Asean defence ministers expected to ink world's first multilateral air code

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen meets Vietnamese Minister of National Defence Ngo Xuan Lich at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on Oct 18, 2018, ahead of the 12th Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - Defence ministers from the Asean grouping meeting here from Friday (Oct 19) 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 on Saturday by the ADMM-Plus that includes Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and the US as dialogue partners.

But the annual defence 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 for 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.

In their meeting here on Thursday, 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.

Among the top agenda items is the world's first multilateral set of air guidelines 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 partners of this platform to sign on 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 creates a useful basis on which to build a similar arrangement for the air," said Mr Nicholas Fang, director for security and global affairs at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

A recent near-miss encounter between US and China warships in the South China Sea has also 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.

"(They) may not stop encounters entirely, but they do go some way in reducing the chances of miscalculation or mishap, by providing a baseline of norms to be respected and adhered to," said Mr Fang.

"At the same time, it's useful for discussion on such agreements to be carried out between all the stakeholders involved, on multilateral platforms such as the ADMM-Plus, to allow for increased mutual understanding and also the building of confidence among the parties involved."

Asean member states and China are in the process of negotiating a separate code of conduct to manage tensions in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where Asean states such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have overlapping claims with China.

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

At the upcoming meeting, Asean states and China could also 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 on Thursday, in a Facebook post after his meeting with China's Gen 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.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.