Developing the Five Power Defence Arrangements

The Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) is a low-profile but important regional security institution established in 1971 between Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom in the wake of the latter's withdrawal of most of its military forces from "East of Suez". Far from anachronistic, the FPDA has continued to fulfil vital security roles to the benefit of not only its members but also the wider security and stability of South-east Asia. But an important question for its member countries' ministers when they hold their triennial meeting in Singapore on June 2, just before the 16th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue, is how to develop the FPDA in the future.

The FPDA's most important original roles were seldom discussed openly. One important motivation for setting up the arrangements in the first place - only five years after the end of then Indonesian President Sukarno's campaign of Konfrontasi - was hedging against the resurgence of an unstable and threatening Indonesia which might again endanger the security of Malaysia and Singapore, and even the wider South-east Asian balance of power. A second implicit role was to provide channels of communication on defence matters between Malaysia and Singapore, and to build strategic confidence between them. And in the early 1970s, there was much anxiety in South-east Asia over the impending US military withdrawal from Vietnam and prospect of communist victories throughout Indochina.

Over the last 41/2 decades, the regional strategic environment has been transformed and the original reasons for the FPDA have become much less relevant or, indeed, redundant. While there may sometimes be irritants in relations with Jakarta, it would be fanciful to suggest that Indonesia would again seek to destabilise its smaller neighbours. Meanwhile, relations between Malaysia and Singapore are probably the best they have ever been. And while Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam fell to communism and the subsequent Third Indochina War posed serious security threats, since the 1990s the three Indochinese countries have been integrated into Asean and Vietnam is now a good partner for Malaysia and Singapore in many areas.

However, as the discussions at this year's Shangri-La Dialogue are sure to emphasise, the Asia-Pacific security environment is not only as replete as ever with potential threats, but also is increasingly challenging. There is much concern over international terrorism, and the potential for extremist groups to occupy weakly governed spaces such as the Sulu zone in the southern Philippines. Cyberthreats to critical national infrastructure are ever more worrying. Natural disasters, sometimes exacerbated by climate change, also pose major threats. Even more seriously, the regional order which has underpinned Asia-Pacific prosperity as well as security since the 1960s is under severe challenge.

The regional balance of power is shifting as China becomes richer, stronger and assertive. American strategy and policy have entered a period of - at best - uncertainty under President Donald Trump. Potential regional flashpoints in Korea and the South China Sea threaten regional stability more than ever. Asean has struggled to find a convincingly strong common position on regional security, particularly in relation to the South China Sea. Amid this uncertainty, most states in the region are seeking to increase their military capabilities.

Over time, the FPDA's member governments have developed the grouping in ways that transcend its origins. Notably, they have adapted its annual exercises in response to contemporary concerns, notably terrorism and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. But if the FPDA is to remain relevant to its members' interests, they will need to think carefully about how they can use it even more effectively in the context of a deteriorating regional security environment. The obvious way to do this would be by boosting the interoperability of their forces, particularly in the maritime and air spheres.

FPDA member countries are all making efforts to improve their military capabilities. Malaysia is building new frigates for its navy. Singapore is commissioning new Littoral Mission Vessels. Australia's air warfare destroyers and P-8A maritime patrol aircraft are entering service and it has ordered F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. New Zealand is on the brink of ordering new patrol aircraft. The first of the UK's new aircraft carriers (which will carry F-35s) is expected to deploy operationally in 2021. There is much potential for the FPDA nations to bring these new ships and aircraft into their joint exercises to synergise their capabilities.

In raising its activities to a new level, however, the FPDA should be careful to maintain the confidence and goodwill of other regional states, some of which have traditionally viewed it with suspicion. While membership expansion is probably too difficult, inclusivity is possible. Indonesia and other South-east Asian countries have sent observers to FPDA exercises for many years; there is a strong case for also reassuring China and India in this way. More ambitiously, the FPDA could play a more active role in maritime security and counter-terrorism, benefiting other South-east Asian countries. After careful consultation with the non-FPDA governments and armed forces involved in the Malacca Strait Patrol and Sulu Sea Patrol Initiative, FPDA exercises could be used to boost the deterrence value of these important sub-regional security arrangements.

The FPDA - with its mix of regional and extra-regional member states, lack of formal alliance commitments, and proven adaptability - has quietly made a significant contribution to regional security for almost half a century. With some thought and energy, it could be developed to play an even more important role in maintaining the stability of Singapore's neighbourhood.

•The writer is Executive Director of The International Institute for Strategic Studies - Asia.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2017, with the headline Developing the Five Power Defence Arrangements. Subscribe