of building strategic trust can be influenced by the nature of practical activities. Usually the ARF members engage in those activities that are not controversial. Now is the time to move into sensitive areas. 

Strategic trust can be built up in the ADMM+ through practical activities such as the forthcoming 18 nation humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) and military medicine exercise in Brunei. Strategic trust can be built up through participation in the ADMM+ Expert Working Groups (EWG) which are co-chaired by one ASEAN country and one dialogue partner. Viet Nam and China co-chair the EWG on HA/DR. It is likely that Viet Nam and India will co-chair a new EWG on mine clearance. 

Vietnam has made a very practical and valuable suggestion to ASEAN: drawn up an agreement on the no first use of force to deal with maritime incidents. Once this is reached ASEAN can then encourage its dialogue partners to join in. Vietnam has also pushed for the humane treatment of fishermen.

Finally, it is very important for government leaders to make the East Asia Summit a "leaders led forum" by acting on advice from the AR,  ADMM Plus and other multilateral bodies and and direct that practical activities be carried out. 

By Hai Minh

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