Author: Ron Huisken, ANU
The first meeting of Defence Ministers from ASEAN, plus the US, China, Russia, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, was held in Hanoi on October 12. Judging from the exceedingly anodyne joint declaration, ASEAN was content with the fact of the meeting. And that is not unreasonable. Getting these 18 defence ministers together is no small feat: Collectively, they ‘command’ defence resources comparable to the members of NATO, and unlike NATO, there is no past war or crisis or common threat to drive them together.
The ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) is itself a recent creation. It has met just four times since 2006 before venturing into this ADMM Plus format. The current intention is for the ADMM to go on meeting annually and to bring in the Plus countries every three years. There are good odds, in my view, that the ADMM Plus will start meeting more frequently than that sooner rather than later.
The ADMM focused itself very explicitly on the so-called non-traditional security agenda, an open-ended clutch of issues that are less politically sensitive than traditional state-on-state security concerns, essentially because the question of intent is absent. Precisely for this reason, several of the prevailing multilateral fora in Asia have been drawn to the non-traditional security agenda as a relatively safe arena in which to appear to be moving forward: the ASEAN+3, the East Asia Summit and, of course, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Far and away the most popular of these issues have been disaster relief and humanitarian assistance.
The ADMM Plus has also been pointed carefully toward the non-traditional security agenda, at least initially. The Vietnamese hosts of the inaugural meeting identified humanitarian aid, disaster relief, maritime security, counter-terrorism and peacekeeping operations as priority areas for cooperation. Among other things, this meant that the current regional hot-potatoes – the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the China-Japan dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands northwest of Taiwan – were never going to be on the agenda (although the inclusion of maritime security is a tilt in the direction of these issues). Any future recasting of the ADMM Plus agenda will have to be agreed among all 18 participating countries.
ASEAN clearly opted for a safety first approach to this first meeting. Even so, the event had outcomes beyond the simple fact that 18 states agreed to be part of such a forum. One of the hidden virtues of multilateral gatherings is the opportunity they provide for discreet bilateral meetings that, for any number of reasons, may have been difficult and perhaps impossible to pull off as conspicuous official events. The US-China and China-Japan defence ministerial meetings that took place in Hanoi in the margins of ADMM Plus arguably fit this description: SecDef Gates will make an official visit to China next year and China/Japan will set up a hotline to help manage frictions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
A second virtue is that any ministerial gathering almost automatically generates a sub-structure of meetings of senior officials and, in the case of the ADMM Plus, the creation of working groups at the official/expert level to develop issues for eventual consideration by ministers. Australia’s Defence Minister Stephen Smith said in an interview that Australia and Malaysia had put themselves forward as possible co-chairs of a working group on maritime security.
On a broader canvas, the 18 states involved in the ADMM Plus also constitute the membership of the East Asia Summit and all of them are members of the ARF. A leadership forum with two more specialised ministerial forums could see some constructive synergises emerge. APEC could be regarded as a third specialised forum covering the trade/finance end of the spectrum. Equally, of course, it has to be remembered that all of these forums embrace crucially important bilateral relationships – especially, perhaps, US-China, China-Japan, and China-India – that also happen to be less than robustly stable.
The Asia Pacific confronts daunting challenges of peaceful geo-political accommodation if it is to reap the full benefits of its economic dynamism. But it is a little better equipped now than it was two weeks ago to address these challenges.
Ron Huisken is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, School of International, Political & Strategic Studies, ANU.