Tuesday, October 19, 2010

ADMM-Plus: A mouthful but useful

Oct 18, 2010

ITS abbreviation is a mouthful, but the ADMM-Plus meeting got off to a fine start last week. Amid rising tensions in the region, defence ministers from the 10 Asean member-states, along with their counterparts from the United States, China, Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Korea, gathered in Hanoi for the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus Eight.

At first glance, a new dialogue platform in Asia focusing on security seems a tad unnecessary, considering that the regional diplomatic calendar is already packed with an 'alphabet soup' of forums, as some analysts have quipped. For security alone, there is the Asean Regional Forum and the Shangri-La Dialogue. But the former is fronted by Foreign Ministers, while the latter has never been able to draw Defence Ministers from all participating countries.

The ADMM-Plus thus fills a void, formalising as it does a gathering of defence chiefs. More importantly, as host Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung put it, the inaugural ADMM-Plus 'takes place against the backdrop of a regional and international situation that has seen rapid and complicated developments'.

He would have been referring, among other things, to: the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan; a collision of ships in the East China Sea last month that plunged relations between China and Japan to a five-year low; China's growing naval muscle, which has alarmed many Asean nations, some of whom are contesting Beijing's claim of sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea; and deteriorating relations between the US and China. The opportunities for dialogue that ADMM-Plus offered - particularly between China and its Asian neighbours as well as the US - was timely. Beijing was able to impress on others that its military was not a threat.

The friendly gestures started even before the summit, with Beijing releasing a Vietnamese fisherman and trawler it had detained near disputed islands in the South China Sea. The conciliation continued with the meeting between US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie, ending the freeze on military contacts between the two countries.

It was a welcome change from the atmosphere of July's ARF, when tough words were exchanged between the Americans and Chinese. The inaugural ADMM-Plus has set a healthy precedent for its next summit in Brunei in 2013, establishing itself as a forum where mistrust is eased and tempers soothed. It will be a forum to watch in the years ahead.

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