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SYDNEY, Australia – Imminent meetings of Asian security forums in Bali will be a ‘critical test’ of the region’s ability to manage tensions in the South China Sea, according to a Lowy Institute strate

SYDNEY, Australia – Imminent meetings of Asian security forums in Bali will be a ‘critical test’ of the region’s ability to manage tensions in the South China Sea, according to a Lowy Institute strategic analyst.

Rory Medcalf, the Director of the Institute’s International Security Program, warned that a failure by foreign ministers to discuss openly the region’s maritime security problems would marginalise the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Silence on these issues would also damage the credibility of other parts of the region’s emerging diplomatic architecture, notably the East Asia Summit (EAS).

“Reducing risks of war at sea in Asia should be squarely on the agenda of these meetings – otherwise they face irrelevance,” he said.

“Activist middle powers like Australia are well-placed to take the diplomatic lead on this front.”

The ARF, which convenes on Saturday July 23, is a meeting of foreign ministers from 27 nations across Asia and beyond. The EAS meets at foreign ministers level on Friday July 22, in preparation for a leaders’ meeting later in the year. This is the first year that the United States and Russia will take part in EAS discussions.

Mr Medcalf, a former Australian diplomat and intelligence analyst, said that a vital challenge now facing Asia was the risk of armed conflict arising from ‘incidents at sea’ – confrontations between the maritime forces of China and other nations, notably the United States, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

A major Lowy Institute report, titled Crisis and Confidence, recently highlighted the increased frequency and intensity of such incidents since 2009. These have included confrontations between Chinese maritime auxiliaries and a US surveillance ship, Chinese helicopters and Japanese naval ships, and Chinese, Vietnamese and Philippines patrol and survey vessels.

According to Mr Medcalf, the report’s principal author, there was ‘exaggerated good news’ in the announcement this week of progress by China and Southeast Asian countries towards guidelines for a declaration on conduct in the South China Sea.

“It sounds impressive but it will have almost no impact on the risks of incidents at sea,” he said.

“We are hearing fuzzy, high-sounding diplomatic talk – but this is not a proper code of conduct.

“For instance, there remains no agreement on rules to manage the risk-taking behaviour of opposing forces at sea. There is also a worrying lack of continuous communication channels between the militaries of the countries concerned. And the overlapping territorial claims are not even beginning to be resolved.”