ASEAN Beat

Moving ASEAN Toward Sustainable Defense Cooperation

What came out of the latest ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting, and what’s next?

By Sarah Teo for
Moving ASEAN Toward Sustainable Defense Cooperation
Credit: Singapore MINDEF

The 13th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM), held on July 11, in Bangkok, Thailand, was a considerably quiet affair — there were no controversies, no public disagreements, and no last-minute decision to cancel a joint statement. Since the early 2010s, ASEAN-centred meetings have on occasion been venues where interstate tensions have manifested, although, to be sure, the ADMM itself has so far steered clear of these scenarios. Instead, it has been able to keep its focus on dialogue and practical cooperation toward managing regional security challenges.

At the most recent ADMM in Bangkok, defense ministers of the 10 ASEAN member states adopted six documents, specifically on assessing existing ADMM initiatives, supporting border management cooperation, establishing an ASEAN military medicine conference, implementing guidelines for maritime interaction, establishing a hotline between ADMM countries and the eight ADMM-Plus countries, as well as endorsing the terms of reference of the “Our Eyes” initiative, which facilitates information sharing for counterterrorism.

A joint declaration on “sustainable security” was also signed. As part of Thailand’s theme for its ASEAN chairmanship this year, sustainable security involves strengthening the capacities of ASEAN member states to address regional nontraditional and transnational security threats, as well as boosting defense cooperation among ASEAN countries and with the Plus countries. These are not unfamiliar goals for the ADMM.

While the ADMM started out primarily as a trust- and confidence-building platform in 2006, its objectives soon evolved to include defense capacity building for its 10 member states in disaster relief and peaceful disputes settlement. Additionally, as early as 2007, the concept paper for the ADMM-Plus — later launched in 2010 — urged the Plus countries to contribute toward the capacity-building efforts of the ASEAN member states. More importantly, even as ASEAN centrality remains the mantra of the regional security architecture, it is evident that the most pressing regional security challenges cannot be resolved solely by the ASEAN countries. These concerns have conceivably guided the ADMM’s evolution over the past 13 years, and at the heart of this evolution is arguably the concept of sustainable security.

Considering that multilateral defense cooperation in ASEAN is a relatively new phenomenon that only emerged after member states had established a certain level of trust, the long-term sustainability of such cooperation would be a significant part of the ASEAN enterprise. In the context of today’s regional strategic climate, how could ASEAN member states ensure that regional defense cooperation continues to progress, even amid rising Sino-U.S. tensions? In what ways could ASEAN member states continue to build up their defense capacities while taking into consideration the potential instability and uncertainty in the regional security environment?

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There are potentially a few elements to consider in the journey toward sustainable security. One would be consistency. The ASEAN chairmanship rotates among the 10 member states on an annual basis, suggesting that the yearly ADMM agenda would vary according to the interests of the particular country that is chair for that year. In 2018, for instance, Singapore as ASEAN chair included chemical, biological, and radiological threats on the ADMM’s agenda — a topic that has not appeared to garner much attention under the current Thai chairmanship.

To some extent, the triennial ADMM work program ensures that there is broad consistency in the ADMM agenda across the chairmanship transitions. Counterterrorism and maritime confidence building, for instance, were on the agendas of both the Singapore and Thai chairmanships. In the long term, consistency is important. It reflects not only consensus about the key regional security issues among the ASEAN defense ministers, but also that each ASEAN chair is committed to following through and building upon the work of the preceding chair.

The second element that would contribute toward sustainable security is consolidation. The establishment of guidelines to assess existing ADMM initiatives at this year’s ADMM is a good start. It indicates the opportunity to review and evaluate the objectives and effectiveness of the ADMM’s work, and consequently to make decisions on whether to expand or reduce certain initiatives. This would help to ensure that ADMM cooperation keeps up with the changing strategic environment and trends.

Moreover, some aspects of the ADMM’s work overlap with other ASEAN-centric forums, and at the broader ASEAN level there is a risk of activity fatigue. Given that resources and time are limited, consolidation is necessary to ensure that ASEAN member states are not overstretched. This would, in turn, help to sustain ADMM cooperation for the long term.

Last but not least, the third element that plays a role in sustainable security would be confidence. Hotlines as well as safety guidelines for air and maritime interactions contribute, firstly, toward reducing miscalculations, and secondly, toward a suitable response framework should incidents occur. The measures serve to establish predictability among the defense personnel of ASEAN countries in their interactions with each other.

Confidence building has been one of ASEAN’s most important objectives since its inception, and also a key task of broader ASEAN-centric platforms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum. For the ADMM, the willingness of ASEAN member states to continue investing in multilateral defense cooperation depends partly on whether trust exists among the 10 countries. In this sense, enhancing confidence among ASEAN defense establishments would also be part of ensuring the long-term viability of ASEAN defense cooperation.

Given the historical security animosities among several ASEAN nations, the inauguration of the ADMM in 2006 was a significant milestone. Today, as the ADMM moves further along into its second decade and as regional strategic dynamics evolve, the forum faces its next challenge of sustaining the momentum of multilateral defense cooperation. Should it succeed in this, the ADMM would bolster its standing as a key pillar within the ASEAN framework for maintaining a stable regional security environment.

Sarah Teo is an Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.