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Should ASEAN adopt standards similar to NATO? There would be significant regional implications if it does.

Speaking with The Diplomat, a US Pacific Command spokesperson recently suggested that ASEAN’s pursuit of regional defence industry collaboration would help advance US national interests in the Asia-Pacific as it would usher in a new ‘set of standards, similar to NATO, (that) will facilitate interoperability among ASEAN and US militaries.’

But this reasoning seems peculiar because it not only fails to address the impact of ASEAN Defense Industry Collaboration’s (ADIC)accepted raison d'être – to lower ASEAN dependence on defence imports – but because it also emphasizes ADIC – NATO-like standards, which is a shift from previous discussions.

For military analysts, PACOM’s statement therefore raises the serious question of whether the US military perceives ADIC as a mechanism through which to drive adoption of NATO standards by ASEAN member states. If this is the case, there are some genuine operational and defence implications for the broader Asia-Pacific region that should be considered.

From an operational perspective, the adoption of NATO standards by ASEAN would advance long-term plug-and-play interoperability between NATO and ASEAN militaries. While this would improve joint-military action across numerous mission spaces, it also would allow Pentagon defence planners to view ASEAN militaries as potential forward-based force multipliers for some regional scenarios with potential adversaries, including China.

On the defence trade side, Guy Ben-Ari, deputy director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and a fellow with the International Security Programme at CSIS, believes NATO standards could make importing weapon systems and platforms from non-Western suppliers less viable. ‘NATO standards would greatly diminish the ability of countries like China and Russia to win ASEAN competitions,’ he said. This would strengthen the market position of Western companies and also provide them with more efficient supply chains than their strategic competitors.

While these considerations impart clear benefits for US and Western security interests in Asia-Pacific, adoption of NATO-standards by ASEAN could advance their defence collaboration interests as well, including the stated goal of reducing ASEAN dependency on military imports.

According to Ben-Ari, ASEAN countries continue to lag major suppliers in the production of ‘large platforms such as tactical fighters and submarines.’ If platform supplier countries, including the United States, would be willing to permit ASEAN members to develop their own weapon systems, then ASEAN could move away from the all-inclusive purchasing arrangements that ADIC seeks to redress.

Faced with declining budgets in the West, and fierce global competition, Ben-Ari believes that US and its NATO allies probably are willing to cleave weapon systems from platform sales in order to strengthen their position in the Southeast Asian and Indian arms markets. ‘While this would mean losing pieces of the contract (to indigenous production), it also increases (US) chances of winning competition in an increasingly contested global arms market,’ he said. ‘With Western defence companies less and less able to rely on sales at home and within NATO, this is a trade-off they can take.’

The bigger question though is what strategic foreign policy trade-off the US government is willing to make to advance NATO standards in ASEAN. Having already backed away from advanced F-16 sales to Taiwan, and having ended production of the F-22A despite regional interest in the platform, the United States has demonstrated an unwillingness to tip the balance of power with Beijing. It therefore remains unclear if the pursuit of NATO standards are a diplomatic or military objective of the US Government at this time, or if the US military simply hopes ADIC will promote the development of intra-ASEAN standards that would enable the US military to develop integration solutions for platform and system interoperability.


Eddie Walsh is The Diplomat's Pentagon (accredited) correspondent. His work has been featured by Gulf News, ISN Insights, CSIS, The East Asia Forum, The Jakarta Globe and The Journal of Energy Security. He blogs at Asia-Pacific Reporting, can be reached at [email protected], and followed @aseanreporting.