This month, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Singapore completed Exercise Bersama, an annual military exercise under the auspices of the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA), a nonbinding defense pact. Decades after its 1971 creation, regional geopolitics have shifted, along with the defense forces of each FPDA member.
The FPDA was formed against the backdrop of communism, perceived aggression from Indonesia and the withdrawal of British forces from Malaysia and Singapore. It was not planned as a detailed defense organization like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), yet it had military and political structures in the form of the Joint Consultative Council, the Air Defense Council, and the Integrated Air Defense System (IADS). The former two merged in 1994 to form the FPDA Consultative Council, while the latter became the Integrated Area Defense System, increasing integration among member states. Although not on the scale of NATO, the FPDA also consistently initiated military exercises such as the Air Defense Exercises, the annual Exercise Suman Warrior, Exercise Bersama Shield, and Exercise Bersama Lima. The FPDA has evolved into a credible military alliance in Southeast Asia.
While the five nations have consistently affirmed their presence and commitment to the FPDA, each member has differing defense priorities and outlooks.
The U.K.’s foreign and defense policies contributed to the formation of the FPDA. These policies are at present laid out in the U.K. Strategic Defense and Security Reviews (SDSR). The 2010 SDSR assumed a benign international security environment and significantly reduced its military size and capability as well as its strategic priorities. The U.K. did send a destroyer to the East Asia region in 2013; nevertheless, there was little focus on the region, given the government’s austerity agenda.
The 2015 SDSR appeared to correct this, with the Southeast Asian region noted as providing “significant opportunities.” The FPDA was cited as a means to ensure “peace and security in the [Asia-Pacific]” and also to strengthen the U.K.’s relationship with partners like Australia.
Yet the U.K. has defense commitments closer to home. It cites NATO as the cornerstone of its defense and is also focused on the Middle East, especially with Iran’s aggressive actions in the Straits of Hormuz. The U.K. provides personnel to the IADS and has the British Defense Singapore Support Unit, a logistics depot that supplies fuel to FPDA and allied warships. With the U.K. also distracted by Brexit, it is highly unlikely to increase its FPDA commitments or form a concrete strategy for the region.
Australia is geographically closer to Malaysia and Singapore, the original countries central to the FPDA. The 2016 Australian Defense White Paper stated that the FPDA increases security cooperation and interoperability among member states. It increases the defense relationship between individual members. Australia makes a significant contribution to the FPDA with a Royal Australian Air Force Air Vice-Marshal as commander IADS and an Australian infantry company based at Butterworth, Penang. Australia does have other pressing security concerns in the Asia-Pacific region and there have been proposals for a newer defense pact including other Southeast Asian countries. Nevertheless, Australia appears committed to the FPDA by contributing to the annual exercises as well as influencing changes in the FPDA’s policies.
Without any offensive capability, the New Zealand military contribution is the lowest among the members. Yet the FPDA assists in maintaining New Zealand’s foreign policy engagement with the Southeast Asia region. As a Five-Eyes member state also, New Zealand also has much to contribute in the intelligence component of the FPDA.
Singapore and Malaysia, the two former colonies that were the core reason for the founding of FPDA, have successfully developed their armed forces and the threat of aggression from Indonesia has rescinded. As Tim Huxley notes in his book Defending the Lion City, Singapore has continuously enhanced its military, forming a “poison shrimp” or an extremely strong deterrence strategy. Singapore thus has and will continue to have a high-technology military, and is part of other regional pacts, yet it still values the role of the FPDA. The FPDA helps maintains Singapore’s interoperability with other armed forces and keeps countries like the U.K. engaged in the region. Malaysia’s armed forces are not as advanced as Singapore’s. The FPDA therefore is an appropriate alliance to train Malaysia’s armed forces. As noted, Malaysian bases facilitate FPDA military structures and this further complements bilateral defense relationships with regional partners. Malaysia also has other pressing defense concerns such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and constant training with FPDA forces will enhance Malaysia’s armed forces.
The FPDA will continue as a defense pact and evolve to match the regional security architecture. Nevertheless, there are possible approaches the FPDA should consider for its future. First, it could maximize the effect of its various annual military exercises. It should consider drawing in larger assets, such as the British Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. The exercises could also increasingly draw upon non-defense related assets of members such as foreign assistance and environmental expertise. This is especially true for the U.K., whose plans for the East Asian region have still not been defined for the near future.
Second, while non-member states have been invited to observe FPDA exercises, non-members could be allowed to participate in FPDA exercises. This might be a controversial change, given that not all not all states have resolved their differences. Yet, the inclusion of other countries could also help decrease tensions between regional countries and, in fact, enhance FPDA militaries.
Third, the consultative nature of the FPDA needs to match the changing security environment in the wider East Asian Region. This is not to say that the FPDA defense ministers and defense chiefs do not consider this as part of their discussions. Rather, they need to intensify their outlook on the FPDA’s position in East Asia’s future. The FPDA is indeed a perfect complement for other regional defense agreements including the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting, the Malacca Straits Patrol, and U.S. defense partnerships.
FPDA members need to consider how they will approach a series of challenges, including the great power competition between the United States and China; increasing asymmetric and hybrid threats like climate change; and domestic politics and demographics.
The FPDA is and will continue to be a defense alliance for the Southeast Asian region. The above suggestions are by no means exhaustive yet provide a starting point as to how the FPDA can position itself successfully in the future.
Li Jie Sheng is a freelance research analyst with interests in Southeast Asia, global political economy, multilateral organisations and international development. He has a PhD in International Political Economy from the University of Birmingham.