ASEAN defense ministers push for conduct norms in South China Sea

ASEAN defense ministers push for conduct norms in South China Sea

Tom Abke

A conduct declaration for resolving disputes in the South China Sea and cooperative measures to defend against nontraditional threats highlighted a pair of multilateral defense conferences commemorating the 15th anniversary of the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM).

The defense ministers of the 10 ASEAN member countries — Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — gathered virtually June 15, 2021, for the annual ADMM conference. They were joined the following day by their counterparts in Australia,  India, Japan, New Zealand, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, South Korea and the United States for the ADMM-Plus conference, also held each year. (Pictured: Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, center, and his counterparts participate in the 15th annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defence Ministers’ Meeting held online in June 2021.)

Both conferences issued declarations related to the South China Sea.

The ASEAN defense ministers called for the full implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), concluded between ASEAN and the PRC to promote regional peace and prosperity. They also called for “the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) consistent with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

The ADMM-Plus declaration advocated “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government, respect for and the promotion of fundamental freedoms, and the promotion and protection of human rights.” The defense ministers of Russia and the PRC were among the signatories, despite widespread reporting of their governments’ failings in each of those areas.

Chief among the failings, Beijing persists in its disregard for UNCLOS by continuing to make territorial claims in the South and East China seas that an international tribunal judged unlawful in 2016, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The declarations of both conferences cited UNCLOS as the law, which all parties agreed protects freedom of navigation and overflight. However, the ADMM-Plus declaration did not mention the DOC or COC.

Conference participants reached some consensus on nontraditional threats posed by cyberattacks, public health emergencies and natural disasters. Both declarations hailed the progress made by ADMM-Plus working groups focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as cybersecurity. All 18 defense ministers welcomed the support of the Plus countries for natural disasters and health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ADMM participants affirmed their commitment to ASEAN Shield, an initiative to respond to natural disasters by pooling resources. They pledged to “deepen pandemic response cooperation” by sharing best practices and lessons learned “to support ASEAN’s capacity and preparedness to overcome public health emergencies particularly the COVID-19 pandemic.”

On cybersecurity, the ADMM conference declared the adoption of a pair of concept papers with the aim of establishing a cyber defense network along with a cybersecurity and information center.

Malaysian Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob suggested that the network link all ASEAN nations’ cyber defense operation centers to benefit from each other’s experience, reported Bernama, Malaysia’s national news agency.



Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.