ADMM Plus Maritime Security and Counterterrorism Field Training Exercise

Cmdr. Harry Marsh, commanding officer of USS Stethem, gives a guided tour of the ship to media members. The Stethem is part of the ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting (ADMM) Plus Maritime Security and Counterterrorism Field Training Exercise 2016. (Photo: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Fulton)

ASEAN and ADMM: Climbing Out of a Deep Hole

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The ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting has bagged modest achievements in past years. But it will take a lot more to assert ASEAN’s central role in a region where external powers have grabbed the initiative in forming minilaterals outside the ASEAN ecosystem.

The 16th ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) finally met again in person in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on 22 June 2022, after two years of virtual meetings. This time around, the highest-level defence dialogue is taking place under a more uncertain and sombre regional security landscape in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war, rising tensions in the South China Sea and a protracted Myanmar crisis.

The growing geopolitical and geostrategic challenges mean that the ADMM — ASEAN’s premier defence diplomacy platform — will be even more crucial to tackle common challenges. However, the Joint Declaration of the meeting made no mention of pressing strategic issues such as the Russia-Ukraine war or developments in the Indo-Pacific. Instead, the declaration focused on a growing list of cooperation initiatives which include addressing threats in the cyber domain, preparing for future pandemics, promoting ASEAN women peacekeepers and greater collaboration in defence education.

Sixteen years on since its establishment in 2006, the ADMM has done well in promoting mutual trust and confidence through a plethora of practical functional cooperation conducted among its members and with dialogue partners (also referred to as the “Plus countries”). For a start, cooperation in the defence sector targeted “low-hanging fruits” such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and establishing a peacekeeping centre network. The growing number of joint exercises and Expert Working Groups (EWG) in areas such as maritime security, counter-terrorism, military medicine, humanitarian mine action and cybersecurity, as well as key guidelines for air military encounters and maritime interaction reflect the cautiously ambitious yet pragmatic aspirations of the region.

In less than two decades, the level of cooperation in the defence sector has matured rapidly. The long list of confidence and capacity-building activities, regular dialogues, and building on rhetoric such as ASEAN’s centrality has sustained the trust and comfort level among its members.

Nevertheless, beyond such activities, can ASEAN Defence cooperation truly safeguard the region? Challenges remain for the ADMM. From the onset, the ADMM is not a military alliance, and there is no common security and defence policy, unlike the European Union. The ADMM’s establishment is anchored on the ASEAN Security Community Plan of Action, which preceded the ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint 2025. The plan of action sought to get ASEAN to work towards a multilateral defence dialogue. The security community is distinguished from a “defence community” and does not have mutual defence clauses, but instead focuses on norms-setting, confidence-building, conflict prevention and resolution. When ASEAN tried to push the boundaries to establish an ASEAN peacekeeping force in 1994, 2003 and 2015, it did not gain traction among its members due to national preoccupations with issues such as sovereignty and non-interference.

Residual mistrust among its members remains. Recently, for example, former Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad said that Singapore should be returned to the State of Johor in Malaysia. The comment caused some consternation across the Causeway. Indonesia preacher Abdul Somad also made claims that Singapore is part of Indonesia’s Riau Islands.

… playing a leadership role and upholding ASEAN centrality is easier said than done. The proliferation of non-ASEAN security groupings, dialogues and initiatives such as the QUAD-led Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness … has clearly demonstrated that ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the ADMM are insufficient to meet the region’s security needs.

Beyond internal dynamics, ASEAN is increasingly challenged by intensifying major power geopolitical involvements in the region including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad, involving the US, Japan, Australia and India) — which has been referred to by China as the “Asian NATO” — and AUKUS (a security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.). In the State of Southeast Asia 2022 Survey Report, some regional respondents felt that the AUKUS will accelerate the region’s arms race (22.5 per cent) and weaken ASEAN centrality (18 per cent).

The truth is that such extra-ASEAN minilaterals have led to concerns that ASEAN centrality would be undermined. It is therefore not surprising when Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah in a recent interview highlighted the need for ASEAN to take the “leadership role on Indo-Pacific issues rather than keep reacting to actions of other nations”. Mr Saifuddin’s remarks reflect the growing desire of the region for ASEAN to play a greater role in managing major power rivalries in the region.

However, playing a leadership role and upholding ASEAN centrality is easier said than done. The proliferation of non-ASEAN security groupings, dialogues and initiatives such as the QUAD-led Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (an initiative that allows near-real-time tracking of activities through technologies), has clearly demonstrated that ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the ADMM are insufficient to meet the region’s security needs.

With this in mind, the ADMM had considered stepping up cooperation in the Indo-Pacific guided by the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) since 2020. However, little headway has been made due to divergent views within the ADMM-Plus grouping, especially among members who are concerned that embracing the Indo-Pacific as interpreted by the US and its Quad partners will undermine ASEAN centrality.

ASEAN is in a deep hole in terms of actual action that can reverse the credibility of its mechanisms such as the ADMM. There are efforts to reconstitute and re-emphasise ASEAN-led mechanisms, including the East Asia Summit. But they are merely stop-gap measures. ASEAN still has a mountain to climb it if desires to be a provider of public goods in regional security and to play a greater security role in the regional architecture. Perhaps for now, finding ways to coexist with other major powers’ initiatives including the Quad may be the best option.

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Joanne Lin is Lead Researcher in Political-Security affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.