The 8th ADMM Plus Meeting: Major Takeaways
Prof Rajaram Panda
Introduction

The 15th ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and the 8th ASEAN Plus Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM+) was hosted by this year’s ASEAN Chair Brunei Darussalam from 15-16 June, wherein a number of conceptual documents were adopted relating to strengthening cooperation. In the times of the pandemic, it was held virtually. Securing peace and stability in the much contested South China Sea critical to maritime trade dominated the discussion. Cambodia’s Minister of National Defence Tea Banh was aware that his country will hold the ASEAN Chair in 2022 on rotational basis and therefore was keen to understand and examine many of the regional strategic dimensions in the discussion in view of the criticism that it was leaning closer towards China, the regional bully.1

Nine concepts, discussion and standard operating rules documents were approved. Among them, four conceptual documents focussing on improving the telecommunications infrastructure in ASEAN, strengthening ASEAN links with external partners, increasing cooperation in the field of information security and establishing an information technology centre for the ASEAN defence sector were adopted. The Bandar Seri Begawan Joint Declaration on the 15th Anniversary of the ADMM was issued. It underlined the importance to increase readiness for a future of peace and prosperity in ASEAN with a focus on strengthening ASEAN and enhancing defence operations among ASEAN member states. The encouraging aspect was that most of the members were on the same page and there was consensus on all the issued covered.

The new issues likely to be taken up when Cambodia hosts the ADMM in 2022, besides strategic issues, are strengthening the role of the armies of ASEAN member states to deal with cross-border disease outbreaks and strengthening mechanisms to support ASEAN women in peacekeeping operations. It was also agreed that the ASEAN-Australia Informal Meeting of Defence Ministers and the ASEAN-South Korea Informal Meeting shall take place in November 2021. The defence ministers also expressed concerns about the developments in Myanmar, terrorism, the Korean Peninsula, climate change and regional rivalries.

Last year’s 14th ADMM-14 was also held virtually in December 2020 and was hosted by Vietnam, the ASEAN Chair in the year.2 That time, the ministers, like this year, expressed concerns that the rampaging coronavirus was seriously impacting the global economy and also posed risks of reshaping global geopolitics. Vietnam stressed that regional peace and stability had become very fragile in the face of terrorism, transnational crimes, maritime security, cyber security and water resources security.

In 2020, Vietnam was credited to be one of the few countries whose response to tackle to the virus spread by early steps was commended and the country was seen as a model case for other countries to emulate. As it transpired soon, Vietnam too came under the virus quagmire as cases kept on increasing. As a foresight and prevention and control measure, a number of initiatives such as the ASEAN Covid-19 Response Fund, the Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies, and the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework were adopted. Such initiatives were of great help when the ferocity of the virus assumed threatening proportions in February 2021 onwards as the member states could share information and experience, provide medical supplies, coordinate cross-border movement of peoples, develop test kits and vaccines, and organise online joint drill on Covid-19 prevention and control. In particular, the use of digital platforms to serve communications and online meetings were of great help.

China and the Position of the US

Under the Biden administration, America’s policy is being recast and the American policy on the Indo-Pacific issues has become more vocal. Focussing on the South China Sea, the US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin called China’s policies as unlawful in the presence of the Chinese counterpart who asserted that China was determined to safeguard its core interests.3 In his remarks to the gathering, Austin described the American vision for the Indo-Pacific region, "underscoring the importance of allies and partners, shared principles, and multilateral approaches to security challenges". Amid sharpening tensions over territorial competition in the strategic waterway, the gathering coincided with the American deployment of an aircraft carrier group on a “routine mission” in the South China Sea with a view to convey a message to Beijing that it need not mess up things and eschew its assertive behaviour. This also could be seen as a response to 28 Chinese Air Force planes entering Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone, the latest in the series of provocative manoeuvres near the island. China regards self-ruled Taiwan as a renegade province waiting to be reunited with the mainland. Taiwan says it is a self-governing democracy formally named the Republic of China and shall go to the last mile to defend its sovereignty. Though China’s Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe told the ADMM+ meeting that China understood and respected the legitimate security concerns of other countries, yet the other participant countries could not trust as China’s promise and action are always at variance with each other.

This is because General Fenghe at the same time asserted that “China’s national interests also be fully respected and safeguarded”. He also was firm in saying that on the “issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea, China is determined to safeguard the country's core interests." After drawing a nine-dash line in making claims to the strategic and contested South China Sea, China is not deterred from flexing its military muscle to intimidate other claimants to parts of the Sea that fall in their exclusive economic zones. Beijing's "nine-dash line" territorial claim covers 90 per cent of the 3.5-million-sq. km South China Sea, despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruling against the claim in 2016.

China has continued its militarisation and island-building activities in the South China Sea and has conducted a series of military activities. For example, in early June 2021 Malaysia claimed that 16 Chinese military planes had flown in formation across its maritime airspace above South China Sea waters north of Borneo Island, and come close to violating its territorial airspace. China said the planes were carrying out "routine flight activity."

Similarly, in April when China unilateral imposed an annual fishing ban in the South China Sea, Vietnam denounced the Chinese decision as it felt the ban violated its sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea agreed to in 2003. Similarly, China has been involved in a standoff with the Philippines since March when the Philippines detected more than 200 ships manned by Chinese maritime militia at Whitsun Reef, in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Beijing claims that the reef is a part of the Spratly Islands, which China calls as Nansha Islands, where it has maintained a presence in Philippine waters. This prompted Manila to file multiple diplomatic protests with Beijing.

The defence ministers of some countries at the ADMM+ meeting also raised concerns about China's new coast guard law. They stressed the importance of freedom of navigation and over-flight and the early conclusion of a substantive Code of Conduct and saw ambiguity in the Chinese application of the new coast guard law. It may be recalled that in January 2021, China adopted the new coast guard law that empowered the Chinese Coast Guard and other maritime law enforcement agencies to use small arms, such as rifles, or ship-borne weapons such as deck-mounted guns, when they see foreign ships infringing upon waters that China claims as its own.

Japan’s Position at ADMM Plus

As one of the “Plus countries”, besides Australia, China, India, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States, Japan urged all parties to make efforts to resolve maritime disputes peacefully and abide by international law. In an apparent reference to China, Japan’s Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said that there are continued attempts to change the status quo by coercion in East China Sea and South China Sea. Kishi hinted that China’s coast guard law “should never undermine the legitimate interests of relevant countries”.

Japan has a long-running territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu Dao. The uninhabited islets sit in the deep south of the East China Sea and are a recurring flashpoint between the two countries. Lately, China has claimed its jurisdiction through deployments of its coast guard and navy, constituting the largest fleets of their kind in the world, compelling Japan to take countermeasures, thereby heightening tensions. Malaysian Defence Minister Ismail Sabri urged all parties in the South China Sea dispute to be “more moderate in their behaviour”. Opinions among scholars and academics on China’s behaviour are strong in Malaysia. The overwhelming opinion is that China is not contributing to security in the region. The majority opinion is that the US and its allies are not the parties that are causing problems in ASEAN but China is. As it transpires, it seems that the disputes are unlikely to be resolved any time soon as the situation has become a zero-sum game with neither side is ready to compromise. To get out of this current messy situation, an agreement on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea is a must, which can prevent the situation from deteriorating into conflict. An open friction can make the situation ugly.

Among other issues, Myanmar also figured in the discussion. It appeared that the issue should be left for the ASEAN member states to resolve the same, despite that democracy has been murdered and 863 people have been killed and 4,880 others have been detained, charged, or sentenced since 1 February coup. The junta-appointed Defence Minister General Mya Tun Oo did attend but there was scant mention of the developments in Myanmar.

India’s Position

India’s position on the region’s security issues were articulated by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Like other defence ministers of other member states, Singh called for a free, open and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific and that India supports freedom of navigation, over-flight, and unimpeded commerce in the international waterways including the South China Sea.4 Like for other countries, maritime security challenges are areas of concern for India and India hopes for an early conclusion on the negotiations for a Code of Conduct that respects international law shall help in maintaining order, provided that all countries subscribing to this come on board to respect and follow the norms. India has high hopes on the centrality of the ASEAN and that if the ASEAN-led mechanisms, which are important platforms for implementation for the shared vision for the Indo-Pacific, are followed sincerily; these measures could contribute to the peace, stability and regional order.

Underlining the importance of the India-ASEAN strategic partnership strengthened by flourishing cultural and civilisational links and enhanced by people-to-people cooperation, Singh expressed confidence on the centrality of the ASEAN. India continues to attach importance to ASEAN centrality and unity in ensuring peace and stability in the region. He also expressed concerns on the threats emanating from terrorism and radicalisation. As a member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), India is committed to combating financial terrorism. Indeed, networking amongst terrorists has reached alarming proportions and addressing this would require collective cooperation of all stakeholders so that their networks are identified and the perpetrators held accountable. Such measures could also lead to finding out those who encourage, support and finance terrorism and provide sanctuary to terrorism. Singh made such strong points in the presence of his Chinese counterpart so that Beijing gets the message that it should not mess up the situation further, lest there could be strong collective countermeasures from the rest of the ADMMS+ member states.

Beijing also needs to take notice that the US policy under Biden is not going to be the same as was during the Trump presidency. Cambodia, perceived to have leaned close towards Beijing, has already started to review that its destiny lies within the ASEAN and has been responding to the US counsel for a rethink. In this context, the visit of the Defence Attaché Colonel M Ferrara to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province in coordination with Cambodian officials and approval of Prime Minister Hun Sen is significant. The US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R Sherman had expressed concerns that there was greater Chinese military presence at the base and Ferrara’s visit along with Cambodian officials was to allay such concerns.5

There still remained some differences on the issue of “full access”, as this is a sensitive military and security matter for any sovereign nation. Cambodia’s contention is that if the US does not let the ordinary people enter its 800 military bases even outside the US then the feeling of denying “full access” to a defence attaché lacks merit.

The sensitivities of the issue ought to be understood in the right perspective. Cambodia’s Constitution does not allow foreign military bases in the Kingdom’s territory. Objectively seen, no country could grant unconditional access to a foreign defence attaché and if there was any confusion that the US military attaché was denied “full access” to the Cambodian military base, this can be mutually resolved by discussion. The truism is that both need each other if China needs to be kept in check. And this was the overwhelming message sent from the ADMM+ meeting.

Endnotes
  1. Voun Dara, “Regional defence ministers’ virtual meetings wrap up”, 17 June 2021, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/regional-defence-ministers-virtual-meetings-wrap
  2. “ASEAN defence minister meet held”, 10 December 2020, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/international/asean-defence-minister-meet-held
  3. “China Calls China’s Conduct in South China Sea ‘Unlawful’”, 16 June 2021, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2021/06/mil-210616-rfa02.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3094%2eon0ao069c5%2e2v59
  4. “India calls for free, open Indo Pacific, supports freedom of navigation: Rajnath Singh at ADMM+”, 16, June 2021, https://in.news.yahoo.com/india-calls-free-open-indo-041324874.html
  5. Niem Chheng, “US wants 'full access' to Ream Naval Base”, 11 June 2021, https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national-politics/us-wants-full-access-ream-naval-base

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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