The Five Power Defence Arrangements: time for the ‘quiet achiever’ to emerge

The defence chiefs of the members of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) had a crucial dialogue in June. The five states—Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom—reaffirmed their commitment to collaborate in conventional and non-conventional security domains to keep pace with the evolving challenges in the region. They also mulled over the FPDA Exercise Concept Directive 2021 and a 10-year roadmap for greater strategic and defence cooperation in training and preparedness to enhance their operational capacity and interoperability.

The FPDA was established in April 1971 against the backdrop of ongoing armed conflicts in the region (the Vietnam War and communist insurgency in Malaya), the termination of the Anglo-Malaya Defence Arrangement, and the British decision to withdraw troops from east of Suez in 1967. Originally established as a ‘temporary security fix until Malaysia and Singapore had developed their military capabilities’, it continued through the peak of the Cold War and the volatile situation in Southeast Asia.

Over the past 50 years, especially in the post–Cold War world, the FPDA remained a ‘quiet achiever’, keeping a low profile compared with its contemporaries, such as NATO, the (now defunct) South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and even the fast-emerging Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). With its minimalist approach to institutionalisation, confined to the FPDA Consultative Council and the Integrated Area Defence System, the FPDA remains ‘non-binding’ and consultative in nature. It doesn’t involve any specific commitment of its members to military intervention, even in the event of an armed attack on Malaysia or Singapore.

However, in light of increasing tensions in the South China Sea, could it be time for the FPDA to take on a more prominent role? It’s tempting to think so, as, unlike the Quad, the FPDA offers its members a security platform without attracting any negative attention. With China’s unprecedented rise and its ever-growing territorial assertions, the US–China rivalry and Britain’s return to the region, the FPDA seems a promising security platform with the potential to help stabilise the Southeast Asian region and the wider Indo-Pacific.

Members’ motivations, relationships with China and the US, and history, are the three reasons why the FPDA offers them a better alternative than the Quad.

For the UK, although its commitments in Europe remain a priority, Southeast Asia holds significant economic importance which can be ensured with continued participation in the arrangement. Brexit has left Britain in a position of having to play catch-up with its former European partners in the region. This will take time, but the foundations are already there—for example, the UK’s ‘permanent points of presence’ in Bahrain, Brunei, Diego Garcia, Kenya, Oman, Singapore and Qatar. What would be more poetic for the UK to mark its return east of Suez than to re-emphasise and reinvigorate the security arrangement it established to mark its withdrawal?

Facing the wrath of China’s trade war and militarisation of South China Sea islands along international trade routes, Canberra’s security concerns necessitate its continued support of the FPDA. Beijing’s ongoing tariffs on Australian products are affecting Australia’s economy, which became dependent on China following the global financial crisis, and it’s a relationship that has so far restrained Australia’s own countermeasures. A revived FPDA might offer Australia another platform to enhance its security without putting its economic interests in harm’s way.

While the military capabilities of Malaysia and Singapore have improved lately, they would still be no match for bigger powers in the region that decided to be more assertive in their territorial claims. New Zealand has similar concerns, but it has been reluctant to join the Quad.

To a large extent, the varying motivations of members are influenced by their relationships with the US and China. They have reasonably good relations with the US, but the challenge lies with the China equation. Unlike Australia and the UK, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore have good relations with China. That could change. Malaysia and China still have contentious territorial issues, which are so far being addressed quietly using back-channel diplomacy, with somewhat limited success. Malaysia’s and Singapore’s aversion to any anti-China platform is well known as, unlike Indonesia, they haven’t even given any official endorsement to the Indo-Pacific construct (except in relation to the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific).

Despite reports that New Zealand is benefiting from the ongoing China–Australia trade dispute, it remains concerned about getting caught up in their spat, even prompting its foreign minister to advise diversifying its export markets. New Zealand is not unfamiliar with the punitive power of superpowers. Having faced a similar situation vis-à-vis the US during the Cold War, New Zealand would prefer to avoid any such incident with China.

The UK, which once enjoyed good relations with China, now seems determined to raise objections to China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and develop ‘enhanced China-facing capabilities’ to deal with what it describes as China’s ‘increasing international assertiveness’.

But the situation is still fluid. China remains an important economic partner to the FPDA members. Many of them are open to continued engagement with Beijing in this area as well as in addressing global issues such as climate change.

Last, there’s the question of history. Asia has hardly been an ideal place for institutionalisation, whether it be for the purpose of regionalism or multilateral security. Most of the existing regional institutions are loosely institutionalised (ASEAN, the East Asia Summit), consensus-based, non-binding (APEC) and consultative in nature. Even at the height of the Cold War, initiatives such as SEATO couldn’t gain traction even from Malaysia and Singapore. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the Quad is still confined to its founding members as Washington tries to draw broader support from the region. This is where the FPDA presents its unique selling point: it’s an institution that suits Asian sensibilities, is rooted in history and isn’t considered an overt anti-China mechanism.

The FPDA has an added advantage of having neither the US nor China in it. This allows Malaysia, Singapore and even New Zealand a more neutral platform to address their legitimate security anxieties. Considering ASEAN’s aversion to creating new security platforms, this could prove timely, provided the FPDA revamps itself and invites other Southeast Asian countries that still prefer hedging as a guiding principle in dealing with great-power competition. With the UK joining ASEAN as its dialogue partner, London is likely to take steps to reassure its old friends in the region. Battling China’s territorial aggression along its boundaries, India too might find the FPDA another attractive multilateral security grouping. Growing UK–India bonhomie might act as an additional motivating factor.

In highlighting the qualities and benefits that the FPDA offers, it’s important to also underscore the constraints. The qualities that make it attractive—its lack of strong institutionalisation and collective capacity display—could render the FPDA an ineffective bulwark against revisionist powers. This will probably explain why the US will continue to project the Quad as the only viable regional option to counter China. Recent statements by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also signal that. In such a scenario, the FPDA would have to walk the extra mile to ensure that it isn’t seen as being at cross-purposes with the Quad.

History is an important key to understanding the future. Bearing in mind that the last time all these actors were in the region, we were at war, it’s important to also stick to time-tested mechanisms in dealing with the emerging regional security challenges.