Water Wars

Water Wars: Mattis Meets with Counterparts at ADMM-Plus

By Sarah Grant
Saturday, October 28, 2017, 4:26 PM

Water Wars: Mattis Meets with Counterparts at ADMM-Plus

South China Sea disputes took a back seat to North Korea and counterterrorism operations at the annual meeting of ASEAN and partner-nation defense ministers.

Photo credit: AFP

The annual ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM)-Plus took place in Clark, Philippines, on Oct. 23 and 24. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis attended the meeting, which brings together ASEAN defense ministers and their counterparts from non-member countries with interests in the region. In full-group discussions, the ministers focused largely on North Korean missile testing and joint counterterrorism efforts, instead of on the conflict in the South China Sea. ASEAN, led this year by the Philippines, has taken a more conciliatory tone towards Beijing and emphasized opportunities for collaboration rather than risks of confrontation. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in an Oct. 19 speech at the ASEAN High-Level Forum, said it was the “correct step to avoid confrontational talks with almost all of the parties concerned” and instead concentrate on reaching an amicable solution that respects each party’s economic interests.”

The ADMM parties did, however, declare their commitment to “[f]reedom of navigation, non-militarization, [and a] rules-based world following international rules and conventions,” as Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said. The Joint Declaration issued after Monday’s session stated “the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea as well as the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation, and pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” It further emphasized “the commitment of all parties to fully and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea, and…the importance of expeditiously working towards an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).”

On Oct. 23, on the sidelines of ADMM-Plus, Mattis met with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera. In that meeting, Mattis reaffirmed that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands and that the United States remains opposed to unilateral coercive actions by claimants in the South China Sea, including the reclamation and militarization of disputed features. On Oct. 24, Mattis spoke with Duterte, Lorenzana, and Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein.

The Philippines will next host the East Asia Summit (EAS) from Nov. 13-14. President Trump is scheduled to meet with President Duterte and other ASEAN leaders in Manila on November 12-13, at the end of a 12-day Asia trip. He will then return to the United States and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will attend the larger gathering on the 14th in his place.

In Other News...

United States

The USS Roosevelt and USS Nimitz aircraft carrier strike groups arrived in the Pacific this week, joining the USS Ronald Reagan. A joint exercise involving the three strike groups is in the works, a U.S. official said, amid high tensions on the Korean Peninsula and coincident with President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit to Asia. Although carrier strike groups routinely cycle through the Western Pacific, this would be the first time in a decade that three exercised together.


China also made progress in its relationship with ASEAN at the ADMM-Plus, securing an agreement to conduct a joint maritime exercise. Beijing first proposed such an exercise in Oct. 2015, as a capstone of on-going confidence-building measures. Announcing the plan, Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said that the joint exercise would heighten mutual understanding and trust among the parties. Ng did not provide further details on what the exercise would likely entail, but has previously suggested practicing the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) is adding a marine rescue squadron to its South Sea Fleet, which has responsibility for operations in the South China Sea; the PLAN previously had only one such squadron, assigned to its North Sea Fleet. The main duties of such squadrons include deploying rescue craft, equipment and divers to respond to emergencies, minimizing losses in accidents and protecting marine engineers, and carrying out rescue operations at sea as necessary. Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military affairs commentator, said the establishment of the rescue squadron in the South Sea Fleet “is a sign that the fleet is getting itself more ready for battle…. Rescue squadrons are crucial in war.” South Sea Fleet political commissar Ke Hehai, quoted on Thursday in the PLA Daily, similarly commented “the army has to be prepared for battle.”


Philippine President Duterte will arrive in Japan on Oct. 29 for a three-day visit, including talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on Wednesday that “Japan and the Philippines have close ties, and our strategic partnership can promote stability in the region.”


The Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) has decided to postpone the retirement of its Ahmad Yani-class frigates amid operational requirements, especially the South China Sea, that necessitate continued service of the ships. TNI-AL planned to retire one frigate per year from 2017-2022, but the schedule has been pushed back in response to ongoing service obligations and delays in the induction of the Martadinata (SIGMA 10514) class, the replacement for the Ahmad Yani class.

Analysis and Commentary

In a series of posts for the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Alex Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, reviews recent arms expenditures by South China Sea claimants Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. In the first article, “Force Buildup in the South China Sea: The Myth of an Arms Race,” Vuving writes that trends in defense capability-development suggest “three major Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea have little intention of achieving military parity or superiority.” Instead, they aim to achieve “minimal deterrence” by building “just enough capability to make potential aggressors think twice before attacking them.” The second article focuses specifically on Malaysia, listing the major platforms the military currently has in service and describing its upgrade and acquisition plans. Malaysia, Vuving concludes, “feels the least urgent to redress existing gaps in its defense capabilities,” and as a result, its “force modernization remains very limited with no signs of competition with the other claimants.”

In an interview with The Strategist, the commentary and analysis website of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Adm. Christophe Prazuck, chief of the French Navy, highlights the deepening relationship between the French and Australian navies and France’s growing military engagement in the region. “A key reason for our involvement in the region is our new strategic relationship with Australia,” Prazuck says. “What’s happening in the region with the weakening of the law of the sea is important to us. We have been sailing in the area and particularly in the disputed areas to make our point as a maritime country.”

Ambassador David Shear, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs and acting principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, delivered a series of lectures in Australia on the theme “Trump, China, and the dual crisis in America’s Asia policy.” Shear says “an erratic administration has undermined allied confidence in the credibility of our commitments in the Western Pacific, as our friends begin to question America’s long-term reliability as a trustworthy ally.” The possible result is the “slippage of American authority, the decline of U.S. economic salience, the constriction of U.S. military operations in the Western Pacific, and the gradual diminution of our alliances,” ending “with Beijing’s establishment of a Sino-centric economic and security order in Asia in which America plays a minimal role.” To protect the current order while U.S. policy is in disarray, Shear calls on U.S. allies to “[take] the initiative to build their own capabilities and [strengthen] cooperative ties among themselves.”

Carl Munoz covers the Chinese reaction to the spate of U.S. Navy collisions in the Pacific earlier this year for the Washington Times. Chinese analysts, writing in a Chinese military newspaper, attribute the accidents to an “overstretched sea service struggling to cope” with operations in the Pacific. “The U.S. Navy finds itself getting into accidents lately against the background of commonly entering other countries’ nearby seas and sensitive waters to undertake so-called patrols with ships in bad condition, personnel physically and spiritually exhausted, and with lax safety knowledge.”

Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College discuss China’s maritime militia in this week’s episode of the ChinaPower podcast. The conversation addresses the history of the maritime militia fleet, the training the militia receives, the ways the maritime militia is employed to strengthen China’s sovereignty claims in the South China, and how the United States can respond.

In the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, Glaser, along with CSIS fellow Matthew Funaiole, provides takeaways from China’s 19th Party Congress. President Xi Jinping’s message to the PLA “suggests a perceived need to be prepared to employ military power and hints at a greater willingness to do so in the future,” they say. Xi’s choice to “highlight the ‘steady progress’ in the construction of islands and reefs in the South China Sea as a major achievement of his first term…may suggest that China will prioritize strengthening its control over the contested waterway at the cost of rising friction with its neighbors and the U.S.”

Water Wars is our biweekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please email Sarah Grant with breaking news, relevant documents, or corrections.