As I reported for The Diplomat earlier this week, the focus of the recent ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) held in Malaysia was the grouping’s failure to adopt a joint statement due to disagreements on the South China Sea (See: “China Blocked ASEAN Defense Meeting Pact Amid South China Sea Fears: US Official”).
But what did the ADMM-Plus – which groups the ten Southeast Asian countries along with the United States, China, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Russia – actually accomplish?
Before diving in, it is important to note that the ADDM-Plus is a newer, expanded version of the ADMM, which takes place between the ten ASEAN countries themselves and is held annually. The inaugural ADMM-Plus was held in Vietnam back in 2010, and the ADMM-Plus is held biannually.
As I noted in a separate piece, this year’s ADMM produced a number of interesting developments worth noting before looking at the accomplishments of the ADMM-Plus. Most notably, at their annual retreat, ASEAN states moved towards setting up a hotline to help them communicate quickly and securely in a crisis situation (See: “ASEAN Sets Up New Hotline Amid South China Sea Tensions”). According to Malaysia’s defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein, the host of this year’s ASEAN-related summitry since Malaysia holds the rotating ASEAN chair for 2015, Southeast Asian nations also discussed regional and global security issues like terrorism, cyber security and maritime security.
The 3rd ADMM-Plus, themed “ASEAN-Maintaining Regional Security and Stability For and by the People,” saw the 18 countries take stock of ongoing defense cooperation and discuss relevant issues.
According to the chairman’s statement, at the meeting, the defense ministers were briefed on the progress under the six ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Groups (EWGs), the divisions under which cooperation is structured through field training exercises, meetings, workshops and seminars. These are: humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR); maritime security; military medicine; counterterrorism; peacekeeping operations; and humanitarian mine action.
Within these discussions, there was mention of specific initiatives being furthered. One important one that Malaysia has focused on during its chairmanship is the ASEAN militaries ready group on HADR (See: “ASEAN Defense Ministers Sign Security Declaration”). The idea, as Hishammuddin has described it, would be to prepare a military team under the ASEAN banner for quick deployment to crisis areas in a coordinated manner.
There has already been a commitment by ASEAN member states to establish the implementing mechanisms necessary for the initiative. By contrast, one of the other initiatives Malaysia had initially pushed for – an ASEAN peacekeeping force – has been slower to take off due to familiar obstacles (See: “Malaysia Wants an ASEAN Peacekeeping Force”)
Members then proceeded to exchange views on regional and international security and defense issues. These discussions covered not only general functional topics such as maritime security, the Islamic State and cyber security, but also developments like tensions in the Korean Peninsula and the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. The South China Sea issue was also discussed at the meeting, with it noting the importance of the effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct (COC).
Proposals were also made for further strengthening defense cooperation. For example, Singapore’s defense minister Ng Eng Heng suggested expanding the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) – an agreement reached at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in 2014 – to include white shipping (civilian ships) and called for the ADMM-Plus to adopt a similar protocol for air. Ng had previously mentioned CUES as an example of a practical measure to reduce miscalculation at sea in an address at the 10th International Maritime Defense Exhibition Asia (IMDEX) which Singapore hosted this May (See: “Singapore Calls for Global Plan To Tackle Maritime Challenges”).
CUES, a set of measures designed to reduce the chance of an incident at sea, has since been used in actual joint exercises since (See: “Japan, Philippines Hold First South China Sea Naval Exercises”). Most recently, China proposed a new exercise with ASEAN countries under CUES during the first-ever China-ASEAN informal defense ministers’ meeting in Beijing (See: “The Truth About China’s New South China Sea Drill Proposal With ASEAN”).
As for the non-adoption of the joint statement, beyond the U.S.-China blame game, several Southeast Asian officials played down the disagreement. In his chairman’s statement, Hishammuddin emphasized that joint declarations would not actually contribute to solving disputes in the South China Sea. “What is signed in the joint declaration is not going to resolve the issue of duplicating claims, nor is it going to wish the vessels that are in the South China Sea away,” he said. “To dwell on the joint declaration is not going to solve the real problems.”
Instead, Hishammuddin underscored the importance of concluding a code of conduct on the South China Sea to build mutual trust and confidence and maintain regional peace and stability. Malaysia is a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, though it has tended to adopt a quieter stance relative to the Philippines and Vietnam (See: “Malaysia’s South China Sea Policy: Playing it Safe“).
Meanwhile, Ng, Singapore’s defense minister, said he preferred to look at the failure to adopt a joint statement as an honest acknowledgement of disagreements rather than papering over them.
“We would have all preferred for us to be able to sign off on the joint declaration. But I don’t think necessarily that it’s a bad thing. It would be far less credible for us to say, well, there are issues that we don’t agree on, but let’s sign on something which we can all agree on,” he said.
“I think that sometimes not being able to agree, or agreeing that we disagree, and being able to reflect on the different perspectives is in a sense a progress in maturity.”
Hishammuddin also performed the ceremonial move of officially handing over the ADMM chairmanship to his Laotian counterpart Lt. Gen Sengnouane Sayalat since Laos will be chairing ASEAN in 2016.