The ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) holds its tenth meeting on May 24 in Vientiane, Lao People’s Democratic Republic. This anniversary should not be taken lightly, for its achievements over the decade are not insignificant—the forum has deepened confidence and trust among the ten ASEAN countries, and has done relatively well in engaging with external powers, especially in the transfer of expertise through the ADMM-Plus, where such engagement was previously perceived to be contrary to regional interests.
The ADMM and its Plus counterpart, the latter of which consists of eight extra-regional countries such as the United States, China, Japan, are widely acknowledged to have done well in fostering cooperation in non-traditional security (NTS) areas. Such initiatives have continued in a sustained manner, such as the successful conduct of the ADMM-Plus Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and Military Medicine Exercise in June 2013, the agreement to form an ASEAN Militaries Ready Group in March 2015, and the launch of the ASEAN Center of Military Medicine in April 2016.
ASEAN Centrality and Solidarity at Risk
However, recent events are posing a major challenge to the ADMM and ASEAN. In the Third ADMM-Plus in November 2015, a joint declaration was not issued due to disagreement over the South China Sea, the second time such an incident has taken place in ASEAN. Nonetheless, a Chairman’s Statement was issued that alluded to the need for the prompt conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, demonstrating that ASEAN centrality and solidarity remained fairly intact.
Outside the framework of the ADMM and ADMM-Plus, China’s consolidation of reclaimed islands and the continued U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea show no sign of slowing. Moreover, the four-point consensus on the South China Sea reached between China, Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos has again generated significant debate, with some long-time observers of ASEAN warning of the risks to ASEAN solidarity.
Multinational cooperation could be derailed if South China Sea tensions rise to a level that erodes the confidence, trust, and solidarity that ASEAN has painstakingly built. While the ADMM still holds much promise for deepening cooperation and maintaining ASEAN solidarity, the latter is particularly at risk due not only to the differences in national positions regarding the South China Sea dispute, but also the perceptions that ASEAN solidarity is waning. As such, there is an urgent need for deeper dialogue on traditional security, particularly crisis mitigation measures.
More ADMM Discussion of Traditional Security Needed
While the ADMM has mostly focused on NTS as its basis for cooperation and dialogue, it has in fact tackled elements of traditional security before. The Direct Communications Link (DCL) is a prime example, as it is one of the “practical measures that reduce vulnerability to miscalculations, and avoid misunderstanding and undesirable incidents at sea,” as stated in the concept paper on the DCL. Moreover, the ADMM has informally met with the defense chiefs of both China and the United States, during which traditional security issues were touched upon.
Meanwhile, the ADMM-Plus itself does discuss traditional security issues, but they have tended to be in relatively broad terms, have accomplished little actionable outcomes as compared to the Experts’ Working Groups (EWGs) on various NTS issues, and, as the Third ADMM-Plus has demonstrated, carry the risk of division with the involvement of major powers.
The ADMM would be thus an ideal place to discuss these issues, as ASEAN Member States can forge common ground on traditional security measures and appropriate measures away from the external powers, before floating them to the ADMM-Plus level. In this way, ASEAN Member States would have a common understanding of the traditional security issues to be discussed at the ADMM-Plus, and would be better prepared to show a unified front when interacting with the Plus countries.
Crisis Mitigation Measures
While it is unrealistic to expect the ADMM to discuss maritime delimitation, measures could be taken to ensure that incidents at sea are managed and not allowed to escalate. For example, the suggestion by the Singapore Chief of Navy during the Fourth International Maritime Security Conference in 2015 for a regional framework on submarine operational safety could be discussed, given the mounting number of submarines in the region and the increasing risk of an accident. Additionally, Singapore’s proposal for an enhancement of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) could also be considered at the ADMM.
Moreover, while the ADMM has conducted multinational exercises, these have mainly been on NTS issues. The ADMM could consider holding conventional naval exercises at the ASEAN-wide level, as a way of building trust and confidence and complementing the existing exercises between ASEAN countries and external partners outside of the ADMM and ASEAN frameworks.
Finally, the ADMM could also hold dialogues on freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, principles that ASEAN has been able to find common ground on, so as to come to closer understanding and consensus on these critical issues.
Once the ADMM reaches agreement on these measures, they can propose them at the ADMM-Plus level. However, given the sensitive implications of these measures and the possibility of a breakdown in talks arising from disagreement, it would be appropriate to discuss these at the sidelines of the main ADMM-Plus meetings. One possible way forward is to broaden the current six EWGs to new ones that would focus on traditional security issues, such as crisis mitigation. These could conduct dialogue away from the main meetings and float proposals to the ADMM-Plus once consensus has been made among all parties in the EWGs.
The ADMM has accomplished much since its foundation ten years ago. However, increasing geopolitical tensions arising from major power rivalry and the South China Sea disputes are threatening to derail these achievements, especially where ASEAN centrality and solidarity are concerned.
In the coming decade, the ADMM could discuss traditional security issues so as to manage tensions that may otherwise damage ASEAN solidarity, and float these issues to the ADMM-Plus level once consensus on these is reached. By mitigating regional tensions, the ADMM would be better equipped to maintain ASEAN centrality and solidarity even as engagement with the Plus countries continues.
Henrick Z. Tsjeng is Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.