Fears about China’s increasingly bellicose actions in the South China Sea and the “truancy” of senior US leaders from recent Southeast Asian diplomatic events will be among the key talking points at this weekend’s meeting of regional defence chiefs, analysts said, despite host nation Thailand’s hopes participants will steer clear of controversial issues. The Asean Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus in Bangkok will feature the defence chiefs from the 10-nation bloc and eight global partners, including US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe. In its sixth edition since its launch in 2010, the forum has won acclaim in regional defence diplomacy circles because of its unique status as a multilateral dialogue platform among defence ministries and militaries – which do not confer in such a setting as regularly as trade and foreign ministries. Apart from the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, the ADMM Plus is the only forum that allows Southeast Asian defence chiefs to meet with counterparts of major powers such as the US and China at the same time. The South China Sea will inevitably dominate or at least become the headline-grabbing issue of the sixth ADMM Plus Shahriman Lockman, Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies Although ADMM Plus participants have often taken a conciliatory approach to intractable issues such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea, tensions have become increasingly heightened between Vietnam and China, creating a potential flashpoint. Vietnam will next year assume the rotating chairmanship of the Asean – and of ADMM – and has signalled it could elevate the South China Sea dispute to the top of the bloc’s agenda as the two communist countries square off over energy exploration activities. “Even though Thailand has chosen ‘Sustainable Security’ as the theme of its ADMM chairmanship, the South China Sea will inevitably dominate or at least become the headline-grabbing issue of the sixth ADMM Plus,” said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst with Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies. “Vietnam will almost certainly see to it that it does.” Derek Grossman of the US-based Rand Corporation think tank predicted Esper will reiterate Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategic aim of “keeping strategic waterways, particularly in the South China Sea, ‘open’ from Chinese coercion”. Vietnam’s foreign minister warns of escalation in the South China Sea in thinly veiled warning to China “His message should generally be welcomed by the Asean defence ministers, though they probably worry that spiralling US-China relations might eventually force them to choose between great powers – something they overwhelmingly do not want to do,” Grossman said. For the most part, China and rival claimants to the sea dispute have sought to avoid escalation as Asean works on a “code of conduct” to resolve the issue. However, Vietnam has recently pushed back against what it regards as Beijing’s efforts to prevent its joint exploration activities with countries outside the region, such as Russia. Hanoi’s suggestion last week it could explore legal action to resolve the dispute drew a sharp rebuke from China, which maintains the row must be solved bilaterally between itself and rival claimants. Vietnam has – alongside other claimants Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan – complained that China’s militarisation and building of artificial islands not only challenges its sovereignty but raises questions about freedom of navigation and overflight in the area. Esper will be meeting his Asean counterparts for the first time since his confirmation as Pentagon chief in July and will need to convince Asean leaders his strategy for Asia is more than a paper tiger. The 10-nation bloc is still digesting the Trump administration’s decision to send its lowest-level delegation ever to the East Asia Summit earlier this month. US commerce secretary emphasises ‘deep commitment’ to Asia Washington’s excuse was that President Donald Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were unavailable because they were involved in campaigning for key gubernatorial races at home. Instead, the US delegation to the summit – which has the same 18-nation make-up as ADMM Plus – was led by the Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and national security adviser Robert O’Brien. Indonesian analyst A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi said Asean defence ministers would likely “expect reassurances” from Esper about Washington’s commitment to the bloc and to the Indo-Pacific region. “US officials have tried to downplay the no-show by trying to put the focus on the wider day-to-day cooperation between Asean-US including in defence matters, which remains strong,” said Almuttaqi, head of the Asean Studies Programme at the Habibie Centre in Jakarta. “[Esper’s appearance] will be an important opportunity to reinforce that message.” Shahriman said the defence chiefs will particularly be parsing American commitment to ADMM Plus “given the remarkable truancy of senior US leaders in other Asean-led meetings”. He emphasised however that this should not be interpreted as a collective desire to play the US off against China. “Securing high-level participation of the big powers has practically become an end in itself, serving as a kind of validation of Asean rather than serving other objectives,” he said. What’s the difference between Indo Pacific and Asia-Pacific? Regional control for the US or China Grossman said the US defence chief’s visit partly serves “as a clean-up act for the United States” following the East Asia Summit no-show of Trump, Pence and Pompeo. “But it remains to be seen whether his focus purely on security issues rather than the gamut of other issues facing the Indo-Pacific will suffice,” he said. The debut of new Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto at the ADMM Plus meeting will also intrigue regional defence watchers. The 68-year-old former special forces commander was in October appointed by President Joko Widodo to lead the defence ministry after twice being defeated by Widodo in presidential elections. Observers consider Prabowo’s appointment to be part of a strategy to co-opt rivals to push sweeping economic reforms through parliament. Prabowo is a former son-in-law of the late dictator Suharto and was removed from the military soon after the long-time leader’s fall from power in 1998 over allegations he broke the chain of command. He has also been accused of presiding over human rights abuses by soldiers. Almuttaqi said Prabowo – occasionally compared to Trump for his bombastic style – has so far embraced his role as his country’s leading defence diplomat. “Clearly he enjoys this part of the job and was probably also one of the factors behind the president’s decision to appoint him,” he said. Should China be concerned about Indonesia’s new defence minister, Prabowo Subianto? ADMM Plus also involves “expert working groups” focusing on seven different areas including counterterrorism, maritime security peacekeeping operations and humanitarian and assistance and disaster relief. The co-chairs of the seven groups – comprising one Asean country and one of the “Plus Eight” countries” – will be rotated for 2020-23. Shahriman said the new co-chairs, such as Malaysia and South Korea which will co-lead the group on cybersecurity, “will be looking towards putting their mark on the agenda” for the next three years.