Last week, defense ministers from around the region met for the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and the ADMM-Plus in the Philippines, which are held annually and biannually among Southeast Asian states and some other major regional partners. The meetings, along with other bilateral engagements on the sidelines, provided some sense of what the regional defense picture looks like and where it is headed.
As I have noted before, ASEAN’s rising role in the shaping of the regional architecture in recent years – often termed “ASEAN centrality” for short – has presented both an opportunity and a challenge (See: “Laos as ASEAN Chair: Opportunities and Challenges”). It is an opportunity because, apart from convening power generated from holding court, it gives the smaller countries of Southeast Asia a chance to help manage relationships between themselves and major powers and, perhaps more ambitiously, between major powers themselves. But it is also a challenge because the intensifying involvement of major powers has also made the liabilities of ASEAN’s institutional features more visible and threatened its unity.
The ADMM and ADMM-Plus are not exempt from this challenge. Over the years, some key major powers, including the United States, have recognized ADMM-Plus – which groups the ten countries of ASEAN along with six “Plus” countries – as the emerging premier venue for defense and security issues in the region, and they have expressed interest in engaging more with it formally as well as informally with ASEAN states.
For ASEAN states, though this is welcome, greater major power involvement also means managing a growing series of formal and informal meetings as well as potentially more external intervention in the management of certain issues, with the South China Sea just being one case in point (See: “The Truth About Duterte’s ASEAN South China Sea Blow”). This is occurring as individual Southeast Asian states and the region more broadly face some formidable challenges, from individual threats such as terrorism and the South China Sea disputes to changing domestic political dynamics to a more uncertain geopolitical environment.
The Philippines, a longtime U.S. ally and founding member of ASEAN that is playing host to the ASEAN defense meetings this year as the holder of the annually rotating ASEAN chair, is a case in point. The Southeast Asian state saw a wave of populism catapult President Rodrigo Duterte to power and his new government initially forge closer ties with China and Russia as part of a so-called independent foreign policy. It has also been embroiled in a struggle against Islamic State-linked groups following a siege in the southern city of Marawi in May, which the government declared had ended just as the defense meetings got underway (See: “ASEAN’s Post-Marawi Islamic State Challenge”).
These broader dynamics played out as the Philippines hosted the ADMM, which has been held annually amongst Southeast Asian states themselves since 2006, and the ADMM-Plus, a newer, expanded biennial version held since 2011 which groups ASEAN members with the United States, China, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Russia. Both the 11th ADMM and the 4th ADMM-Plus were held in Clark Freeport north of the Philippine capital of Manila, during a year where ASEAN is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
To be sure, as usual, the bulk of the meetings were largely about reviewing ongoing progress in several functional areas of cooperation and the seven working groups – on counterterrorism, HADR, maritime security, military medicine, peacekeeping operations, humanitarian mine action, and cybersecurity – as well as streamlining existing collaboration.
The ADMM also took stock of recent initiatives at various stages of operationalization, be it the ASEAN Center of Military Medicine adopted in 2016 hosted in Thailand, the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for region-wide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) response, the ASEAN Militaries Ready Group (AMRG) proposed by Malaysia, and the ASEAN Direct Communications Infrastructure (DCI) that was unveiled by Brunei with the Philippines which will serve as a direct hotline for ASEAN defense ministers (Brunei had first proposed this back in 2013).
In terms of new steps taken, the biggest item was the annualization of the ADMM-Plus. The finalization of the move, which has long been mulled, marks significant progress for the regional architecture as more frequent meetings will likely quicken the pace of ongoing collaboration. Apart from the announcement itself, there were also guidelines to go along with the meetings moving forward as well as the structuring of engagement with not just the Plus countries, but Non-Plus countries as well who have expressed interest in being involved in workshops, seminars, and exercises.
But there were also other notable ongoing initiatives as well. For instance, at the ADMM, there was an ad hoc group set up to develop guidelines on air encounters between aircraft, the adoption of a concept paper on guidelines for maritime interaction to help prevent untoward incidents in the South China Sea, and mention of progress to be made on developing common reference for the planning, training, and conduct of peacekeeping operations, which is another promising area of cooperation that has moved more slowly than advocates would like. Less progress was seen in other more ambitious areas which continue to be emphasized, such as defense industrial cooperation.
Issue-wise, as is traditionally the case, the ADMM and ADMM-Plus saw discussion around a whole host of matters including HADR, maritime security, the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and the South China Sea. But there was a high level of focus on terrorism in particular, which was not surprising given concerns about the Islamic State in the region as well as the situation that the host nation itself has been facing (See: “Why Has the Philippines Struggled in its War Against the Islamic State?”). Southeast Asian defense ministers began with a special breakfast meeting focused on dealing with the terrorist threat in the region. And they also subsequently issued a short joint statement on countering violent extremism, radicalization, and terrorism noting that they would explore ways to cooperate in various areas including intelligence-sharing and cooperation with civil society and academic institutions.
In spite of the regional solidary on the issue, much of the meat of defense cooperation among Southeast Asian states themselves and with select partners remains at the subregional, bilateral, and minilateral levels. The most prominent example of this is the trilateral cooperation between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines with respect to countering challenges in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas (See: “What’s With the New Sulu Sea Trilateral Air Patrols?”).
The South China Sea issue once again made an appearance, albeit a less controversial one relative to some of the past years. There was the usual reiteration of principles that needed to be safeguarded, affirmation of the importance of some confidence-building measures being taken, and acknowledgment of work toward a code of conduct (COC) to regulate behavior in the South China Sea, which remains at a draft framework stage and will move on to Singapore’s plate next year as ASEAN chair for 2018. But as I have noted before, though this grinding work is important, the lingering question remains the extent to which it matters in the context of the more imminent reality of China’s de facto control of the South China Sea (See: “Will a China-ASEAN South China Sea Code of Conduct Really Matter?”).
Looking ahead, Singapore’s leadership of the ADMM and ADMM Plus is likely to produce some more gains on the defense front next year. Earlier this year, Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen told participants at the Shangri-La Dialogue that this would include the initiation of the much-ballyhooed ASEAN-China maritime exercise that Beijing first formally proposed back in 2015, the expansion of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) to all ADMM-Plus countries, and the establishing a set of guidelines for air encounters between military aircraft for ASEAN. With the city-state facing its own challenges abroad, including dealing with a more assertive China and a more unpredictable United States, it will be interesting to see how it leads the region on the defense front.