Le’ Notes #12: Defence Diplomacy

This post discusses the workings of defence diplomacy, particularly focusing on Southeast Asian defence diplomacy.

Right smack in the middle of writing papers, I still have the brazen gall to procrastinate and blog about this. But as they say, the show must go on and I must continue to deliver content. Mostly for my sake.

Anyway, today’s topic is something that, at first glance, might come across as oxymoronic. Yup, when else do you see the words “defence” and “diplomacy” put together? Seems kinda weird to mix guns and howitzers into a word that’s more often associated with old, white men in suits talking in jargon over tea.

So how did we get from buff military men shooting each other in faces to buff military men talking about security issues over dozens of coffees?

The term “defence diplomacy” is a loosely-defined term. It can mean a lot of things and also cover a wide range of activities. The concept itself is pretty novel; in Southeast Asia, the first attempt to bring together the nations’ militaries together was by forming the ADMM. Later on, there’s gonna be a lot of organisations that make up the alphabet soup of acronyms in Southeast Asian defence diplomacy. Here’s a common understanding of the term:

Defence diplomacy is basically what foreign ministers do, i.e. talk about foreign relations and that shit. But this time, we change the foreign ministers into defence ministers and militaries. So now, we see militaries getting to know one another, talking about that latest THAAD in South Korea and how it can be used to blow up Kim Jong.

Though defence diplomacy does involve a lot of activities, Singh and Tan See Seng [PDF] outline three distinct features (note that this is not an extensive list):

  1. Cooperative activities by militaries during peacetime
  2. Cooperation between militaries to fulfil duties in a traditional and non-traditional sense (this refers to the nature of security threats)
  3. Military-to-military cooperation not only between allies and partners, but also potential rivals

This would include an array of activities such as joint military exercises, annual defence talks, multilateral meetings of defence ministers, etc. For example, just look at the Shangri-la Dialogue and ASEAN Defence Ministers Dialogue, and the pinnacle of ASEAN multilateralism, the ASEAN Regional Forum. And that’s just Track 1, or government to government. There’s also Track II, or between institutions endorsed by governments such as think-tanks. At the Track II level, usually defence-oriented think-tanks hold their own meetings or symposiums, sharing academic and professional insight on security issues, etc.

So, what’s the end goal then? Why do defence diplomacy at all? Imagine the following:

Imagine two people (Abe and Bella) who just met. They don’t know anything about the other. For all Abe knows, Bella might be a serial child molester; and vice-versa, Abe might be a full-time rapist. You would think they would steer clear of one another. However, all of those assumptions are in their respective heads. At last, Abe breaks the silence and starts breaking the ice. Bella then responds. The initial conversation is awkward, with long pauses between several exchanges and a lot of filler words. But, as the ice melts, Abe and Bella start to know more about one another. It turns out that Bella is not a molester and Abe is not a rapist. They become more amicable to one another over time and in the end, they don’t end up calling the police on one another.

This would have happened if Abe and Bella did not get to know one another better:

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Now change Abe and Bella with two countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. That’s defence diplomacy. The idea is, the more you talk about your defences, the less scared other people are. This, at a glance, might seem as an antidote to the entire security dilemma, which does stem from uncertainty.

Confidence as part of defence diplomacy

In Southeast Asia, defence diplomacy is still limited a lot to confidence-building measures (CBMs). Of course, the Southeast Asian way of doing things (enshrined in the ASEAN Way) is to take things slowly through consensus. As such, things tend to progress slowly and cryptically, often to the ire of Western countries that demand more decisive solutions.

What are CBMs and why are they important? Practically anything that “builds confidence” between participants of defence diplomacy. Cossa [book] mentions the goals and common guidelines of CBMs in Southeast Asia. There are two goals:

  1. Reducing uncertainty, misperception, and suspicion to reduce the probability of incidental or accidental war/conflict.
  2. Alleviate tension among states.

Whereas the common guidelines would include:

  • Participants must be willing to cooperate and believe that security is a win-win solution. Anyone who has watched Pacific Rim would understand this.
  • Effective if built on or guided by international/regional norms.
  • A high degree of tailoring, as a “one-size-fits-all” is unlikely to work for regional groupings.
  • CBMs should be considered as stepping stones, not as institutions per se. This means that CBMs can be used to get the ideas out there, but in the end, it’s up to the states to see those goals to their end.
  • Should have realistic, pragmatic, and clear objectives that all states can manage.
  • Should be focused on the long-term rather than the short-term.
  • Process is more valuable than output. The most important thing of CBMs is the process by which states get to know one another, rather than the output (in the form of documents or real action).

In Southeast Asia, CBMs should also be committed to ASEAN norms, such as the ASEAN Way of non-intervention and preference for informal bilateral relationships rather than formal structures. This is why the ASEAN Regional Forum often suffers from joked about as an “international talk-shop”, because it focuses more on building confidence rather than executing real action.

But that is okay. Building trust, especially among states, is a hard and laborious process.

Defence diplomacy and transparency

Going back to Abe and Bella. We notice that once you start talking, you also start to reveal some of yourself to the other person. At the state and international level, this would mean revealing some important facts, such as the size of your military power and your potential human rights abuse back in the 1960s. Then, we are faced with one of the pitfalls of defence diplomacy: how much transparency should we allow?

Granted, some transparency is good. Otherwise, the security dilemma kicks in simply because we don’t know anything about the other guy. But, complete transparency is simply out of the question. There are some things that need to kept secret, such as the KFC fried chicken recipe.

Finel and Lord [book] provide an excellent review of the pros and cons of transparency. Transparency has a lot of effects on states and state relations, such as:

  1. Likelihood of conflict. Though transparency might reduce misperceptions, it might also muddle signals between states. More on this later.
  2. The types of wars states fight. Since information is readily available and the means of gathering intelligence are advanced, states might choose to fight smaller wars because larger armies could be easily detected.
  3. Diplomacy. 24-hour news coverage of events might have an influence on how decision-makers decide on important matters. This is especially true when everyone is literally watching, such as the 2016 US Presidential campaigns. Politicians in other countries might form their decisions and perceptions based on what the media is telling them.
  4. Affects threats. Since everyone now knows what is happening inside the state, there is a chance that threats might not work anymore. For example, if Indonesia were to threaten war against Singapore, Singapore might not even take Indonesia seriously since it already knows what’s happening in the country.
  5. Weakening state control. Information technology has weakened state’s control over information, making them possibly more vulnerable. Take WikiLeaks, for instance.

How do states act transparently? Defence White Papers is one way to go. Japan’s Defence Ministry publishes and distributes their Defence White Papers on an annual basis. Complement that with East Asia Strategic Review from NIDS and the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Bluebook and you already have a rough understanding as to how Japan views the world around it. Granted, there will be some secrets that are hidden. Again, transparency should be understood as voluntary. So long as there’s no supranational police, each state is still essentially a sovereign.

Then, we come back to this: how much transparency is enough? Florini, in Finel and Lord, has this to say,

Transparency reveals behaviour, not intent.

This is important when we think about transparency in the larger context of international relations. We might know about the amount of tanks the other guy has, but do we actually know what he’s trying to achieve with said tanks. See, there’s a problem with having too much information, but little means to interpret it. Furthermore, the country being transparent might not even care. Despite them knowing that you are watching them, they might not change their behaviour altogether.

Thus, transparency should be complemented with defence diplomacy, where the revealed information will be given at least a bit of context from defence officials by a country.

The bells ring…

Here’s a quick recap of defence diplomacy:

  • Defence diplomacy may sound oxymoronic, but it has shown significant progress in building confidence. In Southeast Asia, security cooperation is fostered through defence diplomacy.
  • Confidence building is a great building block for defence diplomacy. It might take a long time, but it might be worth it in the end.
  • Transparency seems tempting, but there’s also inherent problems with transparency. The fine line needs to be found.


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