By Phuong Nguyen
The ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), which takes place from November 3 to 5 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, will be the first meeting between U.S., Chinese, and Southeast Asian officials since the U.S. Navy conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) on October 26 near one of China’s reclaimed islands in the South China Sea. The operation prompted an angry response from China and a flurry of mixed signals from ASEAN members.
The United States needs to use this meeting to explain its future approach to Southeast Asian partners, convey its commitment to peace and stability in the region, and shape the narrative on recent developments in the South China Sea.
China’s initial response to the U.S. Navy’s sail-through was uncoordinated, but Beijing wasted little time before releasing on November 1 photos of a purported training mission by Chinese naval aircraft in the disputed Spratly Islands as a response to the FONOP. China will likely use President Xi Jinping’s visits to Vietnam and Singapore from November 5 to 8—along with other bilateral channels—to influence the narratives being formed across the region about what the future U.S. role in the South China Sea should be.
The race to define narratives on this contentious issue is on, and it has entered a new chapter; Washington needs to embrace it as skillfully as possible. Since Beijing was initially caught in a bind over how to respond in a direct and meaningful way, it will instead seek to persuade ASEAN countries that U.S. involvement in the South China Sea dispute will have a destabilizing effect on regional stability, and that supporting U.S. actions will deal a blow to ASEAN countries’ economic relations with China.
Meanwhile, in Washington, there were varying degrees of misgiving about the reactions of different Southeast Asian governments to the FONOP, which U.S. policymakers viewed as a long overdue and a positive contribution to international rule of law and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Philippines—along with Australia and Japan—has openly supported the operation, while Vietnam, in its usual guarded diplomatic language, expressed support for the legal basis of the exercise.
Responses from Malaysia and Indonesia have been more perplexing. Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein on November 2 expressed concerns ahead of the ADMM retreat that unintentional accidents at sea could spiral out of control if not well managed, and warned other ASEAN defense ministers that their countries risk being “at the mercy of the superpowers” if they do not maintain unity. Meanwhile, a top advisor to Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Coordinating Minister for Law, Security, and Politics Luhut Panjaitan, reportedly questioned the effectiveness of what he termed U.S. “power projection” in the region shortly after the FONOP.
Washington may need to refrain from reading too much into Luhut’s statement, as Jakarta has and will continue to adhere to its non-alignment principles, a source of pride in Indonesia’s foreign policy. In reality, Indonesia has placed greater priority on boosting maritime defense capabilities in the waters around the Natuna Islands—which are part of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone but fall within China’s nine-dash line—under Jokowi. Luhut penned an op-ed in early October condemning the “strong political and military effects” of China’s ambiguous nine-dash line claim, while Indonesia’s commander-in-chief, Gen. Gatot Nurmianto, quickly rejected China’s invitation to hold joint patrols with ASEAN navies at the informal China-ASEAN defense ministers’ meeting in October.
Rhetoric aside, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam have all turned the page on their approaches to the South China Sea over the past year. And now the United States has, too. Indonesia and Malaysia, which once preferred to keep a neutral stance, realized they can no longer afford to be complacent about China’s activities in the South China Sea, but have yet to figure out new modus operandi.
In this emerging strategic environment, all sides need to figure out the new contours of their interactions. The United States will find that it needs to go the extra mile in communicating its long-term commitment and strategy to these critical partners, and respect for the role of ASEAN in managing the dispute. This year’s ADMM-Plus meetings allow Washington good timing and a valuable opportunity to do this. Following the meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Hishammuddin are expected to fly on an Osprey aircraft from Kota Kinabalu in eastern Malaysia to a U.S. aircraft carrier at sea.
Carter should use the ADMM-Plus meeting to reaffirm that the United States will not only follow through with future FONOPs in the South China Sea, but that Washington will not stop its lawful and legitimate actions in the face of further Chinese protests. The U.S. Navy should ideally conduct another FON exercise by the end of the year. Washington should actively invite Japan and the Philippines to potentially do the same in the future, bearing in mind that a ruling expected in mid-2016 clarifying the legal status of some of the features in the Spratly Islands occupied by China could make it easier for U.S. allies to jointly carry out similar exercises.
With the recent FONOP, the United States signaled that it is committed to playing an active role in the South China Sea, a factor that regional states will take into their calculus. Pulling back from this position will hurt U.S. regional and global credibility. At the same time, Washington should be sensitive about ASEAN countries’ growing concerns that the shift in U.S. policy, if not carefully orchestrated, could lead to incidents at sea, whether by design or by accident, between U.S. and Chinese forces, realizing ASEAN’s fear of turning the South China Sea into an area of great power rivalry.
Carter therefore needs to begin a conversation with his Southeast Asian counterparts about what the United States sees as ASEAN’s role in this new strategic environment. Washington has stepped up support for maritime Southeast Asian countries this year, allocating over $425 million to the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative to help countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam boost their maritime domain awareness, coast guard capabilities, and ultimately, their strategic autonomy vis-à-vis China. Beijing, meanwhile, can be expected to expand reclamation and militarization of disputed features.
Finding a nimble way to put in context U.S. strategy versus Chinese actions could reassure ASEAN that Washington is not intent on escalating tensions in the South China Sea, while demonstrating U.S. long-term commitment to regional partners. In addition, the United States and its allies can issue joint statements on the sidelines of the meeting to support actions in the South China Sea that are in accordance with international law and conducive to the freedom of the seas.
The United States should not forget that the ADMM-Plus is a mechanism that it helped build and invested in from the early days. It is in U.S. interests to use this forum to effectively present its perspective to ASEAN partners and shape the narrative in its favor.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.