The near-permanence of the state of flux and transformation which surrounds the Indo-Pacific region brings its own set of opportunities and challenges. For these, the prerequisites for managing the changes occurring in the region are flexible and swift mechanisms for cooperation.
The transactions amid states’ economic activity, strategic weight, and international ambitions further complicate the challenges, given that crises and transnational issues don’t respect the boundaries of traditional groupings or stay neatly in a single region.
Against this backdrop, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) defense ministers and their counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Russia, and the United States (making it a total of 18), gathered at the 6th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus in Bangkok on November 18, 2019.
The Importance of ADMM-Plus
The ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) is the only official framework of defense ministers in the Asia-Pacific Region. It has become synonymous to advancing peace and security in the Asia-Pacific by cooperation through partnerships for sustainable security, as well as by strengthening defense and security cooperation while recognizing the principles of international law.
The ADMM-Plus is a key component for robust, effective, and open regional security arrangements. It contributes to trust and confidence-building as well as to practical defense and security cooperation between ASEAN member states and plus countries.
Revolving around the core theme of upholding ASEAN centrality and unity, the dialogue and exercises within the framework of ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Group (EWGs) have contributed substantially to capacity building and interoperability enhancement among ADMM-Plus countries. This has helped to address security challenges for the collective benefit of the region.
ADMM initiatives provide a practical means of implementing cooperation among ASEAN member states as they work to collectively prevent miscalculation and respond to regional security threats. The ADMM-Plus framework itself places special emphasis on adherence to international law. At the same time, it encourages safe and professional military interaction and prevention of armed conflict. It also provides mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of disputes in treaties and conventions.
The new co-chairs of the ADMM-Plus EWGs for the 2020-2023 cycles were chosen at the November 2019 ASEAN Defense Senior Officials’ Meeting Plus in 2020 in Vietnam. Security threats and challenges in the Asia-Pacific continue to be trans-boundary, and they are increasing in frequency and severity. This has led to a call for increased regional integration and connectivity, as well as technological advancement to counter non-traditional security threats.
Japan and India Explore Initiatives and Opportunities
During the November 2019 meeting, India’s defense minister, Rajnath Singh, held bilateral meetings with the defense minister of Japan, Taro Kono, and other counterparts at the sidelines. Singh’s meeting with Kono was their first, and resulted in the two ministers reviewing the entire gamut of bilateral defense relations.
Taro Kono, former foreign minister, took over as Japan’s defense minister following the September 2019 Cabinet reshuffle. Although he did not have experience as the vice minister of defense, Kono has served as an active member of the Liberal Democratic Party’s national defense and foreign affairs committee for many years.
Well-known for his proficiency in the English language, Kono’s role as the defense minister will be watched with curiosity by many. There is particular interest in how he handles the relationships Japan seeks to bolster, and whether he expands ties with major allies and partners, including the U.S., Australia, India, France, and others.
India’s posture and approach remain critical to its strategic objectives, including highlighting the growing convergence of political, economic, and security interests with stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. Co-opting Japan as a permanent member of the Malabar Trilateral Initiative, and India’s accreditation of its ambassador to a separate and dedicated diplomatic mission at the ASEAN, are manifestations of Delhi’s intent.
Moreover, India and Japan remain committed to strengthening the East Asia Summit (EAS) and making it a more dynamic, proactive process and platform to discuss regional political, economic, and security issues. New Delhi and Tokyo are also working towards convening an EAS ambassadors’ meeting in Jakarta, and establishing an EAS unit within the ASEAN Secretariat.
Act East Policy
Corresponding with the “Act East Policy” approach, the regular dispatch of warships, including frontline destroyers and stealth frigates on long overseas deployment to the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, verifies India’s renewed maritime intent. This is elaborated upon in the 2016-17 Annual Report of India’s Ministry of Defense.
The noticeable presence of the Indian flag at these strategically vital points reiterates that New Delhi is a major stakeholder, and fully cognizant of the ongoing movements in its strategic backyard. India has 7,500 kilometers of coastline, 1,200 islands, and a 2.4-million-square-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Its reorientation and demonstration of being a consistent security partner for the region highlights its maritime interests and stakes in the larger Indo-Pacific.
Notably, India’s first Tri-Service Andaman and Nicobar Command in the southeast corner of the Bay lies just 90 miles (145 km) from Indonesia’s Aceh province, bordering the strategically vital Strait of Malacca.
It would only be apposite to cite the Indian Defense Ministry’s 2011-2012 Annual Report, which stated: “As rising nations…become more powerful, emerging risks require greater attention…. India remains conscious and watchful of the implications of China’s military profile in the immediate and extended neighborhood.”
Mindful of Neighbors in the South China Sea
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his 2014 Tokyo official visit, publicly commented on the presence of an 18th-century “expansionist mindset” among certain regional actors — that of encroaching upon other countries, intruding in others’ waters, and capturing territory. This was widely interpreted as an oblique reference to China’s recent and recurring actions in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
Japan and India are in agreement regarding the effective implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Both also favor an early conclusion of the negotiations to establish a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS, in particular freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in international waters, is consistently underscored in Japan-India joint statements. The strategic upheaval in the South China Sea caused by unilateral actions, such as massive land reclamation of submerged reefs and militarization of this converted land, has notched up regional tensions.
Cooperation on Maritime Interests Beyond the Indian Ocean
With the “Indo-Pacific Region” featuring prominently in the very title of the 2025 joint vision statement between India and Japan, the writing on the wall is apparent. A vital demonstration of India’s growing maritime focus extending beyond the Indian Ocean comes with Japan’s participation in the trilateral maritime exercise (Malabar) between India, the U.S., and Japan.
Common political values, principles, democratic systems, and convergence on regional and world views carry a political message that seeks to convey India, the U.S., and Japan’s orientation towards securing the future of maritime Indo-Pacific. Given the concept of a broader Asia that is fast transcending geographical boundaries and lines, the emerging proximities render the prospects for cooperative regional security mechanisms more deliverable than ever before.
The notion of the greater Indo-Pacific has eclipsed smaller spheres of influence limited to the Indian Ocean, East China Sea, South China Sea, and the Western Pacific. In this reference, numerous policy statements coming from Japan have indicated that security issues in the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, South China Sea, and East China Sea cannot be treated separately, or as stand-alone issues.
Symbolizing acknowledgment of the economic and strategic dependence on developments across a much wider maritime region, the Indo-Pacific policy prioritizes allocation of resources, security partners, membership and agendas of regional diplomatic and security institutions.
Major East Asian economies have acute dependence on oil imports across the Indian Ocean from the Middle East and Africa. The region is often labeled as the artery that carries resources to fuel the growth of regional economies. However, on the flip side, dependence of this nature can become a strategic vulnerability that could well influence regional partnership building and diplomatic relations.
Ultimately, cooperative security shall only be realized in tangible terms when nations develop a sense of a common future based upon shared political systems, forms of representation and governance, institutions and values that foster a sense of a security, based on global commons and rules.
Regular military and political dialogues, confidence-building, and deterrence-enhancing regional exercises are the foundation in offsetting traditional security threats and challenges. Maritime security and stability in the Indo-Pacific will become more effective with converging themes in the realms of maritime security and cooperation.
Author: Monika Chansoria