Should the United States scale back its engagement in the Asia-Pacific, Asean has to be prepared for heavier security responsibilities, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said yesterday.
US President Donald Trump has indicated that he wants to reduce American commitment overseas, but Mr Hishammuddin hopes he would reconsider this as the region is crucial to the US' security and economy.
Still, Asean should "take this challenge in filling up the vacuum" through platforms such as the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM-Plus, he said. The ADMM-Plus includes Asean's dialogue partners Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the US.
Such groupings have been critical in addressing issues such as maritime security, counter-terrorism and disaster relief, the minister said.
"I see both these initiatives as a crucial part of Asean's regional security architecture, which provides us with the flexibility to address fast-evolving challenges in a punishingly complex landscape," he said.
WORKING WITH OTHER ASEAN MEMBERS
Our approach is always to prioritise Asean's centrality... However, the reality of our very diverse political systems and foreign policy priorities means it is sometimes more productive to work via focused caucuses among member states.
MR HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, Malaysian Defence Minister.
Mr Hishammuddin was speaking at the fifth Fullerton Forum, which serves as a prelude to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue that takes place from June 2 to 4 this year.
He is the first foreign defence minister to address the Fullerton Forum, a three-day event at the Fullerton Hotel which ends today.
He suggested that smaller groupings with common security concerns within Asean could work on specific issues more effectively.
"Our approach is always to prioritise Asean's centrality... However, the reality of our very diverse political systems and foreign policy priorities means it is sometimes more productive to work via focused caucuses among member states," he said.
Mr Hishammuddin also said there was a need to make progress on longstanding, contentious matters such as the South China Sea, where China has overlapping claims with Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
"Look beyond tired and childish notions of winners and losers for the simple fact that peace is a universal good and not a zero-sum game," he said.
Asean had to be united, he added. "Nobody, not the US, not China, can ignore the destiny and the future of 10 Asean countries that are united."
Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who spoke last night, also called for Asean to reaffirm its unity amid "emerging superpower competition".
Mechanisms such as ADMM- Plus, he noted, enable Asean to engage the major powers and serve as venues for them to engage one another, and "should result in productive efforts for the region instead of regional conflict and instability".
"As the host to the leaders of the US, China, Japan, Russia and India, we will have to remind our friends, firmly if necessary, not to use Asean as a proxy for their rivalry," he said.
He also said that one area of focus at this year's Asean Regional Forum - expected to be held in August - should be a continued push for a code of conduct in the South China Sea. "Tensions in that part of the world are rising and we don't want that to happen, especially as about US$5 trillion (S$7.1 trillion) worth of goods pass through that area nearly every year," he said.
Mr Lorenzana added that a direct communications link between Asean defence ministers, which is being set up through ADMM, would be useful in defusing tensions that may arise and enable members to act quickly during emergencies.