An aerial photo shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on mischief reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, May 11, 2015.
Ritchie B. Tongo / Reuters

On the frigid morning of March 2, 1969, a contingent of Chinese border guards stationed in the country’s remote northeast began marching across the frozen Ussuri River, which forms a section of the border between China and the Soviet Union. They were headed for Zhenbao Island, a tiny, quarter square mile of uninhabited land located in the river. Although not much more than a pile of sand—one reporter at the time said that the island had “no value whatsoever to either country except one of prestige”—it became a flash point within an ongoing border dispute between the two erstwhile allies. Once at the island, the soldiers began chanting Maoist slogans and quickly attracted the attention of their Soviet counterparts on the opposite bank of the river. When the Soviets approached and demanded that they leave, the Chinese opened fire. After a two-hour exchange that drew in hundreds of soldiers on both sides, dozens lay dead.

The following weeks would see a dramatic escalation of words and deeds between the two communist powers. Soviet nuclear units stationed in the Far East were placed on alert. Chairman Mao Zedong ordered his country’s nuclear bases to prepare for Soviet air raids, saying, “We are now confronted with a formidable enemy.” The border crisis would become the first and only time in history that China placed its nuclear forces on full alert.

In the middle of the crisis, and with the shadow of nuclear war looming, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin attempted to phone Mao directly on a dedicated hot line that the two countries had set up in earlier, friendlier times. But Kosygin got no further than an obstreperous Chinese phone operator who refused to connect the call and, for good measure, cursed Kosygin, calling him a “revisionist element.” Fortunately, the situation did not escalate. When Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai later learned about this incident, he was incredulous and scheduled a personal meeting with Kosygin, where they agreed to resume diplomatic discussions and reinstate their ambassadors, who had been recalled a few years earlier. The two sides eventually brokered a solution to the border dispute, which thankfully did not escalate into a larger conflict.

This event represents one of the earliest and most notable examples of China’s checkered experience with what are known as “confidence-building measures,” which encompass a range of unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral steps that seek to reduce tensions between nations. Although popular today, these tactics may sometimes be risky—they don’t always work and can, in some cases, do harm. As states increasingly turn to confidence-building measures for managing relations with a modern and growing China, they must focus not only on negotiating the terms for their own sake but also on successfully implementing the agreements.


The modern concept of confidence building is thought to have originated with the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which sought to improve relations between Western nations and the Soviet bloc by introducing modest procedures such as notification of military actions involving more than 25,000 troops. This was done to reduce “dangers of armed conflict and of misunderstanding or miscalculation,” according to the text of the agreement. But earlier measures, such as the establishment of the U.S.-Soviet hot line in 1963, a 24-hour communications line between Washington and Moscow, served to defuse tensions following the Cuban missile crisis. Since then, China, France, India, Pakistan, South Korea, and other countries have adopted similar bilateral hot lines to prevent a nuclear incident or manage border tensions. More recently, member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have attempted to use operational constraints, such as establishing codes of conduct, to limit aggressive and destabilizing actions by maritime actors. Bilateral arms control procedures between the United States and the Soviet Union typically involved greater military transparency, such as notifying others before engaging in certain military exercises or allowing for impromptu inspections of missile bases and production facilities.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, China, May 16, 2015.
Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

For its part, modern China was initially slow to adopt confidence-building measures. Early attempts to bolster confidence with other countries consisted largely of political declarations about Chinese strategic intentions, as Beijing was reluctant to engage in formal arrangements with other parties. China has long been skeptical of calls to increase military transparency, a fundamental feature of most confidence-building measures. While U.S. officials tend to believe that discreet, small-scale gestures of goodwill can help improve overall relations, Chinese officials generally prefer to focus on broader moves, such as establishing general principles and improving political relations holistically by, for instance, first establishing strong interpersonal relationships between decision-makers. Chinese experts also believe that transparency disproportionately favors the party with greater military strength and that when Washington calls on China for increased transparency, it is a veiled attempt to check its rival’s rise—a move akin to Cold War containment policies.

As China began to open to the West in the early 1980s, however, it started to pay greater attention to the kinds of formal confidence-building measures pursued by other countries. Since 1998, defense white papers released by China’s State Council have included sections dedicated to confidence-building measures. Beijing has recently shown a greater willingness to enter into formal confidence-building agreements, including those addressing risks of maritime encounters in disputed waters. In 2014, in order to reduce the incidence of dangerous maritime encounters, Washington and Beijing reached a much-touted set of rules for setting up notifications for major military activities and codes of conduct for air and maritime encounters.

Today, confidence-building measures have been touted as solutions to a range of disputes involving China, from building norms in cyberspace to managing maritime encounters in the South China Sea. In September, China announced plans to establish a hot line with Japan to discuss maritime clashes and to establish both a hot line among senior officials of ASEAN countries and a maritime code of conduct. Reaching an agreement, however, is only a start. The states involved must ensure that those agreements are accompanied by clarity of intentions, political will, and the institutional capacity for successfully implementation.


In spite of their popularity, such agreements do not always reduce tensions. Hot lines between China and other nations, perhaps the most basic form of a confidence-building measure, have a particularly poor record. In addition to its dedicated line with the former Soviet Union, China has at one time or another established hot lines with Japan, the United States, Vietnam, and South Korea. However, in subsequent crises with those countries, the phone lines were reportedly dead. After North Korea carried out a nuclear test earlier this year, South Korean President Park Geun-hye reportedly tried to reach Chinese President Xi Jinping on the countries’ bilateral hot line for an emergency consultation. Xi apparently declined to answer. In some of the cases, unrelated political disputes led to the complete termination of the hot line. For example, China and Japan had agreed in May 2010 to establish a hot line for managing crises. However, after a September 2010 collision involving a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard vessels, China, reportedly angered by the Japanese decision to detain the Chinese captain, terminated the hot line. Some Western experts have raised questions about whether China would adhere to confidence-building agreements, and Japanese security analysts have reportedly expressed concerns that while Beijing has shown some willingness to engage with Washington on confidence-building measures, it may be less cooperative with neighboring countries.

On top of failing to resolve tensions, the sloppy implementation of such procedures can make bad situations worse. As the scholar Marie-France Desjardins has written, poorly negotiated and implemented confidence-building measures pose several unintended risks, such as inadvertently justifying dangerous or unwanted activities. One Western observer questioned the value of having the United States and the Soviet Union notify each other of large-scale military maneuvers, reportedly saying, “If a suspected adversary tells you he has a gun, even shows it to you, that does not necessarily lessen your apprehension, much less your mistrust of his motives for brandishing the weapon.” The development of bilateral confidence-building measures and the subsequent warming of relations between state parties may spark concern among states that are not party to the agreement. And actual or perceived noncompliance can further poison relations between parties, hobbling future efforts at cooperation. In the South China Sea and elsewhere, China, the United States, and other parties to confidence-building measures must ensure that they follow through on agreements with effective implementation.

Noncompliance can occur for several reasons. States may have differing interpretations of their agreements. One of the advantages of confidence-building measures, especially first-generation ones, is that they typically require relatively little political or operational commitment from the parties. Indeed, that’s what makes confidence-building measures attractive as initial steps between distrustful states. The 2014 agreements between China and the United States on military notifications and codes of conduct are distinctive in that compliance with them is both voluntary and confidential. Compliance is not mandatory, and information that is reported, pursuant to the agreement, cannot be shared with other parties. But this tendency toward fewer requirements can make confidence-building agreements overly vague and lead to misunderstandings or large loopholes. For example, Washington and Beijing currently disagree over whether the 2014 agreement applies to encounters in all waters or only those that both recognize as international.

Then there is the issue of political will. An insufficient amount can cause confidence-building measures to fall by the wayside. Upon concluding an agreement, leaders often delegate their subordinates with the onerous task of implementing the agreement. Such decentralization may lead to clashes between domestic actors and a state government that struggles to build cohesive policies. Despite Xi’s efforts to consolidate his power, his policy on the South China Sea is fragmented by domestic interest groups such as the State Oceanic Administration, commercial fishing operations, and the competing interests of local governments. These actors often drive Chinese policy in contradictory directions. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a key coordinator for China’s policy in the South China Sea and has reportedly advocated a less confrontational approach. However, its efforts to form a unified and consistent policy front have been hampered by a lack of political authority, given that other bureaucratic actors, such as the People’s Liberation Army or provincial governors, enjoy political standing equal to or above that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

States may also lack the institutional capacity to implement the agreements. Few countries can match the depth and quality of the U.S. national security apparatus. Even China has struggled to muster comparable bureaucratic might. A former director-general of China’s Department of Arms Control in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was reported lamenting that his office had “less than 30 staff members, most of whom are very young and have little practical experience in arms control.”

The drag of poor institutional capacity is evident even in the more high-profile clashes in the South China Sea. In the past, U.S. Navy officials have attributed aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea to a lack of professionalism, such as in the 2013 USS Cowpens incident, when, according to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, a guided missile destroyer operating in the South China Sea was forced to quickly maneuver out of the path of a Chinese vessel, which had aggressively approached the U.S. Navy ship. The professional shortcomings of the Chinese military have been well documented. For instance, a recent report by RAND described the People’s Liberation Army as “xenophobic and ignorant about the outside world and also somewhat naïve about how difficult it can be to control the paths that armed conflict can take.” Fortunately, China appears to have made some progress on this front. Since the 2014 agreement on maritime and air rules of behavior, Chinese and U.S. military personnel have conducted joint exercises to practice implementing the agreement. Following encounters between U.S. and Chinese vessels earlier this year, U.S. Navy commanders praised their Chinese counterparts, saying, “We have had nothing but professional interactions.”

This involves a continuous focus on clarifying the scope and content of confidence-building agreements and ensuring that they are being followed. The U.S.-Chinese agreements have called for annual meetings to assess the progress of these measures. Parties should also ensure that confidence-building measures receive an appropriate degree of high-level attention, to decouple them from domestic political issues. Further, a standard for operating procedures should guide initiatives, such as a military hot line. There should be consequences for not answering a phone. Finally, state parties must make an effort to build institutional capacity and human capital. Joint exercises and trainings are an important way to enforce agreements—it allows for states to practice the rules of behavior under realistic conditions. Third parties, such as academics, intergovernmental organizations, and states not party to an agreement, could provide technical expertise and offer guidance on best practices.

Confidence-building measures offer a valuable means to make progress in reducing interstate tensions, but right now, countries have focused too much on the negotiating process. But such an approach is reckless. To further bolster security in the South China Sea and beyond, national leaders must get beyond a mere “yes” and work toward not only crafting agreements but implementing them as well.

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  • David C. Logan is a graduate student at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he is also a John Parker Compton Memorial Fellow and a Fellow in the Center for International Security Studies.
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