By Saibal Dasgupta
Britain and four Asian members of the Commonwealth have announced efforts to expand and re-energize the Five Powers Defense Arrangements (FPDA), a 51-year-old series of mutual assistance agreements embracing the U.K, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and Britain.
At its core, the pact commits the members to consult with one another in the event or threat of an armed attack on any of the FPDA members and to mutually decide what measures should be taken, jointly or separately. There is no specific obligation to intervene militarily.
The pact was established in 1971, following the termination of the United Kingdom’s defense guarantees for what was then known as Malaya.
The issue arose at a breakfast meeting of the Five Power Defense Ministers’ Meeting — which is the core body of the FPDA — on the sidelines of the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue which ended in Singapore on Sunday.
“At the FDMM, the Ministers discussed ways to deepen existing cooperation in conventional domains, as well as grow collaboration in non-conventional and emerging domains, to ensure that the FPDA remained relevant in addressing contemporary security challenges,” Singapore’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
“The FDMM also discussed the important role of the FPDA in building confidence, promoting a rules-based international order, and providing reassurance amidst a climate of heightened geopolitical tensions,” it said.
Malaysia’s senior minister for defense, Hishammuddin Hussein, said at the meeting that his “biggest concern is unintended incidents and accidents that may spiral out of control and make it bigger than what it is.”
Though he did not mention any country by name, the most immediate security threats in the region include a possible attack on Taiwan by China and an accident involving North Korean nuclear missiles.
“If these platforms [such as the FPDA] did not exist, there wouldn’t be any opportunity to manage incidents that do sometimes go out of control,” Hussein said.
Besides Hussein, those attending the meeting were Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen, Australia Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense Richard Marles, New Zealand Defense Minister Peeni Henare and British High Commissioner to Singapore Kara Owen. All five reaffirmed their commitment to the FPDA.
“Australia is deeply committed to the FPDA,” Marles told journalists at the venue. “It’s not something we take for granted.”
Marles also said FPDA is looking at maritime security and counterterrorism, as well as how to work together to deal with humanitarian issues and the securing of supply chains.
“All of these are fields in which we can work to give the FPDA modern relevance, which we are really keen to do,” he said.
The renewed interest in FPDA follows the establishment in 2007 of the Quad — an informal security dialogue involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States — and AUKUS, a 2021 security pact among the United States, Britain and Australia.
Despite those newer arrangements, Marles said FPDA remains relevant because it “is based on 50 years of history.”
“AUKUS and the Quad have their roles, and we’re obviously committed to that architecture as well, but something which is as enduring as the FPDA is really precious to Australia.”
Singapore’s Ministry of Defense said that FPDA will continue to promote regional cooperation and contribute constructively to the regional security architecture through regular exercises, dialogues and platforms for professional interaction.
Besides Taiwan and the North Korean nuclear threat, there is also continuing concern in the region about China’s expansive claim to jurisdiction over most of the South China Sea.
“Indeed, the contemporary context of the FPDA leads inescapably to the South China Sea, where China is rubbing up against Malaysia’s offshore claims, raising the possibility that external aggression and conventional warfare could again revisit Southeast Asia,” wrote Euan Graham, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore.
“As the powers cast five wary sets of eyes on the next 50 years, it is far from clear that their long-term vision is aligned,” Graham wrote on the Shangri-La Dialogue website.