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Asean Affairs   21 March 2014

Aloha ASEAN: Hagel to Host Defense Ministers in Hawaii

By Ernest Z. Bower (@BowerCSIS), Senior Adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will host most of the ASEAN ministers of defense in Honolulu on April 1–2. Hagel’s invitation for all 10 of his ASEAN counterparts to meet in the United States marked a first for a U.S. defense secretary. Hagel’s proactive hospitality underlines the Pentagon’s continued leadership in the Indo-Pacific and its role as the leading edge of President Barack Obama’s rebalance to Asia.

However, Hagel, the Department of Defense, and Pacific Command (PACOM) cannot be effective acting alone. Hagel understands this. He and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker coauthored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on February 17 emphasizing that the Obama administration understands that real security in Asia can only be achieved in tandem with deep economic engagement. Hagel is doing his part with the forward-leaning invitation to his ASEAN counterparts, which he delivered at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore last June. Pritzker is stepping up too and will travel to four ASEAN countries this summer with leading U.S. chief executive officers to promote trade and investment.

The ASEAN defense ministers are coming to Hawaii during a historic window of opportunity defined by Southeast Asian interest in having the United States more engaged for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is China’s continued aggressiveness in the South China Sea—including high-pressure tactics to isolate the Philippines and dissuade it from following through with a case against China’s claims at a UN arbitration tribunal, increasing interdiction of Vietnamese fishing vessels in the Paracel Islands, and patrols by Chinese warships at James Shoal in waters claimed by Malaysia.

Tragically, the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 (MH370) demonstrates the very real need for greater coordination among regional militaries, intelligence agencies, and ministries of foreign affairs and defense. Forums such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) and ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) offer the United States, ASEAN, and other partners the opportunity to develop regional standards and to practice and prepare for emergencies so coordinated efforts can be employed in real time in such areas as search and rescue (SAR) and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). The United States has been quick to support Malaysia during the MH370 crisis and was the decisive partner to turn the tide in the emergency response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year.

Hagel and the ASEAN defense ministers have an opportunity to engage in a very substantive dialogue in Hawaii. Here are some recommendations for areas on which they should focus and actions they should take:

    Institutionalize annual U.S.-ASEAN defense engagement. The U.S. and ASEAN defense ministers should commit to a 10+1 meeting on an annual basis, alternating between venues in the United States and ASEAN. Although such meetings have occurred in recent years on the sidelines of the biannual 18-member ADMM+ summit and the annual ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Retreat, a more institutionalized 10+1 summit is needed.
    Announce a defense trade initiative for ASEAN. Building on the commitments to help ASEAN’s militaries modernize, professionalize, and enhance capacity in areas ranging from ethics to maritime domain awareness, the United States should announce a new defense trade initiative for ASEAN, starting with a joint study of regional capabilities in nonsensitive areas such as SAR, HADR, and other public goods. This initiative should outline a number of new policy actions including bringing the U.S. export control regime up to date and emphasizing defense and security cooperation, technology transfer, and capacity building with ASEAN countries.
    Create a Thailand contact group. At this time, only 9 of the 10 ASEAN defense ministers plan to attend the meeting in Hawaii. Thailand’s interim prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who is also the minister of defense, will not attend given her country’s ongoing political crisis. ASEAN members and the United States share direct interests in seeing Thais resolve their political impasse peacefully. While only Thais will be able to find the solution, friends of Thailand should indicate their strong support through a Friends of Thailand Contact Group that would be available for consultations and to provide support for the country as it works through its critical situation. Ministers of defense could be extremely helpful in this effort due to their deep institutional engagement with current and retired leaders of Thailand’s military. A contact group should include military representation as well as leaders from the diplomatic, business, and civil society sectors.
    Seize the unique opportunity of Myanmar. Hagel and the ASEAN defense ministers should focus on how to provide training and capacity-building support for Myanmar’s military. Impressive efforts are already under way on a bilateral basis and some ASEAN-based training has begun, but the United States should seek to strengthen the organization while promoting reform in Myanmar by increasing its engagement in ASEAN-based training. The ministers should empower the Honolulu-based Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies to provide leadership in this effort in conjunction with sister institutions in each of the ASEAN countries.
    Honor former U.S. senators Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye. While in Hawaii, Hagel and his ASEAN counterparts could initiate a proactive dialogue with their respective legislatures as a way to enhance transparency, improve governance, and elevate efforts to modernize regional militaries and make them more accountable to their citizens. Akaka and Inouye long served the United States honorably in the Senate and both served in the military. In fact, Senator Inouye earned the Medal of Honor, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart for his bravery and selflessness in battle in Italy during World War II. Both men were staunch supporters of a more proactive U.S. engagement in Asia.

Secretary Hagel, the Pentagon, and PACOM continue to set the pace for substantive U.S. engagement in ASEAN specifically and in the Indo-Pacific generally. The time invested in getting to know their counterparts is an invaluable contribution to the national interests of the United States. President Obama should encourage all of his cabinet members with international portfolios to similarly engage their ASEAN counterparts and use that engagement to develop ideas and initiatives for the EAS. This would help build bridges to a region that will help determine the United States’ security and well-being for the rest of the twenty-first century.

Courtesy: This post originally appeared on the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C. cogitASIA blog

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