Defence And Security Issues In Regional Landscape - by MiDAS Research Team

-7th June 2021-

     Malaysia is a country located at the centre of Southeast Asia, a maritime country, flanked by the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean on the other. Malaysia is also a nation with continental roots connected to mainland Southeast Asia and Eurasia continent by land. Malaysia’s security stability is therefore tied to an uncertain and ever-changing security environment in this region. As a result of the uncertainties at the regional and global levels, the international strategic landscape is becoming more complex and unpredictable. This development has the potential to undermine regional stability and global peace in the long run. However, despite these challenges and the emerging security environment, its unique location has also provided Malaysia with a unique perspective to seek opportunities in enhancing ASEAN centrality and the Asia Pacific region.

     Malaysia is not a country beset by military threats or conflicts at the present moment and has had over 30 years of peace since 1989. However, the peace was predicated upon the blood, sweat, and tears of Malaysian soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Cognisant of this reality, Malaysia has published its first Defence White Paper (DWP) in December 2019. Likewise, currently, ASEAN is facing an emerging security environment on a more serious scale and scope that it has never experienced before. Therefore, this presentation revolves around regional and international issues concerning the threats/security challenges towards ASEAN and ASEAN-centric security mechanisms in defence and security as well as highlighting opportunities in enhancing confidence-building measures and cooperation for peace and stability from Malaysia's perspective. The three main security issues that have been identified include uncertain big power relations, complex Southeast Asian neighbourhood and increasing non-traditional security threats. Developments in recent years suggest that these three main factors will become more complex and need to be adapted appropriately.

     The Covid 19 pandemic remains the number one security issue for the ASEAN region. As of early May 2021, the numbers of new cases are still high for Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia. That shows that half of the ASEAN countries are still grappling to contain the virus. While vaccination programs are already on the roll, the number of people who have been vaccinated is still low. Based on statistics, each ASEAN country showed 0 to 7% of their population that has been vaccinated. Therefore, the ongoing vaccination process indicated another challenge for ASEAN in dealing with the pandemic. ASEAN countries are caught up in the global race to get their population vaccinated.

     This refers to the US-China interactions and their relations with other powers. Regionally, the intensifying power competition is concentrated more in Southeast Asia. China’s presence in the South China Sea, along with the US Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) and other powers’ similar actions have turned the overlapping sovereign claims issue into a big-power game. Parallel to these developments is the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) by Australia, India, Japan and the US in 2017. The Quad countries emphasise the importance of rules-based order, underscoring the freedom of navigation and openness of sea lanes while promoting sustainable infrastructure development practices.
     Nevertheless, the increasing activities by big power competition and their attempts to increase influence may cast shadows over Southeast Asia’s stability and prosperity, potentially challenging ASEAN centrality. In fact, it has caused a wide range of uncertainties, posing growing risks towards Malaysia’s security and regional stability.
Southeast Asia is the ground zero for the US-China relationship. Many discourses have been organised by all parties concerned. Nevertheless, the situation remains tense. In terms of military expenditure, 2020 saw the US (39%) and China (13%) as the top two countries in the world with the highest military spending. In 2020, the US spent USD 778 Billion and China USD 225 Billion on their military spending.
     There was an increase of 5.2 percent in military expenditures in 2020 for Southeast Asian countries. Singapore has the highest spending with USD 10.9 Billion, followed closely by Indonesia with USD 10.9 Billion, Thailand USD 7.3 Billion, Vietnam USD 5.5 Billion (estimate), Malaysia USD 3.8 Billion, Philippines USD 3.7 Billion and Myanmar USD 2.4 Billion. The data shows that, with all the military expenditures of Southeast Asian countries combined, it is still a tiny percentage of the military spending of the US and China. It indicates that the region is far behind in military procurement.
Possible reasons would be that the region has no intention to compete with the superpowers, and such a move would still be futile. It depicts the strategy of this region that upon escalation of tension among US and China, the region may rely on the US for military cover. However, it must be noted that this region is still neutral and should continue to do so in the superpowers' competition.
     In this situation, apart from having a firm foreign policy, defence diplomacy also plays a crucial role to ensure that the region maintains its peace and stability. ADMM Plus must be proactive in organising and managing defence diplomacy. Having the US, China and other ADMM Plus members in a single military exercise would be a worthy effort to diffuse the tension.
    ASEAN should also take advantage of the new Biden administration for the US to re-engage multilaterally in this region. This strategy could provide more balance cooperation and engagement between the ASEAN and the superpowers. The region should persuade the superpowers to assist them in Covid 19 economic recovery and support the vaccination process, either providing vaccines or setting up vaccine production facilities in this region. Such moves would give a better impression and image for both superpowers.

     Malaysia is the only country that shares borders with the vast majority of Southeast Asian countries, either land or maritime. Due to the nation’s geographical centrality in Southeast Asia and colonial legacies in the region, Malaysia has yet to resolve land demarcation and maritime delimitations issues with some of its neighbours.
In addition to territorial and sovereignty disputes, other bilateral issues are affecting Malaysia’s interests in the neighbourhood. These include: (1) conflicting interests extended from territorial disputes (2) contentious spill-over from internal conflicts of neighbouring countries; and (3) refugee crises sparked by regional states’ domestic issues.
    These problems affect nearly every country in the area or neighbourhood and mostly could not be handled effectively by any country alone. Such problems encompass both traditional and non-traditional security challenges, including extremism, sea robbery, piracy and cross-boundary environmental issues such as haze problems resulting from forest fires in neighbouring countries as well as cross-boundary infectious disease outbreaks such as Covid-19.

     Non-Traditional Security (NTS) issues involve non-state actors and trans-border crime with an asymmetric character, which have direct as well as indirect impacts on social, political, economic and environmental sectors. Terrorism is among the main NTS threats to Malaysia. Apart from terrorism, threats such as extremism, radicalism, hijacking, and cyber-attack as well as disease outbreak might disrupt internal stability.
     Other threats such as sea robbery, kidnapping and illegal fishing might disrupt Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) and affect the safety of navigation, thus resulting in losses to the nation. At the end of last year, we heard the news of a new type of virus that was recently named Covid-19. Although the epicentre of it was in Wuhan, China but despite efforts done to contain the outbreak it has now spread to over 32 countries.
     Just last month, at the end of the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) Retreat in Hanoi, a joint statement on Defence Cooperation against Disease Outbreaks was adopted; this is certainly a great milestone to show that ASEAN remains relevant.

     Terrorism is still an issue of concern for this region. Due to Covid 19, 2020 saw a decline in attacks and arrests of terrorists in this region. Nevertheless, terrorists are still active in spreading their propaganda through social media. In December 2020, Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) detained a 16-year-old Singaporean youth who planned to attack two mosques with a machete. The suspect was reported to be radicalised online by Christian Far-Right extremists. In March 2021, also in Singapore, the authorities arrested a 20-year-old Singaporean National Serviceman who planned to attack Jewish men outside a synagogue. Similar to the earlier scenario, the suspect, too, was radicalised online.

     Recently, there were few attacks in Indonesia: the Makassar Church attack and the attempted attack on the National Police Headquarters in Jakarta. Both attacks occurred in March 2021. In addition, there were series of arrests on terrorists in Indonesia.On 8 May 2021, over a hundred members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) occupied the Datu Paglas town market in Maguindanao for several hours, forcing several families to flee their homes. It remains to be seen whether Marawi 2.0 is in the making.
The region should still maintain its focus on managing terrorism issues. Even though more efforts are currently managing Covid 19 and the great powers competition, the region should not neglect the terrorism threat. Daesh affiliates remain a security threat, and authorities should also be wary of the possible rise of far-right extremists in this region.

     Three challenges discussed may present opportunities not only for Malaysia but to other regional countries in the Asia Pacific as well. However, at the same time, these confidence-building measures and cooperation for peace, stability and security environment may also complicate regional cooperation. ASEAN and ASEAN-led mechanisms with other Asia Pacific region countries must continue to serve as indispensable platforms for mitigating all of these challenges. In June 2019, ASEAN issued the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”.
     Overall, this document interprets ASEAN’s in creating a safe, peaceful and prosperous environment in Southeast Asia and Asia-Pacific regions. Malaysia has also identified four opportunities to enhance ASEAN proximity and beyond.

The natural disaster remains the highest cause for mobilising HADR operations however, it is no longer the only form of challenge that requires HADR. In recent years, manmade disaster and disease outbreak has also increased and provided a challenge to ASEAN Member States (AMS). For the past years, the importance of HADR has been highlighted in numerous paragraphs within the Joint Declaration of the ADMM.
     Furthermore, AMS leaders at the highest level have all signed the ASEAN Declaration on One ASEAN, One Response: ASEAN Responding to Disasters as One in the Region and Outside the Region in September 2016. Malaysia being the initiator of the ASEAN Military Ready Group (AMRG) on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (AMRG on HADR) has tabled AMRG on HADR SOP at the recent ADSOM Working Group. It is hoped that AMS will continuously support the adoption of AMRG on HADR SOP.

     The cyber domain is similarly becoming an increasingly more important space. The use of cyber capabilities enables both enemy nation-states and non-state actors to influence the hearts and minds of the people and the international community, to target otherwise physically hardened areas, and to hide their activities from the public eye. It enables hybrid warfare, further blurring the line between traditional and non-traditional security threats.
     Meanwhile, the development of artificial intelligence combined with the cyber domain will make the current inventory of weapons even more lethal, as exponentially increasing computing power will also lead to faster target acquisition and processing, thereby shortening the kill chain. What was once the domain of science fiction movies and books has now become a real possibility. Therefore, knowing this is an area in which much could be achieved Malaysia and the Republic of Korea or ROK shall be co-chairs in the ADMM-Plus EWG on Cyber Security from 2020 to 2023.

     Geographical location confers both advantages and disadvantages. While proximity is the source of bilateral issues, it also has put Malaysia and our immediate neighbours in a state of interdependence in security, economy and social spheres. Strategically located between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean none of the ASEAN member states is singly able to ensure the security of the strategic waterways within the region. ASEAN has made a great stride in this area with the Guidelines for Maritime Interaction being adopted last year during ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting.
     Other maritime security initiatives in the region, includes Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand coordinating maritime patrol programs, under the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP), to combat sea robberies and other forms of maritime security issues. A similar initiative was also implemented to increase the level of maritime security in the          Sulu and Sulawesi Seas through the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement (TCA) between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines signed in 2016.
These collaborations illustrate the efforts of regional countries in pursuing the main objective of regional peace, security and stability. However, these initiatives have the potential to be taken a step further to the regional level and thus enhance ASEAN centrality in the maritime security domain.

     In 2018 the ASEAN Chief Defence Force Informal Meeting (ACDFIM) has been acknowledged formally by ADMM. Hence the ACDFIM has been changed to ASEAN Chief Defence Force Meeting (ACDFM). Over the years report of the meeting held by ACDFIM or ACDFM has been shared at ASEAN Defence Senior Official’s Meeting (ADSOM). However, there has never been any link between ACDFM and ADMM under the ADMM ambit.
With the ever-growing challenges, there is a need to cut bureaucracy and for information to be channelled directly to those in position to decide. Recognising the challenges faced by the Chief Defence Forces of AMS, Malaysia and the Philippines are co-sponsoring a concept paper on developing the linkage between the ADMM and ACDFM.

     The Malaysian government is committed to pursuing a multi-pronged approach to effectively defend the nation’s security and interests in the Southeast Asian region including via ASEAN, ASEAN-led mechanisms and Asia Pacific region.
     Efforts and inter-agencies alliances within the ASEAN and Asia Pacific Region need to expedite and reviewed for further scrutinised specifically to educate the community on the significance of preserving mutual securities and sovereignty adherence. Hence the regional society shall endure the manifestation of whole-region secured civilization in the future undertaking.
     To enhance ASEAN centrality and beyond the Asia Pacific region, AMS needs to collaborate and synergize our collective strengths and resources to achieve national as well as regional security, stability and prosperity.

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