Engagement in the Indo-Pacific: The Pentagon Leads by Example

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is packing his bags to follow the well-trod path of his predecessors Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. He will leave Washington on August 22 for a stop at Pacific Command in Hawaii before continuing on to four ASEAN nations. Hagel will visit Malaysia on August 24–26, Indonesia on August 26–27, Brunei on August 28–29 for the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM+), and the Philippines on August 29–30. The Pentagon takes engagement in the Indo-Pacific generally, and ASEAN specifically, very seriously.

Hagel’s itinerary is focused on countries President Barak Obama will visit in October and reveals a high level of U.S. political commitment to strengthen ASEAN as an institution and bolster U.S. linkages to it. This is foundational to the Obama administration’s strategy to introduce substance and structure into ASEAN-centric regional security architecture. It also demonstrates the Defense Department’s desire to secure commitments that the president can table during his participation in the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the first ASEAN-U.S. Summit, which replaces the U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting, in Brunei on October 9–10, as well as with Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak and Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during his upcoming visits to their countries.

At the regional level, Hagel will participate in the second ADMM+. The primary goal of the forum is to build strategic trust and habits of cooperation among the EAS defense ministers and their militaries. The objective is to use this regional coordination, convened by ASEAN, as an easy and natural venue for defense leaders to get to know one another and share information. It also serves as a vehicle for joint exercises on counterterrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), maritime security, military medicine, and peacekeeping.

Expect Hagel and his counterparts to discuss maritime domain awareness generally and the South China Sea disputes specifically. The ASEAN foreign ministers announced on August 14 that they had reached a unified position on a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea to be negotiated with China. Those negotiations are set to kick off in September.

Hagel took engagement with ASEAN to a new level during his June speech at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore when he invited the ASEAN defense ministers to Hawaii in 2014—the first time for them to visit the United States as a group. He is likely to announce a date for that meeting during his time in Brunei.

The ADMM+ will likely prioritize building on the very tangible cooperation exhibited during the June 16–20 HADR and military medicine exercises in Brunei. A counterterrorism exercise will take place September 9–13 in Indonesia, and other ADMM+ joint exercises are planned this year in Sydney and the Philippines. Importantly, the June HADR exercise was the first time Chinese and U.S. marines conducted combined training, an important deliverable for ASEAN.

It is also likely that Indonesia will lead the charge for a joint ASEAN naval exercise. Indonesia explored this concept at the ASEAN Naval Chiefs Meeting in 2012, and it is likely that the timing is right to move forward and include all 18 ADMM+ members in the initiative. If that vision becomes reality, institutionalizing regional exercises could be a massive step toward building strategic trust and enhancing communications among the region’s militaries. That in itself is a major advance toward managing risk in the Indo-Pacific.

The United States is also increasingly involved in maritime security architecture in the Indo-Pacific, especially through ASEAN. The chairman’s statement from the July 2 ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference sessions with dialogue partners noted that the organization “welcomed the U.S. engagement in the [2012] Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF) and their proposal for an Expanded ASEAN Seafarer Training (EAST) program.” The United States announced it would join the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy during last year’s U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting, but has still not done so. Its inclusion in a key planning meeting this year suggests that process is in full swing, and the ADMM+ would be a logical time to announce that the United States is officially joining.

Hagel’s investment in the ADMM+ process also helps to rationalize regional architecture and provides a venue to carefully align U.S. interests with partners in the region and send recommendations for action to Obama. For instance, this year’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) noted continued efforts to integrate ARF and ADMM+ by having the ADMM+ Expert Working Group members take part in relevant ARF Inter-Sessional Meetings and share input/recommendations; this is still nascent but marks steps toward greater integration of regional security architecture.

In Malaysia, Hagel will have an opportunity to explore new areas of military cooperation beyond the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises and cooperation in counternarcotics operations, security force training, security infrastructure development, and intelligence support.  The United States is also cooperating to enhance Malaysia’s peacekeeping capabilities under the United Nations.  Since 2010, Malaysia has played an active role in providing humanitarian aid and medical assistance in Afghanistan, despite the fact that it strongly opposed the U.S.-led war in that country.

In Indonesia, Hagel has built a good rapport with his counterpart, Purnomo Yusgiantoro. Purnomo has been an outspoken proponent for institutionalizing a U.S.-ASEAN defense ministers meeting, and he will be pleased to see that coming to fruition in Hawaii in 2014. Purnomo is on a mission to professionalize and modernize the Indonesian military, a legacy goal of President Yudhoyono.  

Hagel and the U.S. government at large want to help. As part of the U.S.-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership, the two countries launched a Defense Planning Dialogue to engage in information exchanges and best practices with the Indonesian defense sector. The United States has also helped with the transfer of refurbished F-16s and the initiation of foreign military sales cases for Maverick missiles, Apache helicopters, and other essential equipment to meet Indonesian defense requirements.

Regional radar systems are also being discussed, and the two countries have developed a Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement to promote communications interoperability and security between their militaries. Currently, there are nearly 200 established military-to-military engagements between U.S. and Indonesian armed forces each year.

In the Philippines, Hagel will advance bilateral discussions about an increased U.S. rotational presence at Subic Bay and in other parts of the country. Negotiations began in the Philippines on August 14 and will continue later this month in the United States. Hagel and the Pentagon need to be sensitive and ensure they have close alignment with not only their military counterparts but also politicians, civil society, and other key groups in the Philippines, including institutions such as the Catholic Church. The United States needs to remember that Philippine elections will take place again in 2016, and nationalist candidates could make the case that greater U.S. access is unconstitutional even though the Aquino administration maintains it is covered by the current Visiting Forces Agreement.

The one gap in Hagel’s preparation for the trip is that he has not yet nominated a candidate to be assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs. He is well staffed by Acting Assistant Secretary Peter Lavoy and Chief of Staff Mark Lippert, the man who held the assistant secretary position before moving into Hagel’s office, but naming a candidate to drive this strategy and follow up on his visit is a vitally important next step.

The engagement of ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific by Hagel and the Department of Defense is granular, substantive, and real. The coordination and cooperation with ASEAN and the EAS backed up by deep, rich bilateral ties set an outstanding example for Hagel’s colleagues in the cabinet. Regular, consistent, and well-staffed interaction with partners throughout the region will ensure that the Pentagon’s memo to the White House in preparation for the president’s October trip is filled with strong recommendations, deliverables, and substantive inputs to a comprehensive U.S. strategy for the region.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the August 22, 2013, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)

Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Ernest Z. Bower