Royal Thai Navy seamen observe the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) during a welcoming ceremony for Exercise Cobra Gold in Feb. 22, 2020, at Laem Chabang, Thailand. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Monik / U.S. Pacific Command Flickr)

Southeast Asian Militaries: The Need to Boost Strategic Autonomy

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In an era of great power competition, Southeast Asian countries can better defend their autonomy by examining their own strategic planning and operational requirements first. Only then can they better define their military engagement with Washington.

The United States under Biden has slowly but surely been re-engaging Southeast Asia after four years of chaos and incoherence under Trump. Senior officials including Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have visited the region while projecting an assuring sense of coherence and stability and carrying a new wide-ranging set of policy initiatives.

The US seems likely to continue this trajectory while paying homage — and the occasional buck-passing on thorny issues like Myanmar — to ASEAN centrality. Meanwhile, China will try to convince the region that its ‘win-win’ cooperation serves the region better. Southeast Asians will try to keep both the US and China regionally engaged, while benefiting from each by playing off one another and claiming they do not want to choose and be aligned with either. 

We have seen re-runs of these patterned behaviours for much of the past two decades, revolving around familiar themes of engagement, hedging, and unmet expectations all around. In the end, great powers will do what great powers do — compete with one another and try to draw regional countries to their side. But if we cannot expect them to change tack, perhaps we can reconsider how Southeast Asians defend their strategic autonomy in the polarising age of great power politics.

The recent complaints by Malaysia and Indonesia over the announced AUKUS trilateral defence deal between Australia, the UK, and the US underscores the realisation by regional states that their strategic options — and thus autonomy — are narrowing down. But strategic autonomy — the ability to independently define and defend strategic interests despite external pressure — is not to be simply asserted, but rather invested into. What Southeast Asians devote their strategic resources into will shape the extent to which they can defend their strategic autonomy. 

One crucial element of that investment is the development of an adaptive, professional, and operationally capable defence establishment. This is more than simply modernising aging equipment and weaponry. It is also about improving operational readiness, boosting organisational efficiency, education, and training, as well as investing in defence diplomacy and engagement with regional partners. 

These activities could ideally help Southeast Asians address their numerous daily, operational challenges, from illegal fishing to trans-national organised crime, as well as long-term strategic ones, such as the prospect of a regional conflict over the South China Sea. They could also better set the tone for military-to-military engagement with major security partners like the US. 

On this front, the US and its allies have done plenty — much more than what China offers — in the realms of education, training, exercises, and arms transfer. But for some states like Indonesia, these enduring ties have come with what can be called ‘dependence baggage’, especially when the US has used arms embargoes and sanctions as a coercive tool. The US should therefore re-calibrate its security engagement to focus on regional countries’ operational independence in the long run. The idea here is to help regional militaries to help themselves (and indirectly, help the US achieve its regional goals). 

This means they should have the capabilities to launch and sustain their operations — from the support systems, personnel, and logistics — without significant external support. For example, to what extent can maritime states like Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines independently maintain effective control over their expansive waters, to counter operational challenges such as armed robbery at sea or illegal fishing, as well as more strategic ones such as China’s grey zone tactics? 

At the same time, these states must prepare for future regional contingencies such as a high-end conflict in the South China Sea or humanitarian disaster relief and search and rescue across the region. Other countries like Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia must also deal with various land-based challenges, particularly across their porous borders. Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines still grapple with domestic internal threats and trans-national terrorism. In the pandemic age, many of these forces have been re-routed to various domestic duties too. 

Washington is aware of these different challenges confronting regional states. But US security assistance programmes are not always tailored with these challenges being the primary lens or drivers. Programmes like the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, for example, are too focused instead on areas Washington feels could give its regional allies and partners an additional edge against China. Bottom line, Southeast Asians do not have a singular threat vector to which the US can use a one-size-fits-all approach for military engagement. 

Whether the US’ ‘return’ to the region means that some of these plans may look unnecessarily costly remains to be seen. In any case, while the US’ regional commitment may ebb and flow, the dedication of Southeast Asian militaries to defending their own region should not.

On the other hand, regional militaries should develop a more purposeful military engagement with the US. They should focus less on what the US could offer at any given time and critically examine their own strategic planning and operational requirements first. Indonesia, for example, is in the process of formulating a new long-term capability development plan to replace its more than a decade old Minimum Essential Force (MEF) blueprint. But thus far, defence policymakers appear to only focus on procurement shopping lists rather than a full-suite of force development plans. 

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, Southeast Asian defence establishments should consider what they can do to contribute to defending their own region and shared interests. Riding on the US’ security coattails is not strategically sustainable without investing in independent self-defence capabilities. Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore and (even pre-coup Myanmar) are all planning in different ways and degrees to do just that. 

Whether the US’ ‘return’ to the region means that some of these plans may look unnecessarily costly remains to be seen. In any case, while the US’ regional commitment may ebb and flow, the dedication of Southeast Asian militaries to defending their own region should not. They should invest in their own professional development and future operational capabilities. Military engagement works best when it is a two-way street. 

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