By Bonnie Glaser & Denise Der
The United States quelled fears of commitment to its rebalancing strategy toward Asia at the second ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) on August 29 in Brunei. This set a tone of engagement and cooperation for the sake of peace and shared development in the region that allowed representatives from eighteen nations to collaborate in one of the most productive multilateral organization gatherings in Asia to date.
Coming in to the meeting, much of the region was skeptical of the United States’ commitment to Asia, but Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s presence, especially amidst the crisis in Syria, quickly put those fears to rest. Secretary Hagel’s attendance and engagement at ADMM+ sent a strong signal that the United States stands firm in its rebalancing strategy toward Asia despite growing challenges in the Middle East and sequestration at home. The third informal meeting of United States and ASEAN defense ministers was a highlight of the ADMM+. All ten defense representatives from ASEAN accepted an invitation Secretary Hagel had extended in June to join him for another informal meeting in Hawaii in 2014. This will mark the first time the United States hosts a meeting of ASEAN defense ministers and is a positive sign for the future of American engagement with ASEAN.
Secretary Hagel also held a bilateral meeting with Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan in Brunei, even though he had hosted Chang in Washington, D.C. the week before, during which Chang expressed concern that the U.S. rebalancing strategy must not specifically target China. The decision to meet again sent a signal that the United States’ defense outreach to Asia is not aimed at strategically encircling or containing China, a signal welcomed by other ADMM+ members. ADMM+ thus served as a positive venue for the United States to demonstrate with actions in addition to words that it is more interested in seeking a coalition of states in the Asia-Pacific region that can engage with China, rather than balance against it. Hagel also seized the opportunity to hold a bilateral with Myanmar minister of defense Lieutenant General Wai Lwin, further promoting the developing U.S.-Myanmar relationship.
The defense ministers signed the Bandar Seri Begawan Declaration reiterating their intent to promote peace and strengthen defense cooperation in the Asia Pacific region, pledging to use ADMM+ as a platform for communication on future crises. The ministers were especially satisfied with the success of the six expert working groups. Plans are in place for conducting three joint exercises this year on counterterrorism, peacekeeping operations and maritime security. All nations in attendance renounced the threat of force and agreed to promote better understanding through stronger communication and self-restraint. These statements come at a crucial time for the region as they bring hope that coercion and use of force can be averted in the maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas.
The main exception to the positive atmosphere and focus on collaboration was persisting tensions between China and Japan, exemplified in the lack of a bilateral meeting between Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera. Tensions spiked a year ago in the aftermath of the Tokyo government’s decision to purchase from a private Japanese citizen three of the five Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and have not yet abated. Chang denied Onodera’s request for a one-on-one meeting, but the two talked briefly; apparently Chang warned Onodera that it is time for Japan, which China views as the provocateur, to correct its mistakes. The rebuff came as no surprise, but is not reassuring, given the risks inherent in continuing Sino-Japanese tensions. A de-escalation of the crisis would be beneficial to both China and Japan, but they have yet to find a mutually acceptable formulation that can defuse the crisis without compromising their respective interests.
The second ADMM+ was a significant milestone as it reaffirmed the increasingly prominent role the members play in global affairs and demonstrated their ability to collaborate in concrete ways to advance shared interests. The United States reassured skeptical partners of its commitment to both rebalancing toward Asia and actively engaging China, which may ease the perception and reality of zero-sum competition between the United States and China going forward. The next ADMM+, set for 2015, will build on the achievements of this year’s meetings and further advance this mechanism as a model for institution building in the region.
Ms. Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS & a Senior Associate at the CSIS Pacific Forum. Ms. Denise Der is a researcher with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS.
Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at CSIS.