Defence ministers stress centrality of Asean in region

Three Asean defence ministers struck distinct but complementary notes while discussing the "Indo-Pacific" construct and the idea of Asean's centrality within it.

Defence ministers from Indonesia and Vietnam were asked how their national defence policies fit within the Indo-Pacific strategies outlined by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States Defence Secretary James Mattis in speeches over the last two days.

Mr Modi, in his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday, described the Indo-Pacific as a "natural region" that included all nations situated within it as well as other countries that had stakes in the region.

He placed South-east Asia at the centre of the Indo-Pacific and said Asean unity - despite the tremendous diversity that lay within it - was essential for a stable future for the region .

Yesterday, Mr Mattis described America's Indo-Pacific strategy as a "subset of our broader security strategy".

"Make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay. This is our priority theatre," he said.

He added: "Asean's centrality remains vital, and cooperation with China is welcome wherever possible."

At a session discussing Asia's evolving security order hours after Mr Mattis spoke, General Ngo Xuan Lich, the Vietnamese Defence Minister, said he supported the concepts outlined by Mr Modi and Mr Mattis.

"However, we need to study closely the actual content of the Indo-Pacific strategy, so that we can fit our policy in," Gen Lich said.

Retired general Ryamizard Ryacudu, his Indonesian counterpart, said his nation already had a strategy to tackle any security developments in the nation's jurisdiction. "We already have a strategy, it does not much change our defence strategy that already exists."

Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, speaking to reporters after hosting a lunch for visiting defence ministers, said there was sound logic to Asean's centrality in the Indo-Pacific.

"Geographically, the centrality of Asean makes sense.

"From a historical point of view, the alternate model is a salutary lesson. As colonies, as grounds for proxy wars by major powers. And that model was devastating, not only for economies. It was unsustainable.

"Independent Asean states individually and collectively have grown enormously over the last two, three decades. People recognise the wisdom of that.

"PM Modi's comments that Asean represents the greatest diversity is true. Yet, out of that diversity we were able to form a collective body, and on many issues, form a collective voice."

Mr Modi's suggestion that Asean could lead the Indo-Pacific was worth aspiring to, he added.

The term "Indo-Pacific" gained currency after the Trump administration began to use it last year to describe the Asia-Pacific. The US often describes a "free and open Indo-Pacific" as the cornerstone for its strategy in Asia, using it to draw attention to Beijing's aggressive assertion of its claims in the South China Sea.

Last week, the Pentagon renamed its Pacific Command the Indo-Pacific Command, in what has been seen as an attempt to project India's role in the region as a counter to China.

Some Chinese delegates at the Shangri-La Dialogue said there were contradictions in the concepts of the Indo-Pacific laid out by India and the US. One of them pointed out that Mr Modi had talked about it as a natural, geographical and inclusive region, whereas Mr Mattis described it more as a strategy to have coherent policies in a vast region.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 03, 2018, with the headline 'Defence ministers stress centrality of Asean in region'. Print Edition | Subscribe