It occurred at the third ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM-PLUS) in Kuala Lumpur on Oct 4: Standing among ASEAN defense ministers and eight defense ministers from major powers in the region, Malaysian Minister of Defense Hishammuddin Tun Hussein told media in a dismal voice that the planned joint declaration had to be cancelled since “we couldn’t reach a consensus”.
On the same day, the Chinese Ministry of Defense issued a statement, saying it regretted that no joint declaration was issued; that the Chinese side had reached consensus with ASEAN, but some countries, despite the consensus, attempted to insert points that were not the subjects of the meeting.
As it was revealed later, ASEAN had provided a draft declaration without mentioning the South China Sea and Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. China supported ASEAN’s decision, but the US and its allies disagreed. A senior US delegate made it clear the US wouldn’t sign the joint declaration without mentioning the South China Sea and COC.
In such a move, the US has apparently decided to politicize ADMM-PLUS, a platform that seldom, if at all, discusses political issues. Since its inception in 2010, the ADMM-PLUS has almost deliberately bypassed thorny issues such as territorial disputes and has instead focused on practical cooperation. Joint exercises on maritime security, counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are booming. Today ADMM-PLUS is widely taken as one of the most dynamic platforms for regional security cooperation.
Such pragmatism makes sense. Without political issues, cooperation among defense and military establishments of 18 countries could be easier. The South China Sea is not mentioned in the first two declarations of ADMM-PLUS, either. COC negotiations are left to Chinese and ASEAN diplomats. So far more than a dozen rounds of talks have been held. The militaries of China and ASEAN countries are involved.
True, the South China Sea is an issue that has caught world attention. But it is only one on a long list of territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific. And just imagine how many other regional issues defense ministers would have to cope with if the “Pandora’s box” is opened: the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula, Crimea, history issues between China and Japan…
America’s intransigence violates its own “positions”, i.e, that the US government takes no position on the sovereignty of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea and that it would take no sides between China and ASEAN. The question is: If China and ASEAN have agreed to not mentioning the South China Sea and COC in the declaration, why would the US, an outsider, oppose the joint declaration?
China and America at loggerheads puts ASEAN in an awkward position. All PLUS countries including China and the US agree to the centrality of ASEAN in regional-security architecture. And ASEAN, a group of 10 small nations, only knows how precarious such centrality among major powers can be. But it is happy anyway to play such a role both for its own survival and self-importance. ASEAN’s worst nightmare is confrontation among major powers, especially between China and the US. In the words of ASEAN, the grass will suffer when elephants fight.
America’s move is a further provocation to China after the USS Lassen sailed within 12 miles of Zhubi/Subi reef in the name of freedom of navigation. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the US will continue to fly, sail and operate in the South China Sea. If indeed this happens, China can point out, as it had done, that it is America that is militarizing the South China Sea. China may also have to reconsider its promise not to militarize the islands and reefs under its control. On Oct 29, Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman warned PLA has “many options”.
It would be exaggerating to say the US has decided to have a showdown with China in the South China Sea. But most certainly the US is becoming more assertive. Its unusual move in ADMM-PLUS simply reflects the growing frustration of a US that doesn’t know how to deal with China. This time it has taken a wrong approach to confront China at a wrong occasion. It is not helpful. And it didn’t win applause.