ADMM Plus: A solution to great power rivalry in the South China Sea?

Mathew Bukit

24/August/2016, Commentaries


The ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) is a cooperative mechanism of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that aims to promote mutual trust, understanding, dialogue and transparency in the field of security for ASEAN member states and the affiliates that comprise the “Plus” (Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation and the United States).[1] In early May 2016, ADMM-Plus conducted military training exercises in South China Sea waters contiguous to Brunei and Singapore to strengthen capacity for dealing with terrorism and maritime threats, promoting the utilization of standardized procedures for the South China Sea, such as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.[2]

The significance of these exercises go beyond operational procedures for maritime threats in the region, given the greater geopolitical context of rising tensions in the South China Sea. Competing territorial claims to the South China Sea can be categorized by arguments made on the basis of either Exclusive Economic Zones under the United Nation Convention on the Laws of the Sea III[3] (UNCLOS) or historical claims to archipelagoes, including Vietnam’s historical administration of the Spratlys[4] or China’s infamous Nine-Dash Line[5].

The reefs and archipelagoes in the South China Sea are resource rich with oil[6], minerals and fisheries.[7] These resources, however, only partially account for the benefits of administration of these islands. Economic security, particularly that provided by shipping lanes through the South China Sea, is a vital consideration. Provisions in the UNCLOS allow for the suspension of innocent passage in times of emergency, a legitimate concern for all parties as tensions continue to escalate in the region.[8] With approximately 90% of China’s shipping[9] and as much as USD$1.2 trillion of US shipping annually passing through the South China Sea (out of a total USD$5.3 trillion) [10], the threat of passage interruption is of paramount importance to all parties.

From a realist perspective, the position of ASEAN claimants must be considered within the context of great power rivalry in the region: China’s claims to the South China Sea are perceived by the US as an affront to the country’s naval hegemony in the Pacific.   ASEAN states are faced with the proposition of either balancing or bandwagoning towards the US or China through examples of both hard and soft power. The inability for ASEAN to issue a joint statement on the South China Sea when leaders met in Malaysia in late 2015 demonstrates the limitations of ASEAN’s emphasis on consensus. This is especially apparent after the ruling by the permanent court of arbitration for the South China Sea which China has categorically rejected.

ADMM-Plus has nonetheless made positive efforts to promote stability in the South China Sea and arguably has the capacity to further improve it. One tangible step since ADMM-Plus first convened in 2010 was the 2015 agreement to introduce an ASEAN hotline to improve communication in times of crises. However, the intangible benefits of ADMM-Plus may in fact be more significant when assessing the future of the South China Sea.

The drills held by ADMM-Plus in Brunei and Singapore this year helped reinforce operational protocols for maritime situations in the South China Sea, which may go a long way for reducing threats of escalation in the absence of a binding code of conduct and with diplomacy turning increasingly confrontational. Protocols such as the Code for Unplanned encounters at Sea provide transparency and a sense of predictability, which reduces the likelihood of conflict. The standardization of encounters at sea can be understood as the first step towards formalizing any sort of binding code of conduct for the South China Sea.

Since all claimants to the South China Sea are members of ADMM-Plus, it is a natural forum for dialogue between the parties. ADMM-Plus embodies the traditional dual-track strategic approach that Southeast Asian states have adopted for security.[11] The first track focuses on cooperative security, military modernization (i.e. increase in expenditure on naval capacity[12]) and traditional military alliances, whereas the second track concerns the promotion of liberal policies, economic interdependence (through the ASEAN Economic Community) and shared norms (such as UNCLOS and the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea).

ADMM-Plus provides an opportunity to break away from an emphasis on military modernization and strategic bandwagoning. ADMM-Plus facilitates greater military cooperation, reducing the likelihood of an arms race. Furthermore, since it promotes greater involvement from lesser powers, ADMM-Plus may bolster the capacity of regional actors, reduce dependence on defense agreements with great powers and ultimately bring more clarity to the security situation of a region that has previously been a complex matrix of military alignments.

ADMM-Plus has the capacity and endeavor to clarify and standardize procedures in the tumultuous region that is the South China Sea. Given the multilateral nature of alignments and the influence of great powers in the dispute, it is unsurprising that bilateral and unilateral diplomatic measures have so far been unsuccessful. Whilst ADMM-Plus may not provide a comprehensive solution to the questions of sovereignty in the South China Sea, it can at the very least further the process of standardization, cooperation and open dialogue to stem the threat of conflict escalation.

Mathew Bukit is a Research Fellow Assistant at the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS).

[1] "ADMM-Plus - ASEAN Defence Minister's Meeting (ADMM)". 2016. Admm.Asean.Org.

[2] "ADMM-Plus Countries Ready To Counter Maritime And Terrorism Threats". 2016. Mindef.Gov.Sg.

[3] United Nations. "United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea." UN, 1982.

[4] Furtado, X. 1999. "International Law And The Dispute Over The Spratly Islands: Whither UNCLOS?". Contemporary Southeast Asia 21 (3): 386-404.


[6] Katchen, M. 1977. "The Spratly Islands And The Law Of The Sea: "Dangerous Ground" For Asian Peace". Asian Survey 17 (12): 1167-1181.

[7] Gao, Z. and Jia, B. (2013). The Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea: History, Status, and   Implications. American Journal of International Law, 107(1), p. 99.

[8] Katchen, M. 1977. "The Spratly Islands And The Law Of The Sea: "Dangerous Ground" For Asian Peace". Asian Survey 17 (12): 1167-1181.

[9] Thao, N. and Amer, R. (2009). A new legal arrangement for the South China Sea? Ocean Development & International Law, 40(4), p.334.

[10]"Armed Clash In The South China Sea". 2016. Council On Foreign Relations.

[11] Ciorciari, J. D. 2008. "The Balance Of Great-Power Influence In Contemporary Southeast Asia". International Relations Of The Asia-Pacific 9 (1): 157-196.

[12] "Comparative Southeast Asian Military Modernization – III | The Asan Forum". 2016. Theasanforum.Org.