Monday, October 25, 2010

ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting

At the first expanded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers' Meeting, which came to a close in the Vietnam capital of Hanoi, the sense of caution toward China, which is striving to expand its maritime interests, once again surfaced. Japan, the United States, South Korea and other nations expressed concern about the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, while China, which is attempting to strengthen its encirclement, maintained the viewpoint that the dispute is 'a problem between two nations' and would not budge from its position of refusing to engage in multilateral deliberations.

The First ADMM-Plus drew officials from 10 ASEAN members -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- and their eight dialogue partners -- Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.

This was the first expanded Defense Ministers' Meeting for the ASEAN nations and also included officials from eight nations outside the ASEAN region including Japan, the United States, and China. The purpose of the meeting was to search for fields in which the nations can cooperate. Defense ministers from 18 countries clarified their opinions regarding security issues. During the meeting, at least seven nations, including Japan, the United States, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Australia mentioned the problem in the South China Sea and urged China, which is claiming sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, to reach a peaceful resolution based on international rules.

Arguably, leaders responsible for defending their countries and fighting wars know better than most the cost of allowing tensions to become conflicts. The importance of communicating clearly to avoid misunderstandings and building relationships that could prevent confrontation is preeminent among such leaders. Accordingly, the theme of the meeting is 'Strategic Cooperation for Peace, Stability and Development in the Region.' ADMM+8 leaders sought to avoid divisiveness between the United States and China over the South China Sea and currency valuation; between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands; between China and Korea over North Korea; and over other tensions.

Practical Defense-Security Cooperation
Four years of preparation resulted in the five-hour official meeting to found a regional security structure to deal with new challenges, especially the issue of maritime security. What is the difference between the previous mechanisms and the ones that have just been established? What can the ASEAN community in general as well as Vietnam in particular expect from the ADMM-Plus model?

Acting contrary to the well-known Latin saying 'Si vis pacem, para bellum' -- 'if you want peace, prepare for war'-- the first ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus in Hanoi changed this advice to 'If you really want peace, be unanimous in keeping the peace!'

The world has rarely seen the heads of national security of 18 countries together, not to discuss wars, but to share views and to discuss the practical defense-security cooperation for peace, stability and development.

Joint Statement Avoids Mention of Maritime Problems
Defense ministers and representatives passed a joint declaration at the end of the meeting, showing their trust and determination towards a strategic cooperation for peace and stability in the region. They exchanged views on regional and international security and had voluntary briefing on their own national defense and security policies.

The participants focused their discussions on cooperation in five areas including humanitarian aid and disaster relief, military medicine, maritime security, counterterrorism, and peace-keeping operations. They also decided to assign defense senior officials to set up experts’ working groups to boost cooperation in the aforementioned prioritized areas.

The problems in the East China Sea and South China Sea, where tensions are increasing because of advancements by China, were the focal point at the expanded ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting. Each of the ASEAN nations made statements regarding the problems in the South China Sea, but those problems were not an official item on the agenda for the meeting and were not incorporated in the joint statement. This clearly leads to speculation that the ASEAN nations did not want to provoke China.

Vietnam is in a territorial dispute with China over the Paracel Islands, and a series of fishing boats have been seized in the ocean waters surrounding those islands. Even so, in talks between Japan and Vietnam, Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa appealed for cooperation between the two nations to deal with the problems in the South China Sea, but Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh avoided making any direct reference to the problems.

At the overall meeting, each of the nations expressed their opinions in alphabetic order. Japan was the only nation to mention the problems in the East China Sea, but over half of the nations raised the issue of problems in the South China Sea. However, those statements were all limited to expressions such as 'it is important that we secure navigational freedom and the disputes should be peacefully resolved.

ADMM-Plus Starts Later, Arrives Sooner
ASEAN defense-security cooperation started after other fields of activity, but it has become a milestone on the race track to 'ASEAN community,' including the political-security community. From the preliminary ideas about ADMM-Plus at the first ADMM in 2006, with practical experience and strategic vision, with political determination and sense of solidarity for the past four years, ASEAN has been confident and active to create a new architecture for regional defense-security cooperation. In this process, ASEAN plays the lead role, and hopes to gather the capability and brain power to face all kinds of security challenges.

The meeting's joint communiqué has only eight concise points, but illustrates the entire strategic determination. The meeting concentrated on discussing the potential and orientation of the defense cooperation in the ADMM+ framework, and gained a consensus that the priority should be cooperation on non-traditional security challenges.

With the flexible structure of the ADMM, which is composed of the10 ASEAN member countries and eight dialogue partners, ADMM+8 is a promising cooperative mechanism. It is a strategic consultative forum aiming to create trust and general awareness and to define the fields suitable for defense-security cooperation.

What makes ADMM+8 different? It is the structure of the highest level of regional defense cooperation, with the power to orient and direct practical steps to resolve common security challenges, particularly the emerging non-traditional ones. It is a level playing field for all participants, and performs the function of harmonizing relations, building capabilities, and enhancing military cooperation among countries. It is a forum that is compatible with and complementary to the other current regional security structures, such as ASEAN+1, APT, ARF, EAS, and the Shangi-La Dialogue, to create a new security architecture in the region.

US Calls For Restraint
There were hopes for collaboration at this first meeting, but before the meeting, there were almost no expectations for anyone bringing up the problems in the South China Sea, which could easily provoke China. However, it was the United States that changed the casual atmosphere.

According to a source from the meeting, on the evening of 11 October, the US Government contacted each nation separately and urged each of the other nations to take measures to restrain China with regards to the problems in the South China Sea. During the meeting, Defense Secretary Robert Gates began by stating, 'Of particular importance is the problem of maritime safety,' and he then emphasized, 'Differences in opinions regarding territorial lands and territorial waters are becoming an issue for the safety and welfare of the region.'

The Obama administration, which is strengthening its participation in Southeast Asia, is emphasizing new deliberations on a security standpoint and stated just like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum is important for the economy of Asia, the framework with ASEAN at the core is extremely important (in deliberations for the security field).

However, this does not mean that each of the ASEAN member nations, which are strengthening their relationships with China on an economic perspective, fully agree with the policies of the United States. Singapore and Malaysia, on their parts, voiced criticism of China's hard-line stance, Indonesia, which is a major nation in the region and other nations refrained from bringing up the problems in the South China Sea. The joint statement issued after the meeting did not mention the maritime problems and gave the impression that it would be extremely difficult to adopt policies against China.

Vietnam is the host nation this year for the ASEAN nations, and at a press conference after the defense ministers' meeting came to an end, Vietnamese Defense Minister Thanh applied the brakes to the territorial dispute issue so that criticism against China would not further increase. The problems in the South China Sea did not come up for discussion.

China Dodges Discussions
China did not openly oppose the action of the United States or other nations. China once again expressed its position that policy on territorial waters is outside the scope of multilateral talks and stated that this was explained at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), held in Hanoi in July. The situation in the South China Sea is stable. Right before the meeting, China released the crew of a Vietnamese fishing boat that it had seized in the South China Sea, and by doing so, China sent a sign that it is trying to ease tensions.
The expanded Defense Ministers' Meeting will be held once every three years, and the next meeting will be held in 2013 in Brunei. However, according to ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, 'Some of the member nations are of the opinion that the meeting should be held at least once every two years.' The issue is finding a way to mitigate security related friction in the form of drawing in China.

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