Last year at the Shangri-La Dialogue, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel extended a public invitation to all 10 of his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to join him in Hawaii for informal discussions.
The inaugural U.S.-ASEAN Defense Forum was held from April 1-3 in Honolulu. This marked the first occasion that ASEAN Defense Ministers had met in the United States.
Prior to his arrival in Honolulu, Secretary Hagel told reporters on his plane, “I want those defense ministers after they leave Hawaii to feel even more clarity about U.S. commitment to the area, our coordination, our communication, the areas we can cooperate more and more and more [sic] and certainly humanitarian assistance, disaster relief is one (area).”
According to a senior U.S. defense official, the U.S.-ASEAN Defense Forum comprised three segments: visits to military bases and the regional tsunami threat and detection center and a round-table on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) on April 2nd, and an informal dialogue on regional security issues on April 3.
On April 2, the ASEAN defense ministers toured Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam where they were shown both high-end military capabilities, such as B-52 and B2 bombers and F-22 fighters, as well as a C-17 configured for medical evacuation as part of HA/DR operations.
The defense ministers also paid a visit to the USS Anchorage (LPD 23), an amphibious transport dock. The USS Anchorage houses an advanced command and control center. It is capable of embarking landing craft air cushion and amphibious assault vehicles as well as the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. The USS Anchorage also equipped with advanced medical facilities.
In sum, the USS Anchorage is capable of conducting ship-to-shore missions ranging from combat to delivering humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
At a media briefing held on the deck of the USS Anchorage, Secretary Hagel noted, “we also focused on our military-to-military relationships and joint exercises that we continue to strengthen and deepen and widen.”
Admiral Samuel Locklear III, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, accompanied the ASEAN defense ministers. They were shown a demonstration of the Osprey’s capabilities from the flight deck. Admiral Locklear discussed maritime domain awareness and security cooperation with his guests.
The ASEAN defense ministers also toured the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Inoyue Regional Centre where they were briefed by Pacific Tsunami Warning Center staff on climate change, rising temperatures, sea level rise, typhoons and tsunamis.
The second segment of the US-ASEAN Defense Forum included a roundtable held at Inouye Regional Center hosted by NOAA’s administrator, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, and moderated by Dr. Rajiv Shah, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development. In addition to the ASEAN defense ministers, the round-table included representatives from the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, federal agencies, and the commercial sector.
The round-table focused on HA/DR, non-traditional security preparedness, and the lessons learned from recent experiences.
Dr. Shah quoted from the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the Asia-Pacific is victim to more than 70 percent of all recorded natural disasters. Therefore it was necessary for governments to collaborate and work together to mitigate the impact of typhoons, flooding, and other extreme weather events.
Singapore’s Defense Minister, Ng Eng Hen, proposed using Changi Naval Base as a regional HA/DR crisis coordination center. The center would operate 24/7 and could be scaled up in response to natural disaster. According to Minister Ng,
We evolved a concept, we call it ‘plug and play.’ We set up terminals, you bring in your systems, you give the information you feel comfortable with… We take all that information, fuse it and then pump it out. It’s worked quite well.
Secretary Hagel noted, “This could be an important venue for nations in the region to co-ordinate military responses to disasters and it’s an idea that we’re going to pursue.”
The third and final segment of the Defense Forum included an informal session on regional security issues. According to press reports the defense ministers touched on maritime security, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the role of NATO in bringing European nations together to deal with the Crimean crisis, and U.S. fiscal restraints.
The Defense Forum ended with a press conference. Secretary Hagel opened his remarks by noting that the first U.S.-ASEAN Defense Forum “was an important milestone in America’s growing engagement with the ASEAN nations, and another signal of the important role ASEAN has to play in promoting regional stability and prosperity.”
Referring to the round-table on HA/DR the previous day, Secretary Hagel noted, “natural disasters and humanitarian crisis will be defining security challenges of the 21st century, not only for Southeast Asia, but for the world.”
Finally, Secretary Hagel revealed that during the informal session on regional security,
I told the ministers that the United States is increasingly concerned about the instability arising from territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The rights of nations must be respected. It’s important that all claimants avoid the use of force or threat of force or intimidation or coercion. We urge all claimants in these disputes to clarify their claims, including their basis in international law, and to use internationally-accepted rules and standards of behavior.
The ASEAN Defense Ministers also issued a joint statement in which they noted, “We believe that Malaysia has done its level best in responding to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 and subsequent efforts to locate the missing plane.”
On April 8, Secretary Hagel met with Fan Changlong, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, in Beijing. Fan was unusually blunt in his public remarks,
I can tell you frankly, your remarks made in the ASEAN defense ministers meeting and to the Japanese politicians were tough, and with a clear attitude. The Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied with such remarks.
Secretary Hagel and the U.S. Defense Department struck the right chord in hosting the inaugural U.S.-ASEAN Defense Forum. This meeting focused on a priority concern of ASEAN states: whole of government approaches and military-to-military cooperation to deal with Southeast Asia’s top non-traditional security issue, disaster response and humanitarian assistance.
Importantly, Secretary Hagel underscored the central importance of ASEAN and continued U.S. commitment to rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific.
After their tour of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, no ASEAN defense ministers would have been in doubt about conventional capabilities of the U.S. armed forces to contribute to regional security. At the same time, defense ministers would have been impressed by the ability of the U.S. military to instantly convert major war fighting platforms into delivery platforms for HA/DR missions.
On April 2, Secretary Hage, was asked at a press conference if he had any plans to make the U.S.-ASEAN Defense Forum an annual event. He replied, “that’s not my decision. That is the ASEAN ministers’ decision.”