Asean: Defense evolves in uncertainties

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Amado S. Tolentino Jr.

Amado S. Tolentino Jr.

MEDIA campaigns by the global defense industry accelerated during the last few years. Military defense technology exhibition/exposition with seminars, conferences and free demonstrations of the latest in arms capability increased in number and frequency. Among Asean countries, Singapore and Indonesia are known to have hosted such events.

Defense procurement drives

Easily noticeable are the Asean countries’ almost simultaneous procurement drives to ensure maritime security. Under the military upgrade and modernization program of former President Aquino, the Philippines acquired patrol frigates, fast transport and support vessels, helicopters and fighter jets. BRP Tarlac, launched in early 2016, is the first of two landing platform dock style vessels for the Philippine Navy. Indonesia is constructing a submarine base on Sulawesi Island and plans to buy Russian-made diesel electric submarines as well as an amphibious jet-powered aircraft with particular ability in firefighting and coastal search and rescue.

Singapore, which has the region’s only submarine rescue capacity, boosted its sea power with the delivery of Independence, the lead ship of its Navy’s Littoral Mission Vessel program, an effort aimed at developing the country’s latest and most advanced surface warfare platforms. Malaysia received its first Scorpene submarines while Thailand, the first to possess Southeast Asia’s aircraft carrier, purchased a Saab Grippen fighter aircraft capable of tactical data links.


The arrival in Brunei Darussalam of German-made offshore patrol vessels considerably enhanced its Navy’s operational capabilities. Vietnam’s procurements include fighter aircrafts, submarines, coastal radar system, maritime patrol helicopters, and fast patrol vessels for the Vietnam Coast Guard.

Sea drills

With the acquisition of modern military weapons and equipment, naval exercises between and among Asean countries significantly increased, too. These are exercises designed to improve professionalism, develop exchange experiences and draw lessons from fellow navies. The activities evolved out of the Indonesia-Singapore, Malaysia-Singapore, and Malaysia-Thailand bilateral naval exercise agreements. In addition, some Asean countries maintain defense engagement activities with the US (US-Philippines “Balikatan”), Australia and New Zealand. Of late, “Balikatan” (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) was not only about maritime security but humanitarian assistance and disaster response as well.

To those military exercises should be mentioned the fact that China, with claims to most of the South China Sea, does routine sea drills in the area with the most recent one described as featuring air control operations with live missiles. China and Malaysia had a joined military exercise in the same way that the US also had its naval engagement activity in Vietnam. Japan is into joint military exercises with the US and the Philippines.

China vis-à-vis Asean

As tension mounts in the region, reports say China uses fishing fleets with armed escorts to bolster its maritime claims and even trains Chinese fishermen militarily for readiness in case of checks and intercepts by coast guards and navies of claimant countries in the disputed South China Sea

To deter China and to reassure its allies, the US undertook last month drills in the Philippine waters “close to the disputed waters,” making use of its awesome USS John Stennis and USS Ronald Reagan. While at sea, the strike gap conducted maritime surveillance, defensive or combat training, long-range strikes, coordinated maneuvers, and other exercises. The US Navy explained, “As a Pacific nation and Pacific leader, the US has a national interest in maintaining security … peaceful resolution of disputes … adherence to freedom of navigation and over-flight throughout the shared domains.”

Interestingly, the China Shipbuilding Corp. proposed the construction of an “Underwater Great Wall” consisting of a network of ship and sub-surface sensors that could significantly erode the undersea warfare advantage held by the US. Specific components of the surveillance system will include underwater security equipment as well as marine oil and gas exploration devices.

Asean’s united front toward China?

So far, as a regional bloc, Asean has not presented a united front toward China on the South China Sea issue. While the Philippines and Vietnam have come into direct confrontation with China, the Mekong River riparian countries Laos and Cambodia prefer to side with China. Indonesia and Singapore have been a bit outspoken compared to Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei Darussalam, which chose cautiously to take the middle stand. This situation enabled China to expand its sway over much of the South China Sea despite overlapping claims. Add to that the “Asean way” of non-interference into their respective internal affairs.

The expectation was Asean would make a clear joint statement after the promulgation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision in the case brought by the Philippines against China. None is in the offing. Perhaps, it will not make a joint statement at all as it seems the arbitration decision even further raised regional tensions undermining the Asean objective of regional integration.

Asean’s changed security environment

There is now a new perception about security concerns in the Asean due to the proliferation of advanced defense technologies, recent terrorist attacks around the world, the phenomenon of environmental refugees as a consequence of natural disasters, to mention a few. In connection therewith, the security implications of overlapping claims over parts of the South China Sea have forced Asean governments to rethink their long-term defense strategies.

Be that as it may, defense planning these days is increasingly being shaped by climate and resource considerations. Take note that majority of Asean countries are vulnerable to extreme climate disturbances due to global warming and disaster relief, which had come to be accepted as the military’s secondary role.

The most pressing priority for Asean countries in the changed security environment is to improve their intelligence-gathering capabilities. Procurement of munitions alone would not suffice. There ought to have improvement in the region’s intelligence sharing and coordinating capabilities. The era of computer technologies demands the ability to assess, analyze and decisively act in an emerging situation of critical importance. In short, military equipment and weapons should be backed up by an effective intelligence capability.

Asean environmental security concerns

Apart from security concerns as mentioned above, the effects of extreme weather events caused by climate change are more evident in Asean countries. Security implications of severe climate change in the region include but not limited to: (1) huge movements of people from areas of natural disasters and internal armed fights; (2) conflicts over basic resources like water and food, exacerbating water scarcity and increasing food costs and food shortage; (3) greater incidence of malnutrition, risks of infectious diseases outbreaks; (4) increased demand for disaster and humanitarian relief; and (5) intensified heat waves presenting challenges to the military’s outdoor training and personnel efficiency.

In the light of security concerns brought about by global warming, what is the role of Asean militaries in a resource stressed environment due to climate disruption? For one, energy supply and other imported resources by Asean countries are overly dependent on sea lanes, specifically the Strait of Malacca straddling Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. That alone is enough to have Asean countries reexamine their maritime priorities to have resource protection a core function of their navies.

With climate change, the demand for rapid and coordinated military deployment in response and recovery efforts in disastrous environmental circumstances is likely to increase, and this is a good time for Asean to plan out and protect its future security, i.e., improving infrastructures, including military installations located in or near coastlines—taking into account advances in engineering design techniques and technologies. Indeed, it is better to work with nature rather than against it.

‘Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response’

Despite procurement drives and sea drills, Asean countries are hopeful the increased tensions resulting from the arbitral decision could be successfully managed to avoid actual armed conflict. Emerging lately from Asean leaderships are possibilities for dialogue push, reduction of threats and even the practicality of joint management for equitable utilization of the resources found in the disputed parts of South China Sea, i.e., minerals, fisheries, etc. Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio suggests declaration of the disputed waters as an international marine park and protected area.

The year 2009 saw the enactment of the Asean Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER), with the objective to “… provide effective mechanisms to achieve substantial reduction of disaster losses in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets … and to respond to disaster emergencies through concerted national efforts and intensified regional and international cooperation.” Pursuant thereto, an Asean Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA) on disaster management was set up in Jakarta to assist Asean member states in preparing for and responding to disasters.

The vulnerability of Asean countries to natural disasters has been extensively discussed in various forums and documented scientifically. In fact, Asean countries already experienced horrendous floods brought about by heavy monsoon season, super typhoons, storm surges and tsunamis, which resulted in loss of lives and damaged infrastructures and properties; and, although not influenced by climate change, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which gave way to internally displaced people.

Defense preparations by Asean countries on account of the South China Sea issue will not be put to naught, considering the worldwide acceptance of the military’s secondary role—humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. There is much room in AADMER’s identified priorities like environmental emergencies, early warning and monitoring and climate change adaptation. Specifically, the Asean military would be most useful in enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Asean’s defense should shape or reshape itself to meet the challenges in and opportunities for humanitarian assistance vis-à-vis the region’s new security and environmental concerns. After all, Asean is also about convergence in cooperation and conflict as well as disastrous weather events.

The author is a professor, diplomat and pioneer in the field of environmental law. He writes independently, notably about Asean environmental law.

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1 Comment

  1. During the 19th century, a nation can defend it sovereignty with only the navy and the army, in the 20th century the air force was added; now that we are in the 21st century, we need a new branch of defense, the cyber warriors. With equal footing with the navy, air force, and army, cyber warriors should be added in the defense force of nations that would serve as a deterrent for a possible conflict.