The ADMM-Plus And Maritime Security In South China Sea: Constraints In Establishing A Maritime Security Regime – Analysis



The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) through the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) has taken steps to establish a maritime security regime that may govern interactions and avoid contingencies and operational miscalculations in the South China Sea (SCS). Interestingly, the ADMM initiatives have yet to be adopted by ASEAN’s more encompassing defense cooperation platform—the ADMM-Plus. In this regard, this article will discuss the structural, institutional, and geostrategic factors that might have constrained the ADMM-Plus in adopting such initiatives.  

ADMM-Plus and Establishing a Maritime Security Regime

As part of promoting practical cooperation in six priority areas, the ADMM-Plus established the ADMM-Plus Expert Working Group (EWG) on Maritime Security in 2011. However, practical cooperation through the ADMM-Plus EWG on maritime security have focused on non-traditional security (NTS). As acknowledged in the 2nd ADMM-Plus joint declaration, the EWG on maritime security has progressed “through the conduct of meetings and a table-top exercise on NTS challenges.” This provided the foundation for the conduct of the 2013 Maritime Security Field Training Exercise and launch of the ADMM-Plus Maritime Security Community Information-Sharing Portal. Consequently, succeeding ADMM-Plus Maritime Security Field Training Exercises have focused on developing skills to address NTS threats such as communications testing, boarding operations, ship maneuvering, maritime security patrols, and counter-terrorism at sea.  

Likewise, the ADMM-Plus has yet to adopt ADMM initiatives that may constitute an SCS maritime security regime, to wit: 1) the ASEAN Direct Communications Infrastructure (ADI); 2) the ASEAN Guidelines on Maritime Interaction (AGMI); and 3) the ASEAN Guidelines for Air Military Encounters (AGAME). The ADI provides bilateral direct communications links (DCLs) that may be used by ASEAN defense ministers to prevent or defuse misunderstandings and misinterpretations. The AGMI provides guidelines that apply to naval vessels (including naval auxiliaries such as submarines) and naval aircrafts sailing and flying over the high seas. It incorporates the Code of Unalerted Encounters at Sea (CUES) and encourages the use of Automatic Identification Systems, among others. Meanwhile, AGAME encourages communication and identification between aircrafts as well as refraining from interfering with the activities of other states in their exercise of freedom of navigation and overflight in the high seas. 

Although these guidelines are to be implemented on a voluntary basis and without prejudice to territorial and maritime claims, they nonetheless provide standard norms, rules, and procedures for conflict prevention and management in the SCS. 

Structural Constraints

The United States was the largest defense spender among the ADMM-Plus countries for the period 2010-2018 with an average defense spending of 643.86 billion USD which is more than three times than that of the China, the second largest spender with an average defense spending of 188.86 billion USD. China is followed by Russia, India, and Japan with 71.9 billion USD, 53.36 billion USD, and 50.21 billion USD, respectively. 

The United States and China also had the highest current GDPs in 2018 with 20.54 trillion USD and 14.03 trillion USD, respectively. They were followed by Japan, India, and Russia with 4.971 trillion USD, 2.72 trillion USD, and 1.66 billion USD, respectively. Notably, with the exception of New Zealand, all Plus countries have greater productive capacities than the ADMM countries. Hence, the Plus countries, especially China, Japan, and India, have a higher stake in using their naval forces to exercise command of the sea in order to ensure the continuous flow of trade and commerce during peace time and to avoid economic sabotage through naval blockade during war time.

The multi-polar distribution of military and economic powers among the ADMM-Plus countries prevents any single state, including the United States, from exercising hegemonic influence in the process of considering and adopting the initiatives of the ADMM in the ADMM-Plus. Absent a hegemon within the ADMM-Plus countries, the Plus countries with the greatest military and economic powers are left to pursue their competing interests. 

Institutional Constraints

The Vientiane Action Programme of 2004, which the ADMM-Plus supports, underscored that the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) “subscribes to the principle of comprehensive security.” The concept promotes the strong interdependencies of the political, economic and social life of the region. This means that when Plus countries such as China agreed to the terms of ADMM-Plus, they were essentially supporting regional cooperation on the basis of comprehensive security rather than military security. On a related note, ADMM-Plus maritime security cooperation has initially focused on NTS issues in line with the greater ASEAN attention to the promotion of regional resilience. In this regard, the maritime security regime recently established at the ADMM-level (e.g., AGMI and AGAME) might seem incompatible with the kind of security cooperation initially agreed upon at the ADMM-Plus since the recent initiatives of the ADMM do not focus on comprehensive security and NTS but instead touch upon military and traditional security issues (e.g., tensions between naval vessels and air military encounters). 

Moreover, unlike the United Nations that observes the principle of majority vote with one-state-one-vote or the Council of the European Union that practices the principle of majority vote with weighted votes based on country population size, ASEAN has no voting mechanism. Consequently, as an ASEAN-led platform, the ADMM-Plus has no voting mechanism. Decisions are determined through the consensus of all members. It also observes the ASEAN+X Framework which means that the only configuration and composition that it officially recognizes as the ADMM-Plus is that of the 10 ASEAN countries together with their 8 dialogue partners. 

In this regard, consensus within the ADMM-Plus is equivalent to unanimity. This principle of consensus equals unanimity is problematic and works to the disadvantage of the ADMM countries because it institutionally provides each Plus country a veto power against any initiative proposed at the ADMM-level. As such, in 2015 the ADMM-Plus failed to issue a joint declaration due to a disagreement between U.S. and China on the inclusion of a content relating to the SCS.

Geostrategic Constraints

Through a survey of the official maritime security-related documents of the United States, China, Russia, and India, the following common objectives may be observed. Taken together, these objectives promote the interest of establishing command of the sea. First is the objective of promoting naval and air force modernization. As a security dilemma, the naval and air power arms race among the four countries is facilitated by mutual distrust and the desire to gain the military advantage through superior technology. This arms race is also motivated by competing interests in protecting national sovereignty, securing territorial integrity, ensuring freedom of navigation and safety of the SLOCs, exercising sovereign rights over natural resources, protecting allies and partners, and maintaining a favorable regional balance of power. At the center of this security dilemma and network of issues, however, is the perceived relative decline of the United States and the rise of China.

Another common objective is enhancing air and naval presence and maneuverability in maritime spaces. In pursuit of their geostrategic priorities, these countries seek to establish and maintain presence in the Indian Ocean and the SCS to signal their interests and to enhance their capabilities in conducting operations at sea and maneuvering their forces in different conditions. For instance, China has extended its naval operations to the Indian Ocean and to the Western Pacific and its air operations to the ECS. This is consistent with its offshore interests and in response to the training requirements of its navy and air force. On the other hand, the United States maintains presence in the SCS through its freedom of navigation operations to challenge excessive maritime claims and in support of the initiative to transform its naval force into a more lethal force capable of maneuvering and surviving in adverse conditions. The expansion of the operational horizons of relatively new naval players in the region, such as China, heightens the risk of military encounters between naval vessels and military aircrafts. 

Finally, deterrence through force projection is another common objective among the maritime security strategies of these four countries. The objectives of naval and air power modernization and increased air and naval presence in the maritime domain are both in support of the higher objective of deterrence through force projection. The United States seeks to deter the adversaries of a free and open Indo-Pacific, China seeks to deter and resist aggression in support of its national rejuvenation, Russia seeks to deter aggression from the ocean and sea, and India seeks to deter conflict and coercion. Accordingly, these objectives are translated into concrete military activities in the maritime domain through the conduct of unilateral and joint maritime patrols and military exercises. All these unilateral expressions of interest in deterrence have their intended targets, thereby undermining confidence-building measures at the multilateral level. 

The maritime security objectives of the United States, China, Russia, and India reflect competing interests in establishing command of the sea which, as a zero-sum game, entails controlling a maritime space and preventing competitors from doing the same. Hence, their military activities raise tension in the regional security environment, increase military uncertainty and unpredictability, and contribute to their mutual distrust towards each other. 

Their maritime security objectives also run contrary to and risk undermining the objectives of the ADMM in establishing a maritime security regime. The ADI, AGMI, and AGAME promote transparency and regularity, the exercise of practical confidence-building measures, as well as the use of crisis management mechanisms to avoid operational miscalculations leading to all-out conflict. However, as indicated in their maritime strategies, the most powerful Plus countries value operational unpredictability and force projection to establish command of the sea in support of their respective security interests. In this regard, while there may an expression of support for this maritime security regime in the ADMM-Plus, these countries may find it difficult to observe common norms, rules, and procedures in actual scenarios of tension at sea. 


Through the comparison of the relative powers of the ADMM-Plus countries, an examination of the ADMM-Plus institutional design, and the identification of common objectives in the maritime security strategies of the most powerful Plus countries, this article identified structural, institutional, and geostrategic constraints in the establishment of a maritime security regime through the ADMM-Plus. These constraints highlight how the dynamics within the ADMM-Plus is different from the dynamics within the ADMM and could explain why despite an expression of interest and support in principle, the ADMM-Plus has not adopted the initiatives of the ADMM in establishing a maritime security regime. 

*Christian Vicedo is a security analyst based in Manila. His writings have appeared in The Diplomat, Pacific Forum PacNet, and the Eurasia Review.

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