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ADMM-Plus: An ASEAN-led security forum

The meetings of regional defence ministers has advanced multilateral cooperation through strategic dialogue and practical security cooperation.

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Singapore Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen (middle), hosting the ASEAN defence ministers to breakfast during the ADMM-Plus.

DEFENCE ministers from 18 countries met in Singapore in October 2018 for the fifth iteration of the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus).

 Singapore should be congratulated for organising another successful year for the young ASEAN-centred security forum, which brings together the defence ministers from the 10 ASEAN Member States with their eight "Plus" counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. 

 Launched only eight years ago in 2010, the ADMM-Plus has had remarkable trajectory in advancing multilateral cooperation through strategic dialogue and practical security cooperation.

The forum offers the "Plus" countries an opportunity to engage with ASEAN collectively on transnational security challenges and capacity building, in areas like humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and maritime security. 

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 The forum also promotes dialogue among defence chiefs on sensitive issues like the South China Sea and the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Defence ministers have found these meetings so useful that they agreed to meet annually, starting this year, rather than once every three years as was originally agreed in 2010. This year, for the first time, all 18 defence ministers came to the meeting.

The ADMM-Plus is rapidly becoming a keystone to the emerging regional security architecture.

 ADVANTAGES

It has three major advantages over similar security fora. First, it has the right membership, mirroring the East Asia Summit (EAS), with the 18 key countries across the Indo-Pacific that define regional security dynamics.

 Eighteen is also a good size, allowing the ministers to have constructive discussions and for the militaries to undertake practical cooperation without being crippled by too many members.

The overlapping membership with EAS offers the possibility that over time the ADMM-Plus could be linked institutionally with it.

 Second, the ADMM-Plus has the right structure, with the work driven by expert working groups (EWGs) that focus on seven different areas of security cooperation, including counter-terrorism, maritime security and peacekeeping operations.

The EWGs are co-chaired by an ASEAN and a Plus country on a rotating basis, and they bring together experts throughout the year to share best practices and plan multilateral exercises that advance interoperability. 

 Third, the ADMM-Plus involves defence ministries and militaries, which have fewer opportunities to engage multilaterally than their foreign and trade ministry counterparts.

The exchange of views and the practical security cooperation that flow from these meetings are particularly valuable in a region that has large and growing militaries and intractable security dilemmas.

 From a US perspective, the ADMM-Plus has proven to be a valuable platform for regional engagement and has helped shape US defence strategy towards South-east Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.

Prior to the advent of ADMM-Plus, the Shangri La Dialogue was the only venue that offered the opportunity for the US Secretary of Defence to meet several of his Asian counterparts at one meeting.

The ADMM-Plus allows the Secretary to exchange views with all of ASEAN's defence ministers, articulate a US vision for regional security, and build personal relationships. 

At this year's meeting, US Defence Secretary James Mattis reaffirmed the US' unwavering commitment to freedom of navigation and support for the peaceful resolution of disputes according to international law in the South China Sea. 

 The US and ASEAN also announced that their first-ever joint maritime exercise would be held in 2019, following the first-ever China-ASEAN maritime exercise in October.

These maritime drills allow navies to exercise the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, a set of protocols endorsed by the ADMM-Plus ministers last year to avoid unintended incidents involving naval vessels from escalating into conflict.

This year, Singapore proposed extending a similar set of guidelines for military aircraft. 

 The resulting multilateral code, the Guidelines on Air Military Encounters, was endorsed by the ASEAN defence ministers.

Although Singapore had hoped to get the US and China to sign on to the guidelines, which are non-binding and voluntary, the Plus countries agreed to endorse them in principle and study them further for potential future adoption.

 The focus on military encounters in the air and at sea is timely, given the recent incident between American and Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea near Gaven Reef, in which a Chinese warship approached a US destroyer conducting a freedom of navigation operation in an "unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvre", according to the US Navy.

 In a press briefing following the ADMM-Plus meetings, Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen noted that many ASEAN members had raised concerns over this incident to both China's General Wei Fenghe and Mr Mattis.

Taken as a whole, and with the achievements of this year in focus, it's fair to say that the ADMM-Plus is a testament to ASEAN's strengths - its ability to convene the region, and its normative power to shape, to some degree at least, how large powers like the US and China engage with smaller countries. 

 Yet challenges remain, especially against the backdrop of growing US-China strategic rivalry and unresolved tensions in the South China Sea.

 ASEAN unity on key issues like the South China Sea remains tenuous, which has allowed China to sideline some important strategic discussions. 

 The practice of issuing an ADMM-Plus Joint Declaration to capture the key themes and achievements of the ADMM-Plus meeting was discontinued in 2015, when China, utilising the ASEAN norm of consensus, insisted that anodyne language supporting the full and effective implementation of the ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea, and the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea had to be struck from the statement. 

RESPONSE CAPABILITIES

Moreover, ASEAN's capacity to respond collectively to challenges like large-scale natural disasters and the sharply declining marine health in the vital ecosystems of the South China Sea remains very limited.

 Strategic dialogue, confidence-building measures, and multilateral exercises are all valuable tools to promote regional stability, but these pale in comparison to the strategic benefit of a strong, unified ASEAN that is willing to stand up for its vision of an open, inclusive, and rules-based regional order. 

  • The writer is senior adviser and director of the South-east Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and South-east Asia.
    A version of this article was first published in The Straits Times.