OPED by Ambassador Gurjit Singh (Retired)
The Xi-Biden Summit finally occurred on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in San Francisco. This tended to ease the pressure on China globally. However, there is focused attention on the central area of contention, the Indo-Pacific, which was covered at the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus meeting held on November 16 and 17 in Jakarta.
Besides the shadow of the Xi-Biden summit, the ADMM Plus also came in the wake of continuing tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, where Chinese coast guard vessels continue to impede the Philippines’ access to their military outposts.
This is despite an international tribunal ruling that China had no claim to the islets.
There are continuing concerns about civil war in Myanmar, which seems to be getting out of hand with some Myanmar military and civilian personnel entering India to avoid clashes. After several decades, a Russia-Myanmar maritime exercise took place at this time, even though Myanmar remains suspended from ASEAN.
This was the 17th meeting of the ASEAN Defense Ministers, which was established in November 2006. The ADMM Plus has been held since 2010. The difference between the two is the same as between an ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit (EAS).
The ADMM is a meeting of the 10 ASEAN countries; the ADMM Plus includes ASEAN dialogue partners within the EAS: India, Japan, Australia, China, Korea, New Zealand, the US, and Russia.
Since 2012, when Chinese aggressive intent in the South China Sea became more evident, the ADMM Plus has been an important meeting where defense ministers of the Indo-Pacific meet. India has consistently participated in the ADMM plus at the level of the Defense Minister and also undertakes activities under it.
Since 2010, the ADMM Plus has facilitated confidence-building dialogue and practical collaboration on defense issues in the Indo-Pacific. As geopolitical developments occur, the competence of the ADMM Plus in the regional security architecture is now contingent on three connected issues.
The first is ASEAN’s internal dynamics to maintain its centrality and unity and provide leadership. The ASEAN chair for the year also chairs the ADMM Plus, and there is no co-chair from among the partners.
Secondly, the development of big power rivalry and dynamics among regional powers impacts the security cooperation in the region. The emergence of the Quad and the AUKUS and closer ties of some ASEAN countries with other dialogue partners in reaction to China’s aggressive intent are evident. Japan, for instance, will provide Official Security Assistance (OSA) to the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Bangladesh.
The third is countries’ approach towards cooperative efforts under the ADMM Plus matrix. Therefore, the success of ADMM Plus depends on the interplay of these factors among its members, who are not on the same page.
In the current international situation, the US-China rivalry has heightened over Taiwan and how both view the world. Russian ingress into Ukraine has cleaved the region. ASEAN’s internal dynamics, particularly over Myanmar, challenge its unity. On the Ukraine crisis and the Hamas-Israel crisis, all ASEAN countries are not thinking alike.
While the ADMM Plus emerged due to positive attributes of regional security at the time, its further challenges require deft diplomacy by the ASEAN chair to keep it on track. The main concern remains the extent to which regional players, individually or in partnership, like the Quad and China, would evaluate ADMM Plus as a function of an ASEAN-centric body and find it relevant.
Be that as it may, it is essential to note that India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and all significant partners of ASEAN attended, as did Defense Ministers of ASEAN countries except Myanmar, which is suspended from political participation.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Deputy Chief of the Chinese Central Military Commission’s Joint Staff Department Jing Jianfeng, and Deputy Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation Aleksandr Fomin participated. Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense Richard Marles and Japanese Defense Minister Minoru Kihara were also there. The Quad was in total attendance.
This is important for ADMM Plus because, in the current scenario of varied challenges, it can bring everybody to the same table and talk even though they may all have different intentions and fears.
While participating in the meeting, India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh emphasized that dialogue and diplomacy were the way forward for global peace and stability. He reiterated India’s commitment to freedom of navigation, overflight, and unimpeded trade and commerce in international waters.
His speech affirmed India’s consistent support for ASEAN centrality and its role in promoting dialogue in the Indo-Pacific. India’s commitment to UNCLOS and ASEAN centrality has become a mantra to tell ASEAN that India respects its views.
The Indian Defense Minister sought development-oriented and consensual regional security initiatives. India looks at the ADMM Plus as a means to enhance maritime security. Rajnath Singh highlighted how conflicts impacted people and how regional stability was adversely affected, creating food and energy insecurity, among others. In this, he reiterated India’s continuing commitment to work with ADMM Plus for peace, prosperity, and security in line with the ADMM’s current theme.
Rajnath Singh appreciated ASEAN member states enthusiastically participating in defense-related Indo-ASEAN activities. He held his first informal meeting with ASEAN Defense Ministers around ADMM Plus in November 2022 in Cambodia. The initiative for women in UN peacekeeping and the marine plastic pollution response, both functional issues, have been well received. ASEAN member-states also participated in the first-ever ASEAN-India maritime exercise held in May 2023.
India participated in the expert working group on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, which it co-chaired with Indonesia, for three years up to 2023, which was appreciated. Now, India has turned its interest towards terrorism, which is a severe threat to peace and security, including in the Indo-Pacific. India’s proposal to co-chair the expert working group on counter-terrorism instead of that on HADR was endorsed by ADMM Plus.
On the occasion, Rajnath Singh met with the host, General Prabowo, the Defense Minister of Indonesia, and the counterpart from Vietnam bilaterally. Prabowo has added importance as he is a Presidential candidate for the next Indonesian elections, and this was his last major meeting before the election process set in.
- Gurjit Singh is a retired diplomat and has served as India’s Ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, Ethiopia, ASEAN, and the African Union. He is an Honorary Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Indore. Views Personal.
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