By Ernie Bower, Senior Adviser & Director – Southeast Asia Program, Center for Strategic & International Studies


As Hanoi celebrates its 1,000th birthday today, defense ministers from 18 nations are arriving with their entourages in the ancient capital of Vietnam.  Tomorrow, the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting + 8 (ADMM+8) will begin its inaugural meeting. The festive scene in Hanoi could not be more like the set of a Bond movie: red banners exclaiming the pride of an ancient nation, a cacophony of horns and tinny official songs, motorbikes and excited citizens flowing river-like into intersections, and the bounty of the harvest season cascading off roadside stands and baskets balanced on bikes and bison.  Meanwhile, sleek black Mercedes limousines quietly part the sea of people like sharks carrying the leaders of the Asia Pacific region’s militaries.  Beneath the frivolity, real work is about to be done.

The host is Vietnam’s Minister of Defense General Phung Quang Thanh.  He will be joined by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the ministers of defense from the ASEAN countries accompanied by their counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Russia.

This is a historic meeting that will establish the basic modalities for a new regional security architecture designed to build confidence, practical cooperation among defense leaders and militaries and promote peace and prosperity in the dynamic Asia Pacific region.  The phenomenon of Asian defense minister meeting formally is relatively new and inclusion of the U.S. and Russia is a first.

Arguably, leaders responsible for defending their countries and fighting wars know better than most the cost of tensions allowed to become conflict.  The importance of communicating clearly to avoid misunderstandings and building relationships that could prevent confrontation is preeminent among such leaders.  ADMM+8 leaders are likely to seek to avoid recent headlines pointing to divisiveness between the United States and China over the South China Sea and currency valuation; between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands; between China and Korea over North Korea, and other tensions.

Headlines from Hanoi are likely to focus on three areas:

  1. The establishment of a new security infrastructure for the Asia Pacific region that formally includes the United States;
  2. Bilateral meeting between US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his Chinese counterpart Minister of Defense Liang Guanglie;
  3. Confidence building, practical measures to build capacity and develop patterns of regional cooperation in areas of common interest such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR).

Here are some Critical Questions about the Summit and what we can expect.

Q 1 > Who is meeting and what is the agenda?

A 1 >  Vietnam’s Minister of Defense General Phung Quang Thanh is hosting his 17 counterparts from ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States on Monday, October 11 for the inaugural meeting of the ADMM + 8.  The agenda will focus on establishing modalities for the newly expanded forum; initiatives to establish confidence, build capacity and cooperate on regional exercises promoting common interests such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Q2 > Why is the ADMM+8 important?

A2 > Formal meetings between Asia’s defense ministers started only recently.  Ministers began to gather informally in Singapore at the annual Shangri-la Dialogue hosted by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).  ASEAN did not begin its security/defense track until 2003 and the first ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting took place in 2006.  In the ASEAN context, it is remarkable that the defense and security ministerial has matured so quickly.  Credit in this area goes in particular to Vietnamese leadership.  The Vietnamese chaired ASEAN this year and they pushed very hard to get the ADMM+8 started.  Part of the motivation to move forward with a sense of urgency is the desire to include the U.S. formally in Asia’s newly developing security infrastructure.  There is also an immediate need to build trust and confidence among the region’s militaries and defense regimes, especially at a time when tensions are rising in areas such as the South China Sea, Yellow Sea, the Senkakus and between ASEAN countries themselves.  Additionally, there is a real requirement for defense and security cooperation in areas such as HADR, counterterrorism and anti-piracy.  The ADMM+8 will likely evolve, along with the longer running ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) led by the Foreign Ministers of the same countries and several other partner and observer countries, as vital ministerial meetings feeding into the East Asia Summit (EAS).  The EAS is an annual meeting of the leaders of ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea and New Zealand.  Russia and the United States have been invited to join this year’s EAS in Hanoi. At that point the EAS and the ADMM+8 will include the same countries.

Q3 > Will the ADMM+8 be dominated by discussion of  South China Sea or other areas of tension between China and its neighbors?

A3>  Don’t expect to see the Ministers focusing publicly on the South China Sea and other areas that have witnessed increased tensions between China and its neighbors.  Most of the countries involved in the ADMM+8 are investing in the architecture to provide a context for a rising China to step onto the regional and global security and defense stage in a peaceful manner characterized by mutual trust, open channels of communication and transparency.  Therefore, while Secretary Gates spoke very bluntly about his concerns regarding Chinese intentions during this year’s Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore in June and US Secretary of State Clinton was similarly direct at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi in July, the US and regional partners such as ASEAN believe the message has been delivered and it is now time to re-establish military to military ties with China and move forward with an agenda to build trust and cooperation.  It is likely that regional issues will be discussed behind closed doors, but the inaugural ADMM+8 meeting isn’t intended to be a forum for airing divisive views.

Q4 > What will Secretary Gates do in Hanoi?

A4 > Secretary Gates will hold a bilateral with his Vietnamese counterpart General Thanh.  This is the 4th time Secretary Gates has met with General Thanh in the last year and a half – marking the most intense engagement between the two countries to date.  Ties are warming as Gate and Thanh meet just two months after the 15th anniversary of diplomatic ties and weeks after the first ever Defense Policy talks in Hanoi led by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast & South Asia Robert Scher and his counterpart Vice Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh.  Gates will also hold a bilateral with his Chinese counterpart General Liang Guanglie.  This is a very important meeting marking an important step in the re-establishment of US-China defense ties.  The Hanoi meeting will lead to a formal visit by Secretary Gates to China in the near future.

Q5 > What are the next steps?

A5 > The ADMM+8 Ministers will release a Joint Statement following their meeting and the Ministers will make basic recommendations to their heads of government in anticipation of the coming East Asia Summit (EAS) on October 31 in Hanoi.  The next ADMM+8 meeting will be hosted by Indonesia in 2011.



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