Author: See Seng Tan, NTU
The ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) turns 10 years old at a time when the US–China rivalry is intensifying. With both China and the United States initiating competing and exclusive regional visions and diplomatic structures, ASEAN-centric platforms such as the ADMM+ are more relevant than ever before.
A decade after its establishment, the ADMM+ has arguably achieved greater cooperation than older, more established multilateral platforms in the region. But its coming of age takes place at a time when the region is at risk of being destabilised by discord between great powers.
US–China geostrategic rivalry has not only pressured ASEAN states to side with one or the other, but it has also reshaped Asia Pacific multilateralism. Nowhere is this more evident than in the formation of new, competing regional visions and institutional architectures such as the US-led Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The US–China rivalry has at times threatened to turn multilateral arrangements like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) into battlegrounds where the two superpowers trade barbs and jockey for influence, rendering regional cooperation nearly impossible. At the 2010 ARF in Hanoi, the then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi and his US counterpart Hillary Clinton crossed swords over the South China Sea issue as a ‘core interest’ for China and a ‘national interest’ for the United States.
At the 2014 ARF in Naypyidaw, their respective successors Wang Yi and John Kerry quibbled over China’s building and militarising of islands in the South China Sea. Another clash between the two countries at the 2018 APEC summit in Papua New Guinea contributed directly to the summit’s failure to deliver a joint communique for the first time in its history.
Yet this in no way makes ASEAN-centric arrangements any less relevant. On the contrary, ASEAN-based groupings assume even greater importance at a time like this because they remain platforms that both the United States and China are members of and regular participants in.
Despite claims that both the FOIP and the BRI are open and inclusive by design, the reality is that the US–China rivalry effectively turns those arrangements into exclusive platforms. China is neither part of the FOIP nor a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, just as the United States is not involved in the BRI. ASEAN-based arrangements are the only multilateral platforms that bring the two countries together.
Nowhere is ASEAN’s continued relevance to US–China ties more evident than in its stewardship of the ADMM+. ADMM+ members include the United States and China, the 10 ASEAN member states and 6 other regional countries — Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and South Korea.
No longer just a ‘talk shop’, the ADMM+ is a veritable ‘workshop’ for cooperation in maritime security, humanitarian assistance and counterterrorism involving the armed forces of all 18 member states. The fact that both China and the United States insisted on conducting maritime exercises through ASEAN–China in 2018 and ASEAN–US in 2019 underscores the importance both countries place on their respective ties with ASEAN.
The present zeitgeist of rising nationalism, nativism and protectionism is unkind to multilateralism worldwide. And both the United States and China have in their own way hurt Asia Pacific multilateralism.
US President Donald Trump’s distaste for and dismissal of multilateral institutions is well known, while the trade war he precipitated against China all but undermines trade multilateralism. Chinese President Xi Jinping says the right things in support of globalisation and economic liberalisation, but Beijing’s aggressive conduct in the South China Sea threatens to divide ASEAN.
Strategic competition among big powers is an inevitable but uncomfortable reality of the international system. Where the US–China rivalry is concerned, what is worrisome is the tendency of both to talk at and act against each other by forming exclusive diplomatic constructs and architectures. Without opportunities for meaningful dialogue, it is more likely than not that misunderstandings, disagreements and tensions will escalate.
For all their flaws, ASEAN-centric platforms provide the United States and China opportunities to engage in bilateral dialogue. The multilateral setting of ASEAN-based platforms also furnishes opportunities for the United States and China to hear the views and concerns of…