October 13, 2010
This week Hanoi hosted the first-ever ASEAN defence ministers meeting plus (ADMM+), attended by 18 defence ministers. The ten ASEAN ministers were joined by their counterparts from China, the US, India, Russia,Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. The stated aim of the meeting was to create a framework for regional cooperation on security matters. The ASEAN countries’ military establishments are seeking to cooperate in areas such as disaster relief, maritime security, counter-terrorism and peacekeeping operations. In short, the ultimate objective is to reach a level of strategic cooperation which would improve peace and stability in South-East Asia.
The gathering was also the stage where the Chinese minister of defence, general Liang Guanglie, reiterated China’s opposition to US recent interference in South-East Asian affairs. China’s aim, he said, is that of “promoting mutual understanding through dialogue and overcoming differences between the sides through consultation”. The Chinese minister met Toshini Hitazawa, his Japanese counterpart, and discussed the opportunity of creating mechanisms for China-Japan consultations, in case of future disputes such as the one involving the Chinese fishing vessel which ran into the Japanese coastguard in September. Their talks also paved the way for a meeting between Naoto Kan and Wen Jiabao, to take place in Vietnam in late October.
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, tried to persuade participants to involve the United States as the “honest broker” in territorial conflicts that might arise in future between China and some ASEAN members like Brunei, Vietnam or Malaysia, regarding the sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea. Whilst China would like to deal with claims on a bilateral basis, the US would like to build “strong multilateral institutions” in which such matters would be dealt with. The goal of the US diplomacy and military, which incidentally started their Pacific offensive last June also in Hanoi, is to determine ASEAN diplomats and defence ministers to weave a straitjacket – designed, naturally, by Washington cold warriors – intended to contain China’s “expansionism”.
The cold war feel of the US’ stance on South-East Asia was further reinforced by the way Radio Free Europe / Voice of America reported on the Hanoi meeting. Thus, instead of bilateral negotiations regarding territorial disputes, the Radio claimed, ASEAN members should produce a “code of conduct” for China to abide by (presumably also written by American policymakers, on ASEAN’s behalf) and “strong multilateral institutions” to deal with Chinese bullying. Where Robert Gates played down disagreements between China and some ASEAN members, Radio Free Europe broadcasters used the alarmist headline “Disputes abound at the first ASEAN defence ministers meeting”.
During his stay Robert Gates also met with Hanoi university students. In answer to their questions, he stated that the US plans to remain engaged in the Pacific as “an active participant not only in economic and political matters but in defense and security matters”. Undaunted, the Japanese defence minister pressed his counterpart to speed up the relocation of the US Okinawa base, as the Japanese population would dearly like to see a withdrawal of American troops from their country. In hindsight, it might have turned out better for Japan if at the end of WWII it would have been occupied by Russian troops instead… As events in Central and Eastern Europe proved during the nineties, Russia understood when its time was up and withdrew its troops from Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland without much fuss. By contrast, US policymakers find it extremely hard to adapt to a multipolar world in which their country might be the strongest militarily, but where its involvement and leadership in regional disputes meet with strong resistance, from the EU to Latin America or Asia.
In this respect, ASEAN defence ministers are better advised to learn from defence initiatives in the EU, or in Latin America. Failing this, they run the risk of having their security and defence agenda written by Washington and their initiatives moulded to suit the US’ anti-Chinese containment agenda in Asia-Pacific. China, on the other hand, could take clues from Brazil’s shrewd diplomacy in solving long-standing disputes with its much smaller neighbours. In the Itaipu Dam dispute, Paraguay was allowed by Brazil to come out the winner. Such political gestures, applied to South China Sea disputes, would not only lend credibility to China’s “peaceful rise” strategy, but also prevent the unwanted interference of the US in Asian security matters. (sources: RFE, Viet Nam News, Japan Times, LA Times, Le Monde diplomatique, Philippine News Agency, Xinhua)Florian Pantazi