November 16, 2023
JAKARTA – Southeast Asian defense chiefs have agreed to strengthen their collaborative efforts amid an increasingly unpredictable global outlook and deepening divides, with concerns over the security of its maritime domain taking on an overarching theme.
The major power rivalry unfolding in the region could jeopardize the fate of the region and beyond, they said in a joint statement on Wednesday, while also urging for adherence to law and an immediate conclusion to key security documents, particularly the Code of Conduct at the South China Sea (COC).
Led by Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, defense ministers of ASEAN member states excluding Myanmar gathered in Jakarta on Wednesday for a two-day defense talk with some of ASEAN’s most important partners, under the shadow of a deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the conflict in Myanmar.
Several high-ranking officials from the bloc’s partner countries have scheduled to meet with the regional ministers during the ASEAN Defense Ministers Forum (ADMM).
They include United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin, Indian Defense Minister Shri Rajnath Singh, Japanese Defense Minister Miyazawa Hiroyuki and Korean Deputy Defense Minister Kim Seon-ho. High-ranking officials from China, New Zealand and Australia have similarly been set to join the talks.
Early in the day, Prabowo began by highlighting the domino effect of foreign conflicts, saying that security vulnerabilities would inevitably impact the region’s economic well-being.
“[This year’s ADMM] highlights the link between a peaceful environment and sustainable growth,” Prabowo said in his opening remarks. “Without peace and stability, it’s impossible to attract investment, promote trade and promote the wellbeing of our peoples and societies.”
Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen warned in his speech that the latest geopolitical developments have been proof that “peace can be stolen or lost very quickly”, and that ASEAN countries must pay nothing less than their utmost attention to maintain stability in the region.
“I dread if there’s a conflict in Asia. I’m not sure whether the world can stomach, can tolerate it, if there is a war in Europe, a deteriorating situation in the Middle East and [a conflict] in Asia,” he said.
In a joint statement released hours later, the defense chiefs through multiple assertions paid special focus to the region’s maritime security, urging for the creation of a “conducive environment for the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea” through an “early conclusion of effective and substantive COC in accordance to international law”.
The largest body of Southeast Asian waters has been troubled for years due to competing claims made by some ASEAN members against China, a rapidly rising superpower whose presence in the South China Sea has only become more aggressive.
Beijing’s insistence on claiming nearly the entirety of the resource-rich and productive sea has multiplied tensions in the region, as the COC, a document meant to act as a guideline for conduct in the sea, has yet to be finalized after two decades of negotiations.
Wednesday’s joint statement also commended the ASEAN-India maritime exercise earlier this year, which was carried out in the South China Sea, and the ASEAN Navy Chiefs Meeting on guidelines for maritime interaction held in Manila in May.
It is not only troubles within Southeast Asia, such as the Myanmar crisis, that pose collective challenges, the ministers said, but also far-away conflicts such as those in the Gaza Strip.
Prabowo’s opening remarks mentioned the “horrid” humanitarian situation in Gaza. He said that “Indonesia’s stance is clear and firm” that all violence must be ceased and that a humanitarian corridor must be established.
Malaysian Defense Minister Mohamad Hasan echoed the sentiment, adding that Kuala Lumpur “categorically condemns the killing of innocent lives”, the bombing of hospitals and the “massacre of innocent lives”.
Entering the sixth week of the conflict between Israel and Palestine’s militant group Hamas, over 11,000 Palestinians have been killed so far, following Tel Aviv’s massive indiscriminate reprise against the Palestinian enclave after Hamas launched a surprise attack on Oct. 7.
Prabowo, meanwhile, also said that he was “saddened by the deteriorating situation in Myanmar”, a sentiment the ministers reflected at the joint statement where they reaffirmed their commitment to supporting the ASEAN-led peace solution, the Five Point Consensus (5PC) for long and lasting peace in Naypyidaw.
The 17th ADMM will conclude on Thursday, producing seven outcome documents including the joint statement encompassing areas of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, maintaining the primacy of ASEAN amid contestations, food security and information sharing.