Flashpoints | Security | Southeast Asia

ASEAN Cyber Challenge in the Spotlight With New Center

A new center of excellence highlights cyber’s increasing prominence among the bloc’s defense priorities.

ASEAN Cyber Challenge in the Spotlight With New Center
Credit: Depositphotos

One of the items of note to have come out of the recently concluded virtual ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) on June 15 was the formalization of a cyber center of excellence based in Singapore. While the development itself was not surprising, it nonetheless spotlighted the continued significance of cyber security as a defense issue of importance for Southeast Asian states, as well as some of their key partners.

Cybersecurity has been an increasing focus for Southeast Asian states as well as ASEAN as a grouping in the context of the region’s attempts to balance the opportunities afforded by the digital economy with the challenges posed by the increasing sophistication of cyber threats in an increasingly networked world and their links to other challenges such as terrorism.

Specifically, these issues have been recently addressed by the ADMM, widely characterized as the premier defense institution within ASEAN. Recent years have seen the institutionalization of a new ADMM-Plus cyber security working group in 2016 and the establishment of new bodies like the ASEAN-Japan Cybersecurity Capacity Building Center, which was announced during Thailand’s 2019 ASEAN chairmanship.

We saw this focus reinforced yet again at the latest ADMM meeting hosted by current ASEAN chair Brunei. The Bandar Seri Begawan Declaration adopted by the ADMM on June 15 on promoting a “future-ready, peaceful and prosperous ASEAN” noted some of the advances made in the cyber domain and also included some measures designed to boost future activity in this space.

One of the concept papers adopted by the meeting concerned the establishment of a new cyber center of excellence. The center, formally called the ADMM Cybersecurity and Information Center of Excellence, would be based in Singapore and would be designed to “promote cooperation on cybersecurity and information within the defense sector, enhance multilateral cooperation amongst ASEAN defense establishments against cyber attacks, disinformation, and misinformation.”

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The idea of such a center being hosted in Singapore comes as little surprise. Singapore has already been working to establish itself as a leader within ASEAN on cyber issues through a series of initiatives over the years covering various areas including capacity building and dialogues. This includes the formal announcement of the ASEAN-Singapore Cybersecurity Center of Excellence back in 2019, at the fourth ASEAN Ministerial Conference on Cybersecurity.

Few details have been publicized thus far about the new center’s role within the ADMM. Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen cited the development as an example of the importance of finding new avenues for strategic dialogue and practical cooperation to deal with current and new security challenges and promote sound analysis and information sharing even amid the coronavirus pandemic, which contributed to the cancellation of this year’s iteration of the Shangri-La Dialogue.

As specifics become clearer, the development of the center of excellence will warrant close scrutiny. This includes the core areas on which it looks to make progress, which include research, training, and information sharing, as well as how the center fits in with already existing bodies and other existing collaborative endeavors. A case in point was the adoption of a concept paper at the ADMM meeting on the establishment of ASEAN Cyber Defense Network to link cyber defense operation centers of member states. Such markers and others like them will offer more of a sense of how the institution evolves as part of wider efforts by Southeast Asian states to manage cyber challenges over the next few years.