Defence ministers from across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as counterparts from the US, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand descended on Manila for the 11th ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) earlier this week. The meetings typically focus on pressing issues for the region, particularly security, terrorism and borders, but tend to avoid the speculation and stalemates that make the leaders' summits such ham-fisted affairs.
The attendance of US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had been billed by regional media as an indicator of US desire to resume its engagement in Southeast Asia following a dip in relations after President Trump took the reins earlier this year – particularly amid the stand-off with North Korea and China's growing influence. ASEAN gives a 'voice to those who want relations between states to be based on respect and not on predator economics or on the size of militaries', the Straits Times reported Mattis as saying on the weekend.
A readout issued by the Pentagon noted Mattis' 'appreciation for the broad range of US-ASEAN security cooperation and encouraged increased operational cooperation on common maritime security challenges', and offered 'continued cooperation in maritime domain awareness and information-sharing to address common threats to regional security'.
Mattis met with his Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman on the sidelines of the summit, the second such meeting in as many months. Sitharaman has similarly been tasked with increasing India's engagement within the regional bloc in an effort to offset China's growing presence throughout Southeast Asia.
Mattis' visit precedes the attendance of President Trump at the ASEAN 50th anniversary celebrations and the ASEAN-US summit in Manila on 12-13 November. But plans to attend the East Asia Summit, beginning the following day and also in Manila, appear to have been cancelled. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will attend in Trump's place.
Meanwhile, Chinese officials won Singaporean support for joint China-ASEAN naval exercises, to be inaugurated next year as Singapore takes on leadership of the bloc. Singapore, the current 'dialogue relations coordinator' and often a conduit of ASEAN-China relations, will be in the spotlight next year as the chair member seeks to leverage its unique relationship with both China and the US in balancing power games in the region. But if Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's visit to the White House last week had some convinced Singapore would err on the side of the US, the naval exercises should be a cold shower. 'We will push it...for the very reason that all ASEAN and China want that. If you exercise, you at least build understanding and trust,' Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters in Manila.
The ADMM occurred just days after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared the 'liberation' of Marawi City in southern Mindanao after five months of combat. Leaders have been quick to offer their congratulations to Duterte and the Philippine Armed Forces (even as fighting continues between the military and the Maute Group fighters), with the conflict acting as a focal point for a wider discussion on terrorism and extremism. The ADMM joint statement included resolutions to further engage civil society and academia in combating terrorism, forge stronger ties in information-sharing and work closer within the bloc to address extremism.
The end of the Marawi City siege has put patrols of the Sulu Sea, which stretches between the southwestern islands of the Philippines across to both Indonesian and Malaysian territories in Borneo, back on the radar, with renewed fears of foreign fighters in Mindanao returning home and committing acts of terror throughout the rest of the region.
The trilateral sea patrols were originally prompted by a flurry of kidnappings blamed on Philippine group Abu Sayyaf, but discussions during the summit have seen Singapore and Brunei both likely to join in the future. 'I've spoken to the Minister of Singapore, they will come on board formally. So the trilateral patrols will become four nations. I will have to get further feedback from Brunei because they were also observers from our launch so we're building in a constructive way,' Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin bin Tun Hussein said during the event, as reported by Philippine media.
Terrorism will stay at the top of the agenda when the Philippines hands over the chairmanship to Singapore after next month's final summit, Ng told Singaporean media, saying the siege in Marawi City had been a 'wake-up call' to the rest of ASEAN.