The Five Power Defence Arrangements is not called the grandfather of multilateral arrangements for no reason. Going forward, the FPDA can make a significant contribution to the realm of maritime security.
Exercise Bersama Shield — one of two major annual maritime exercises for the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) — concluded on 12 May, after two weeks of manoeuvres off the coast of Malaysia. Together with its larger cousin, Exercise Bersama Lima, these activities bring together military personnel and assets from FPDA countries to conduct tactical-level joint operations. These activities are designed to improve interoperability and familiarity between partner forces and exemplify the enduring value and utility of the FPDA. They point to the FPDA’s ability to successfully evolve and modernise over the past half-century, most notably in relation to maritime security.
Often overlooked, the FPDA — comprised of Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom – is the oldest existing security framework of its kind in Asia. Though the FPDA is not typically considered an alliance or a pact, as the name ‘Arrangements’ suggests, it is an institution of remarkable durability and underappreciated value.
The FPDA came into effect in 1971, and in its earliest years, was largely focused on the air defence of the Malay Peninsula. However, over the past two decades, it has taken on an increasingly maritime character, reflecting the changing nature of the security threats faced by Malaysia and Singapore.
In the early 2000s, the focus shifted to concerns emanating from the maritime domain, such as piracy, people smuggling, and terrorism. Southeast Asia’s maritime environment makes it especially susceptible to these kinds of threats, which is borne out in other security initiatives like the Malacca Straits Patrol Framework that Malaysia and Singapore established with Indonesia and Thailand and the Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines Trilateral Cooperative Agreement.
Although the FPDA is explicitly defensive in nature, the increase in illegal and aggressive Chinese action in the South China Sea has drawn the attention of its members — particularly given Malaysia’s territorial and jurisdictional claims in the area. Along with annual deployments for Bersama Shield, Bersama Lima, and Indo-Pacific Endeavour, Australia has maintained a regular maritime security presence in the region via the deployment of maritime patrol aircraft to Malaysia as part of Operation Gateway and conducting separate reconnaissance missions from Singapore.
While these deployments are not formally conducted under the aegis of the FPDA, Australia’s enduring presence in Malaysia and Singapore is underpinned by the Arrangements and their associated Status of Forces Agreements. Similarly, Britain’s deployment of two Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) to Singapore since 2022 is another example of bilateral maritime cooperation. This is facilitated in part by the structures and relationships maintained through the FPDA.
One of the reasons why the Arrangements have endured for over fifty years is the members’ deliberate emphasis on remaining true to the FPDA’s three guiding principles: that it should “maintain a non-threatening posture”, “proceed at a pace comfortable to all its members”, and “continually develop and evolve to remain relevant as a security arrangement”. This was also articulated in the FPDA’s 50th anniversary Joint Declaration as “the ‘3Rs’… which guide FPDA’s development and future outlook”, namely, “Remit, Relevance and Reassurance”. The pivot to emphasise maritime security exemplifies these principles, but it also explains why observers of the FPDA ought not to expect dramatic growth in the group’s scope, membership, or mission.
There is still a strong level of support for the Arrangements, as indicated in the joint communique issued at the 13th Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee on 1 May 2023 and following the recent meeting of FPDA Defence Ministers at the Shangri-La Dialogue on 3 June 2023. However, the question remains of where to go next for the FPDA. I propose three potential options.
Firstly, much as Britain has done, Australia could explore the possibility of rotationally deploying several OPVs to Singapore and/ or Malaysia. The Defence Strategic Review leaves the future of Australia’s naval force structure somewhat uncertain for now. The deployment of a small number of OPVs in the region, however, would also allow for more substantial cooperation and integration with FPDA partners, as well as providing support to other states in maritime Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia and the Philippines. This could aid in demonstrating the wider regional value of the FPDA as a confidence-building mechanism and reaffirm its non-threatening posture.
Secondly, while mindful of preserving the FPDA’s core purpose and its focus on the defence of Malaysia and Singapore, there may be scope for a limited extension of the Arrangements to include non-military forces more directly. This is given the central role played by law enforcement organisations and coast guards in addressing maritime security challenges. Notwithstanding resource constraints, in the Australian context, this would be an opportunity for greater cooperation between the Australian Border Force and its regional partners, either through a new annual maritime law enforcement exercise or a programme within the existing framework of FPDA activities. It should be said that, given the number of confrontations between coast guard vessels in the South and East China Seas over the past decade, a shift to non-military agencies is no panacea for all maritime security ills.
“ … while the FPDA will only constitute one part of a rich tapestry of institutions throughout Southeast Asia, it continues to hold an important place in the regional security balance, and in the defence posture of its members.”
Finally, there is a role for formalising expanded information-sharing between the member states to enhance maritime domain awareness. At present, the FPDA’s declared scope of intelligence sharing is limited to countering terrorist threats against Malaysia and Singapore. While Australia-Singapore intelligence sharing also takes place at a bilateral level, expanding the scale of these arrangements at the multilateral level – especially considering contemporary and emergent maritime security challenges – would be a natural progression.
Overall, while the FPDA will only constitute one part of a rich tapestry of institutions throughout Southeast Asia, it continues to hold an important place in the regional security balance, and in the defence posture of its members. There is room to be ambitious within the bounds of the Arrangements, and maritime security initiatives are ideally situated to lead the way.
This article is part of the ‘Blue Security’ project led by La Trobe Asia, University of Western Australia Defence and Security Institute, Griffith Asia Institute, UNSW Canberra and the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue (AP4D). Views expressed are solely of its author/s and not representative of the Maritime Exchange, the Australian Government, or collaboration partner country government.
David M. Andrews is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Australian National University’s National Security College, and a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at La Trobe University, Melbourne. He previously held multiple roles in the Australian Department of Defence, including in military strategy and strategic policy.