03.05.2024 Author: Ksenia Muratshina

ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus and Addressing Emerging Security Threats in Southeast Asia

ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus

Against the backdrop of growing contemporary threats to international security around the world, the countries of Southeast Asia (SEA) are no exception and, just like everyone else, have to deal with terrorism, cyber-attacks, the spread of dangerous diseases, and natural disasters. Given the cross-border nature of most security issues, this is a technically extremely difficult task to achieve in a single country, much less in a region. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which unites all countries in this geographical part of the world, is currently focusing on interaction with external partners, including in various aspects of security. In 2010, it established a significant and unique mechanism for interaction with the major players in the Asia-Pacific region at the level of national militaries called the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus). The meeting brought together representatives of all ten ASEAN countries (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and eight dialogue partners: Russia, the United States, China, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea. Since the first meeting of the ADMM-Plus in 2010, an extensive organizational structure and permanent areas of work have been established. After more than a decade and almost 15 years of its existence, it would be interesting to evaluate the work of the ADMM-Plus in terms of practical results.

First, it is worthwhile to talk briefly about the structure of the Meeting. By its legal nature, it is an international forum whose decisions are not legally binding. The ADMM-Plus makes decisions by consensus, does not have any instruments of pressure on the participants (and does not even set itself such a task), and has no signs of a military alliance. At the same time, it differs from many other international security forums in that, in addition to a platform for discussion, it has permanent expert working groups. To date, there are seven such groups: on maritime security, humanitarian response, military medicine, counter-terrorism, peacekeeping operations, demining and information security. Each of them is led by two co-chairs: an ASEAN country and a dialogue partner country. The meetings of representatives of the leadership of national military departments are held once a year (before 2017, they were even less frequent: first every three years, then every two years).

The work of the expert groups, divided into three-year cycles in the ADMM-Plus, is organizationally very intensive. Since 2011, the parties have repeatedly conducted field and staff exercises on counter-terrorism cooperation, humanitarian response, military medicine, maritime security, peacekeeping operations, demining, cyber security, thematic conferences and workshops. At the same time, outside of departmental contacts and exercises, cooperation in the ADMM-Plus has not yet been put into practice. Throughout the period of the Meeting’s work, one can recall circumstances in which SEA countries faced serious security challenges of a transboundary nature: the activity of terrorist groups, piracy, the disappearance of the Malaysian Boeing over the Indian Ocean, the Indonesian submarine disaster, hurricanes, forest fires, and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in none of these situations was there an overall coordinated response by the ADMM-Plus that would have provided real assistance to SEA countries. The states of the region received external assistance, but only from certain partners individually, or cooperated among themselves.

ASEAN and external partners appear to have a generally different understanding of the purpose of cooperation in the ADMM-Plus. It is fundamentally important for SEA states to learn from the experience of major powers, access new technologies, practices, resources, and actually address the challenges they face in their region. Meanwhile, the approaches of external actors differ significantly. Years of participation, speeches within the framework of the ADMM-Plus and contacts of the overwhelming majority of them with ASEAN have shown that most of the APR powers have their own, one could say, vested interests in SEA, and the struggle of the countries of the region with traditional and new security threats is of incomparably less concern to them than the South China Sea, the East China Sea, “freedom of navigation,” the use of the ADMM-Plus tribune for accusations against North Korea, Myanmar, or conflicts around Taiwan. Russia remains the only ASEAN partner firmly adhering to the principle of non-interference in regional conflicts and, as a result, interested in full-fledged international cooperation. The Russian side invests considerable resources in interaction with ASEAN, while recognizing and welcoming the Association’s “central role” in SEA, without attempting to weaken any of its members, push them against each other or turn them against third parties. Successful practical cooperation has been established in all areas of the ADMM-Plus activities in which our country has chaired expert groups at various times (military medicine, demining, counter-terrorist cooperation), and not only therein, including, in part, outside the framework of the Meeting. Russian specialists are carrying out a large-scale demining operation in Laos (there are many unexploded munitions left there from the Vietnam War) and training sappers of the Lao armed forces. Rospotrebnadzor specialists held a series of workshops for their colleagues from ASEAN countries on the use of modern molecular genetic technologies in ensuring biological security. There is an ongoing Russia-ASEAN dialogue between the agencies responsible for security, and since 2018, a separate dialogue on information security. In 2021, the first bilateral Russia-ASEAN exercises were held to ensure the safety of civilian vessels and economic activities in harbor and on the high seas. In April 2022, Russia and ASEAN organized the first joint workshop on terminology in the field of information and communication technology security at the ASEAN Regional Security Forum (ARF). It was attended by representatives of authorities and academia from Russia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, East Timor, India, China, Mongolia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Republic of Korea. In 2023, Russia and ASEAN conducted joint ADMM-Plus staff and field counter-terrorism exercises with the participation of China and India.

As an international association, the ADMM-Plus, despite its structural development, is literally permeated with natural and man-made constraints. The natural constraints are rooted in the contradictions that exist between the members. This is less true for the countries of the region, as their internal disagreements and competition, although present, are localized and not as strong as those of external partners. The world powers, which are the leading poles of power in the APR in the conditions of competition, conflicts and territorial claims objectively have no opportunity to agree among themselves on key issues of regional security. For this reason, a number of topics have simply been excluded from the ADMM-Plus agenda, and the Meeting is unable to discuss, for example, the proliferation of US bio-laboratories, US support for terrorist organizations, clashes between China and SEA countries in the South China Sea, between China and Japan in the East China Sea, or transnational networks of telephone scammers (which are no less prevalent in East and Southeast Asia than in the former Soviet Union). As such, multilateral interaction in this structure can be developed only within the limits that do not fundamentally affect the defense capabilities of the parties and do not disturb the existing balance of power.

The main man-made constraint for the ADMM-Plus is the principle of consensus in decision-making. The search for agreement on every issue may take a long time, but it has a positive side: it appeals first and foremost to “ASEAN centrality,” the underlying idea of all ASEAN-centric structures. The Association, in its dialogue formats, makes every effort to adhere to the rule of non-interference of external players in decision-making, avoidance of external pressure and demonstration of unity or at least essentially similar positions by its members. From this point of view, the experience of the ADMM-Plus has in a sense tempered it. In 2015, an unprecedented event occurred when the Meeting was unable to adopt a common final declaration due to disagreements over the South China Sea. The author of this article managed to count almost a dozen versions (expressed in political, academic or media contexts by representatives of member states, both ASEAN and external partners) of what happened on the sidelines of the Meeting. Not only the US and China, but also the Southeast Asian states blamed each other. The most out there opinions argued that the ADMM-Plus was not obliged to adopt common instruments at all, and the mere fact of not adopting the declaration positively characterized… ASEAN unity, no less.

Since then, ASEAN has built up its “immunity” to external pressures. It seems that it is thanks to its “central role” and commitment to its interests that the Association currently finds a way to counter the aggressive anti-Russian rhetoric of the West and resists attempts by external forces to influence Russia-ASEAN relations. This is especially evident in the ADMM-Plus. The joint declarations successfully adopted by the 2022 and 2023 Meetings reflect only those security issues of concern to ASEAN: the spread of infectious diseases, cyber threats, climate change, women’s rights, etc. The organization does not intervene or comment on Russia’s confrontation with the Collective West. Russia-ASEAN interaction is being fully implemented despite the boycott by the US and its allies through co-chairmanship of the expert group on counter-terrorism operations, and the 2022 declaration included a positive review of joint maritime exercises.

To sum up, despite the lack of practical results of the work of the ADMM-Plus, it is a great advantage of this dialogue platform to raise security issues relevant to SEA and to discuss them in a wide range of circles. Its work is in line with ASEAN principles, although it is only implemented to the extent that it is possible in such a controversial group. For Russia, it is important to continue to pursue its own course with respect to ASEAN, given that together, collectively, these countries represent a much more significant pole of the multipolar world than each of them individually, and their unity, even if insufficient and with great reservations, can help them build a more independent policy and resist destabilizing actions of third parties. Our contacts in the ADMM-Plus should fulfil practical tasks relevant to our competent security services and contribute to strengthening ties with each of the countries of the Association and with those external actors who are willing to engage constructively (India, China).

As for the role of the ADMM-Plus for ASEAN countries, it can be said that in a conflict-ridden and competitive international environment, the development of intra-regional arrangements and mechanisms to address security challenges looks more promising than hopes for external assistance. And if SEA states are able to find new opportunities to address regional issues primarily through their own efforts, it will be effective and beneficial for ASEAN integration.


Ksenia Muratshina, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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