|A version of this article was first published in the Straits Times on October 27, 2018.
On Saturday, October 20, the defense ministers from 18 countries met in Singapore for the fifth iteration of the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus). Singapore should be congratulated for organizing another successful year for the young ASEAN-centered security forum, which brings together the defense ministers from the 10 ASEAN member states with their eight “Plus” counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.
Launched only eight years ago, in 2010, the ADMM-Plus has had a remarkable trajectory in advancing multilateral cooperation through strategic dialogue and practical security cooperation in a relatively short period of time. It offers the “Plus” countries an opportunity to engage with ASEAN collectively on transnational security challenges and capacity building such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and maritime security. Exercises held under the auspices of ADMM-Plus bring together the militaries of many of the members to jointly train and build confidence and habits of cooperation. The forum also promotes dialogue among defense ministers on sensitive issues like the South China Sea and the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Defense ministers had found these meetings so useful that they agreed to increase the frequency to annual meetings starting this year, rather than meeting once every three years as was originally agreed when ADMM-Plus was launched in Vietnam in 2010. And this year for the first time, all 18 defense ministers came to the ADMM-Plus meeting.
The ADMM-Plus is rapidly becoming a keystone to the emerging regional security architecture. It has three major advantages over similar security fora. First, it has the right membership, mirroring the East Asia Summit (EAS) with the 18 key countries across the Indo-Pacific that define regional security dynamics. This overlapping membership with EAS offers the possibility that over time it could be linked institutionally with the EAS so that leaders could endorse the work of defense ministers at the ADMM-Plus and direct defense ministers to work on particular issues.
Second, the ADMM-Plus has the right structure, with the work driven by expert working groups (EWGs) that focus on seven different areas of security cooperation, including counter-terrorism, maritime security, peacekeeping operations, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The EWGs are co-chaired by an ASEAN and a Plus country on a rotating basis, and they bring together experts throughout the year to share best practices and plan multilateral exercises that advance interoperability.
Third, the ADMM-Plus involves defense ministries and militaries, which have fewer opportunities to engage multilaterally than their foreign and trade ministry counterparts. The exchange of views and the practical security cooperation that flow from these meetings is particularly valuable in a region that has large and growing militaries and intractable security dilemmas.
From a U.S. perspective, the ADMM-Plus has proven to be a valuable platform for regional engagement and has helped shape U.S. defense strategy towards Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region. Prior to the advent of ADMM-Plus, the Shangri La Dialogue was the only venue that offered the opportunity for the U.S. secretary of defense to meet with a number of Asian defense ministers at one meeting. The ADMM-Plus puts another date on the secretary’s annual calendar for travel to Southeast Asia that allows him to exchange views with all of his key regional counterparts, articulate a U.S. vision for regional security, and build personal relationships.
It has also transformed the U.S. approach to ASEAN on the defense side. The U.S. secretary of defense now regularly meets with all 10 ASEAN defense ministers on the margins of ADMM-Plus and the Shangri La Dialogue, and both Secretary Hagel and Secretary Carter hosted their ASEAN counterparts for U.S.-ASEAN Defense Informal meetings in Hawaii (in 2014 and 2016 respectively). ASEAN units have been established across the Department of Defense (DoD), from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to Indo-Pacific Command to the Services, which focus on supporting U.S. engagement with ASEAN. Hundreds of people across DoD are engaged in ASEAN-centered activities, and the Department now thinks seriously about how to strengthen an ASEAN-centered regional security architecture.
At this year’s meeting, Secretary Jim Mattis reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to freedom of navigation and support for the peaceful resolution of disputes according to international law in the South China Sea. The United States and ASEAN also announced that their first-ever joint maritime exercise would be held next year, following the first-ever China-ASEAN maritime exercise that took place last week. These maritime drills allow navies to exercise the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, a set of protocols endorsed by the ADMM-Plus ministers last year to avoid unintended incidents arising from unplanned encounters of naval vessels at sea. This year, Singapore proposed extending a similar set of guidelines to avoid unintended incidents in the air that could escalate into a conflict. The resulting multilateral code, the Guidelines on Air Military Encounters, was endorsed by the ASEAN defense ministers at their ASEAN-only meeting preceding the ADMM-Plus. Although Singapore had hoped to get the United States and China to sign on to the guidelines, which are nonbinding and voluntary, the Plus countries agreed to endorse them in principle and study them further for potential future adoption.
The focus on military encounters in the air and at sea is timely, given the recent incident between U.S. and Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea near Gaven Reef, in which a Chinese warship approached a U.S. destroyer conducting a freedom of navigation operation in an “unsafe and unprofessional maneuver,” according to the U.S. Navy. In a press briefing following the ADMM-Plus meetings, Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen noted that many ASEAN members raised concern over this incident to both the China’s General Wei Fenghe and U.S. Secretary Mattis, seeking clarification of the incident and assurance that both navies are committed to operating safely, respecting freedom of navigation and prioritizing stability and security in the region. Dr. Ng said that he told Defense Minister Wei that China needs a policy that can respond to freedom of navigation operations “which does not escalate tensions. And I think he understood what I meant.”
Taken as a whole, and with the achievements of this year in focus, it’s fair to say that the ADMM-Plus is a testament to ASEAN’s strengths—its ability to convene the region, and its normative power to shape, to some degree at least, how large powers like the United States and China engage with smaller countries. Yet challenges remain, especially against the backdrop of growing U.S.-China strategic rivalry and unresolved tensions in the South China Sea. ASEAN unity on key issues like the South China Sea remains tenuous, which has allowed China to sideline some important strategic discussions.
The practice of issuing an ADMM-Plus joint declaration to capture the key themes and achievements of the ADMM-Plus meeting was discontinued in 2015, when China, utilizing the ASEAN norm of consensus, insisted that anodyne language supporting the full and effective implementation of the ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea and the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea had to be struck from the statement (language that has appeared in virtually ASEAN statements, including the ADMM Joint Declaration released last week).
Moreover, ASEAN’s capacity to respond collectively to challenges like large-scale natural disasters and the sharply declining marine health in the vital ecosystems of the South China Sea remains very limited. Strategic dialogue, confidence-building measures, and multilateral exercises are all valuable tools to promote regional stability, but these pale in comparison to the strategic benefit of a strong, unified ASEAN that is willing to stand up for its vision of an open, inclusive, and rules-based regional order.
Amy Searight is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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