The representatives of ten ASEAN countries and eight major players in the Asia-Pacific – Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the US – got together in Hanoi on 12 October 2010 in a bid to develop a regional architecture for dialogue on security challenges. These countries were participating as members of the first ASEAN Plus Defence Ministerial Meeting (ADMM+), a new, ASEAN-driven security initiative. The forum follows the pattern of ASEAN’s annual Defence Ministerial Meetings (ADMM), functioning since 2006. Unlike other such deliberations where delegates are either the heads of the government or belong to foreign affairs ministries, the participants here were heads of the various defence ministries.
The thrust of the Joint Declaration adopted at the Meeting was on identifying important security threats rather than devising ways and means to combat them. It is expected that the ADMM+ can be a result-oriented initiative given its smaller size, the involvement of major players, its focused agenda for deliberation and the involvement of actual defence practitioners. The initiative is expected to be an emphatic diplomatic statement and an important face-saving exercise for ASEAN-led cooperative processes, which are otherwise giving way to evolving great power politics, bilateral strategic partnerships, and hedging. The number of bilateral strategic partnerships has gone up considerably during the last five years. India alone has signed at least six since 2005 – with Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. Similarly, Indonesia has signed strategic partnerships with Australia, China, India, Japan, and USA. In this context, the ADMM+ appears a desperate ASEAN effort to salvage its role as a facilitator of regional security dialogues.
While focused on creating a cooperative atmosphere and developing a consensus on prevailing security challenges with the objective of addressing them, the first ADMM+ meeting however, resulted in no such mechanism. This likely indicates a similar pattern of gradual and contested evolution that another ASEAN security forum – an overly institutionalized and over-crowded ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) – has experienced. While the US identified maritime security and piracy as important security challenges, China laid stress on humanitarian aid and natural disasters and proposed to jointly chair with Vietnam an Expert Working Group to address these two issues. India, meanwhile, remained content with its call for peace and stability in the region.
Moreover, the declared aims of the forum do not seem to match with the real intent of the participating countries and with the content of the meetings. The Asia-Pacific hosts major powers with historical rivalries, contested territorial claims, and unsettled boundary disputes and engaged in sustained military build-ups. The initiative however, does not address any of these issues. Instead, the ten-member ASEAN along with the most powerful global player and several rising great powers and middle powers decided to deliberate over non-traditional security issues – long-standing sub-national insurgencies, transnational crimes, terrorism and a very wide stretch of unmonitored, unsafe, and piracy-infested maritime corridors.
The above-mentioned issues are already being discussed by different regional groupings within the Asia-Pacific, such as ARF, East Asia Summit, ReCAAP, and ASEAN along with other groupings. Does the region need another grouping when the existing ones are operating as non-performing platforms, where member-states evade much needed practical cooperation in the name of non-intervention, respect for state sovereignty, all concretised under the much trumpeted ‘ASEAN Way’? Moreover, is the forum asking the right questions and debating issues that it should? For example, should the defence ministers of 18 countries be discussing issues like climate change, infectious diseases, and natural disasters as their top priorities?
Finally, how did India perform at the forum? New Delhi claimed to be a genuine player in the Asia-Pacific, relied on normative calls for building peace and stability in the region, and identified the already recognised threat of terrorism and piracy. The only contribution India seems to have made at the forum was its call for developing ‘cooperative approaches’ towards regional security dialogue. Both the Indian establishment and academia need to devote more resources and expertise in debating the country’s long-term strategy in one of the world’s most dynamic and challenging regions in the context of its changing international outlook as a rising great power. New Delhi cannot afford to continue the policy of testing the waters that it practiced at the ASEAN Regional Forum during 1990s. India as an emerging power should play a much bigger role in steering these ASEAN-driven multilateral processes.
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the grouping uses the vast expertise and resources at the disposal of ASEAN or gets lost in a labyrinth of formalized structures, never-ending CBMs, meaningless meetings, and pretentious diplomacy that characterise the flip side of ASEAN forums. The real litmus test will be its second ADMM+ in Brunei in 2013.