Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a ASEAN defense ministers meeting in August 2013
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a ASEAN defense ministers meeting in August 2013 // DoD photo by Sgt. Aaron Hostutler USMC

Think the Pentagon Isn’t Serious About Asia? Think Again

Those who question whether the Department of Defense is actually rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region should look at the three days Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is devoting in April to meet with his counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. While the Secretary’s time is not as appealing a metric as military assets deployed and security assistance dollars, it is a clear demonstration of the priorities of the department and sets the tone for the entire bureaucracy. Just a few years ago, the idea that the secretary of defense would devote this much time to multilateral engagement in Southeast Asia would have been laughable — not any more.

The April 1-3 summit in Hawaii has its roots in a December 2009 visit to the Pentagon by Vietnamese Defense Minister Phùng Quang Thanh. In his meeting with then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Thanh asked if Gates would consider attending an inaugural meeting of a new 18-country forum to be called the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, or ADMM+, which Vietnam sought to create during its 2010 ASEAN chairmanship. It’s members would include the ten ASEAN countries, plus the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Russia.

Thanh’s request was bold. At the time, the U.S. commitment to attending major ASEAN-based forums was not taken for granted and American defense secretaries typically made few annual trips to Asia. Gates immediately recognized the long-term strategic importance for the U.S. of helping to build Asia’s multilateral security architecture. Since Gates attended the first ADMM+ ministerial in Hanoi in 2010, U.S. defense engagement with ASEAN has expanded rapidly and become institutionalized throughout the Defense Department. At the ministerial level, at the invitation of ASEAN, then-Secretary Leon Panetta travelled to Indonesia in 2011 and Cambodia in 2012 to meet with the ten ASEAN defense ministers. In 2013, Hagel travelled to Brunei to attend the second ADMM+ ministerial and also held a 10+1 meeting with his ASEAN counterparts.

(Related: Pentagon Pivots Within the Pivot, to Southeast Asia)

A range of officials across the Office for Secretary of Defense, U.S. Pacific Command and the Joint Staff now routinely take part in multilateral meetings and practical military-military cooperative activities under the purview of the ADMM+. Senior and mid-level officials from the 18 member countries meet twice annually to discuss regional security issues and to oversee the work of six “Experts Working Groups,” each of which organizes practical military-military activities in the region. In 2013, the working groups organized three 18-country multilateral military exercises, which help build confidence and ties between the region’s militaries, including between the U.S. and China. The rising importance of ASEAN-based multilateral engagement has even forced changes in DOD’s rigid bureaucracy - ASEAN divisions now exist alongside long-established bilateral country desks in OSD, PACOM and the Joint Staff.

DOD’s commitment to building ties with ASEAN and the broader Asia-Pacific region through multilateral engagement is a remarkable demonstration of making strategic, long-term investments in Asia, whose principal dividends will only be seen over time. Major agreements on key issues such as maritime security will not take shape in these forums for the foreseeable future and lowest common denominator multilateral exercises will not significantly enhance U.S. military readiness. However, deep U.S. engagement with ASEAN and through the ADMM+ is helping to bring coherence to the region’s security architecture and reducing mistrust between the region’s militaries.

U.S. commitment to directly engage ASEAN is also a strategic attempt to put the grouping at the center of multilateralism in Asia, rather than allowing any particular country, such as China, to drive regional integration on its own terms. In the meantime, this approach is also conveniently helping the United States in its bilateral relations with ASEAN countries.

Brian Harding is an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Prior, he served in the Southeast Asia policy office in the Office of the Secretary of Defense..