Author: Abdul Rahman Yaacob, ANU
November 2021 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA), a consultative defence mechanism involving Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. Its future is likely to be challenged given the dynamics of Australia’s defence relations with Indonesia and the formation of AUKUS, a military pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The FPDA was formed in 1971 partly due to the British withdrawal from Southeast Asia and potential security threats from Indonesia. As relations between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore warmed during the 1970s and 1980s, the FPDA evolved to maintain relevancy.
During the last decade of the Cold War, Malaysia and Singapore had to deal with emerging security threats from the Soviet Union. When the Soviets had access to Vietnam’s military facilities in Danang and Cam Ranh Bay, they maintained a more robust military presence in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
Declassified archival documents reveal Soviet combat aircraft intruded into Malaysian and Philippine airspace and conducted exercises simulating attacks on US aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. Its submarine force operated in more significant numbers in regional waters, thus posing a potential threat to Singapore’s and Malaysia’s Sea Lines of Communication.
The FPDA responded to evolving security threats in the 1980s by expanding the scope of its military exercises to enhance both Singapore’s and Malaysia’s defence capabilities. In the second half of the 1980s, FPDA exercises included submarine and electronic warfare.
After the Cold War ended, the FPDA began to consider another form of security threat to maintain its relevancy. As a result, the FPDA started to look at asymmetric threats and non-traditional challenges such as terrorism.
In recent years, the strategic environment in Southeast Asia has changed significantly. The US–China rivalry has intensified across the Indo-Pacific region. China claims most of the South China Sea as its own waters and has built several man-made islands equipped with runways and missiles. It has territorial disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea.
In response to China’s growing military capabilities and power projection in the region, the United States focused on confronting Beijing, starting with former US president Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia in 2011. This trend continues, with the Biden administration drawing down its military commitment to Afghanistan and forming AUKUS.
Despite the changing security dynamics across Southeast Asia, the FPDA still plays a crucial role. First, it provides space for the Malaysian and Singaporean militaries to interact and cooperate by acting as a confidence-building mechanism between the military forces of the two states.
Singapore–Malaysia relations continue to experience volatility from time to time, especially in the security area. For example, from late 2018 to early 2019, security vessels from both states confronted each other over a maritime dispute off the western coast of Singapore. As recent as September 2021, Singapore scrambled its F-16 fighters in response to an unauthorised entry by a Royal Malaysian Police helicopter into Singapore’s airspace. Building trust and confidence between the Malaysian and Singaporean militaries is necessary to ensure any bilateral dispute does not escalate further.
Second, the FPDA provides a platform for Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand to maintain their defence links to Southeast Asia and contribute to the defence capabilities of Malaysia and Singapore in a non-threatening way.
Australia’s military presence in Malaysia, primarily through Operation Gateway, has enhanced Malaysia’s surveillance capabilities in regional waters. Australia has also benefited from this arrangement because it has gained situational awareness of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. For Singapore, having friendly Western military powers in Southeast Asia was always part of its strategy to ensure its balance of power status in the region.
Despite the utility of the FPDA to Malaysia and Singapore, it faces some challenges. First, some Indonesian elites consider the FPDA an irritant given that it was formed to deter potential Indonesian adventurism. Australia needs to reconcile its commitment to the FPDA with its desire to deepen its relations with Indonesia. One way to improve Indonesia’s perceptions of the FPDA would be to maintain Indonesia’s participation as an observer of FPDA military exercises, a point put forward recently by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long.
Another area of concern is the increasing US–China rivalry. Both Malaysia and Singapore have strong economic relations with China. The formation of AUKUS drew swift condemnation from China, which views AUKUS as a threat to regional security. Two members of the FPDA, Australia and the United Kingdom, are members of AUKUS.
In a scenario where rising US–China tensions lead to a breakdown of relations between the two superpowers, Australia and the United Kingdom will likely support the United States. Malaysian and Singaporean defence relations with Australia and the United Kingdom, either bilaterally or through the FPDA, would then come under scrutiny from China. Both Malaysia and Singapore would then have to reassess the importance of their trade relations with China against their defence relations with the western partners of the FPDA.
Ultimately, having to choose sides is what Malaysia and Singapore will seek to avoid. The FPDA will need to recognise this reality if it is to remain useful for another fifty years.
Abdul Rahman Yaacob is a PhD candidate at the National Security College, The Australian National University. He is also a primary investigator in a research project on Southeast Asian security funded with a grant from the Australian Army Research Centre.