Asean defence chiefs set to ink first multilateral air guidelines

Dr Ng Eng Hen and Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe at the Ministry of Defence, on Oct 18.
Dr Ng Eng Hen and Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe at the Ministry of Defence, on Oct 18.PHOTO: MINDEF

Code on engagement between military planes among several outcomes expected at ADMM

Defence ministers from the Asean grouping meeting here from today are set to ink the world's first multilateral air guidelines on engagement between military planes, with major powers such as the United States and China possibly coming on board too.

It is one of several outcomes expected from the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM), which will be followed by the ADMM-Plus, which includes Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the US as dialogue partners.

But the annual summits will be taking place amid simmering tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade disputes, Taiwan, as well as the South China Sea issue.

Talks between US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe - scheduled to be held in Beijing just before the ADMM - had been cancelled amid increasingly provocative moves from both sides after the US last month sanctioned China over its purchase of Russian military equipment.

When the two met yesterday after arriving here, Mr Mattis reportedly told General Wei "that the world's two largest economies needed to deepen high-level ties so as to navigate tension and rein in the risk of inadvertent conflict".

Sino-US tensions aside, the South-east Asian leaders, especially Asean chair Singapore, will be hoping to achieve positive and significant outcomes, which could include an expanded regional counter-terrorism intelligence-sharing network.

The world's first multilateral set of air guidelines is aimed at managing incidents especially over contested areas such as the South China Sea. Observers say such a code will reduce the risk of incidents involving military aircraft and build confidence among the various parties.


A set of naval protocols, Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (Cues), was adopted at last year's ADMM-Plus. But getting the eight dialogue partners to sign up to the new air protocols will be more challenging, say analysts.

"It's not just the calculus for US-China relationships that can have an impact, but also that between India and China, Japan and China, the US and Russia, just to name a few. However, the precedent and existing base of Cues for maritime encounters create a useful basis on which to build a similar arrangement for the air," said Singapore Institute of International Affairs' director for security and global affairs Nicholas Fang.

A recent near-miss encounter between US and Chinese warships in the South China Sea has raised questions over the effectiveness of a non-binding naval code such as Cues, but analysts say these voluntary and mutually accepted guidelines are still important.

Countering terrorism - deemed the most serious threat to the region - will also figure high on the agenda, with the likely announcement of a new network of Asean chemical, biological and radiological defence experts.

Asean states and China could provide more details on an inaugural joint maritime exercise involving the navies of the 11 countries to be held in waters off China next week.

The hope is that it will be a regular feature, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday, in a Facebook post after meeting China's General Wei.

All these possible outcomes will make this year's security talks one of the most keenly watched since the ADMM started in 2006 and the ADMM-Plus in 2010, say analysts.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2018, with the headline 'Asean defence chiefs set to ink first multilateral air guidelines'. Print Edition | Subscribe