Competing visions of the East Asian multilateral order pursued by China and the United States have put a strain on the extant regional architecture. While Sino-U.S. competition in the region has arguably been most visible in the economic sphere and South China Sea disputes, defense multilateralism — in the form of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and the ADMM-Plus — is also a key part of the regional order and would likely be affected by growing major power rivalry.
Currently in their eleventh and seventh years respectively, the ADMM and the ADMM-Plus have typically focused on confidence and capacity building — avoiding the more political sensitive issues. Nevertheless, considering the fluctuations in regional relations that could set the tone for multilateral defense cooperation, it is important to consider the views of ADMM and ADMM-Plus member states on the value and contributions of the two mechanisms to regional stability.
Specifically, what do member states think are the forums’ strengths and challenges, and what are their thoughts on how the ADMM and ADMM-Plus should evolve? To gather these views, interviews were conducted in six ASEAN states and four Plus countries with current and former defense and military practitioners, as well as Track 2 officials and academics familiar with the ADMM and ADMM-Plus arrangements.
Strengths of the ADMM and ADMM-Plus
Interviewees generally agreed that the ADMM and ADMM-Plus had two primary strengths. First, the ADMM and ADMM-Plus are the only meetings in the Asia Pacific that gather, respectively, the 10 and 18 defense ministers across the region to exchange views on a range of security issues. Such dialogue — both at the multilateral level and during bilateral meetings on the sidelines — is seen to be critical because it helps to create shared understandings.
Second, the practical nature of ADMM and ADMM-Plus cooperation through joint table-top and field exercises contributes to capacity building for ASEAN states to respond to regional security challenges. Specifically, interviewees from both ASEAN and the Plus countries highlighted humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) as an area where ASEAN countries need to build up more capacity. This would enable ASEAN to take the lead in future HADR missions in the region.
Another strength, pointed out mainly by interviewees in the Plus countries, involved the role of ASEAN centrality in the ADMM-Plus. The forum is valuable and relevant to its stakeholders precisely because of its perceived independence and neutrality amid major power rivalry. The dialogue partners’ prioritization of ASEAN centrality in the ADMM-Plus is no doubt an encouraging sign to the association. Nevertheless, intensifying Sino-U.S. competition could potentially be detrimental to the ability of the ADMM and ADMM-Plus to conduct candid and frank discussions on security issues.
Challenges Facing the ADMM and ADMM-Plus
Certainly, several interviewees highlighted that major power politics are increasingly visible in the region. The discrepancy between regional interests and the respective national interests of member states has exposed to some extent the fracture among ASEAN members. In addition, interviewees from the Plus countries observed that ASEAN’s principle of consensus poses a challenge to ADMM-Plus cooperation, given the forum’s relatively large membership and consequently the disparate interests on key regional issues.
The question of whether the ADMM and ADMM-Plus are ready to tackle traditional security issues drew mixed responses. While most of the interviewees from ASEAN and China were against the idea of discussing traditional security issues in these forums, several interviewees from Japan, South Korea, and the United States expressed the opinion that such issues needed to be addressed for the ADMM-Plus, in particular, to continue being relevant. This is perhaps unsurprising given that these countries have a crucial interest in issues such as the South China Sea disputes and North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.
A third challenge facing the ADMM and ADMM-Plus is the lack of institutionalization and varying levels of capabilities among member states. Differing levels of military capacity were perceived as hindering deeper functional cooperation, while differing levels of diplomatic capacity were seen to affect the leadership performance of the respective ADMM chairs from year to year. The lack of continuity, either from one ADMM chair to the next, or within the respective countries’ defense establishments, also limits the potential of any cooperative endeavors.
What Comes Next?
Looking ahead, the ADMM and ADMM-Plus should consolidate their best practices, as well as work out strategies to address challenges to regional defense diplomacy. In this regard, interviewees agreed that military capacity building should continue. ASEAN states should also be clear on the type and level of assistance that they require from the dialogue partners.
Meanwhile, to pre-empt any destabilization in relations, member states should ensure that the benefits and goodwill gained from joint military exercises and trainings reverberate beyond those activities. One way this could be done is for the ADMM and ADMM-Plus to promote common rules and norms of behavior in regional aviation and maritime spaces. Not only would this help to establish codes of conduct in case of accidents or emergencies, it would also contribute toward the broader objective of a rules-based regional order.
There was also a call for greater institutionalization of the ADMM and ADMM-Plus. To achieve this, the ADMM could consider establishing a secretariat that would also manage ADMM-Plus matters. In addition, greater synergy between the ADMM and ADMM-Plus, and other forums, could be cultivated. These could include the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, or even Track 2 institutions such as the Network of ASEAN Defense and Security Institutions. Enhancing these links would help to strengthen the institutional web that overlays regional relations.
Last but not least, it would perhaps be timely for the ADMM-Plus to take stock of its six Experts’ Working Groups (EWGs). While most interviewees perceived the current number of EWGs and their scopes to be adequate, they highlighted that a review of each EWG should be conducted to ascertain if they have met their objectives. This would enable a more effective allocation of limited resources to tackle regional security challenges.
The next hurdle for the ADMM and ADMM-Plus, then, would involve sustaining the momentum of strategic dialogue and practical cooperation amid challenges in regional relations. It is necessary for the ADMM and ADMM-Plus to continuously evolve and anticipate regional developments, in order to ensure the relevance of both platforms among member states and ultimately within the larger regional order.
This article was written with contributions from Associate Professor Bhubhindar Singh, Henrick Z. Tsjeng, and Shawn Ho, all of whom are with the Regional Security Architecture Program, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Sarah Teo is Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Program, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney, Australia.