Asia’s oldest defence pact, the FPDA, is a ‘stabiliser for region’, says Singapore defence minister

19-Oct-2021 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 5:02 AM Print This Post

The Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), Asia’s oldest non-binding military pact, on Monday marked its 50th anniversary with an aerial and naval display that one analyst said underscored the countries’ commitment to continued cooperation.

The FPDA was formed in 1971, following the British withdrawal east of the Suez Canal, with an objective of protecting former colonies Malaysia and Singapore from external threats amid aggression from neighbouring Indonesia and turmoil elsewhere in the region.

Along with Britain, the FPDA groups the two Southeast Asian neighbours with Australia and New Zealand, and these countries are obliged to consult one another in the event of armed threats or attacks on Malaysia and Singapore.

Monday’s display in and over Singapore’s Marina South district capped the two-week “Bersama Gold 2021″ exercise that involved 2,600 personnel, ships, maritime patrol aircraft and fighter jets.

The display, live streamed on the Singaporean defence ministry’s Facebook page, featured the city state’s F15 and F16 fighter jets, Malaysia’s Sukhoi Su-30MKM jets and Australia’s F/A 18 Hornets in an aerial fly-past.

New Zealand’s HMNZS Aotearoa, Australia’s HMAS Canberra, Singapore’s RSS Steadfast and Malaysia’s KD Lekiu took part in the naval display.

The five countries exercise annually under the auspices of Exercise Bersama Lima (“Five Together” in Malay). This year’s drill was renamed to mark the pact’s golden jubilee.

“Exercise Bersama Gold 2021 to me is more politically symbolic, akin to the fly-past and vessels display, with an apparent primary intent to demonstrate that regional and extra-regional partners are keen to collectively maintain peace and stability in the region in an inclusive format,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Singapore’s defence ministry had earlier said Bersama Gold 2021 involved naval assets performing anti-air and anti-submarine exercises, gunnery firings and manoeuvring drills. The air forces meanwhile took part in air defence exercises and supported the maritime components in the anti-submarine exercises.

There was also a land component involving the sharing of jungle fighting doctrines and discussions on interoperability among the five nations’ land forces.

Amid increasing focus on regional defence cooperation infrastructure in recent weeks following the Aukus security pact between Australia, Britain and the United States, officials from FPDA nations have sought to underscore that the five-decade-old agreement remained relevant even in the post-Cold War era.

In recent times, officials from Indonesia whose aggression towards Malaysia and Singapore in the 1960s was part of the motivation for the FPDA’s formation have observed the group’s exercises, alongside representatives of other states belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

At a doorstop interview on Monday, Singapore’s minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen said the pact remained relevant even as security challenges in the region had changed. “The remit and mandate on FPDA remains the same for the external defence for Malaysia and Singapore,” he said. “Should our security be threatened, partner nations have agreed to be consulted, but in the interim, we do not wish for such an occasion.”

This year’s exercise reflected the five countries’ commitment and reiterated the pact’s posture of being “non-threatening [and] not directed at any country”.

Asked what he thought was the biggest threat to regional peace, Ng said it was not “any one single country” but rather, misunderstanding and miscalculations. “The FPDA acts as a stabiliser for the region,” he said.

Similarly, Lieutenant general Greg Bilton, chief of joint operations at the Australian Defence Force, described the grouping as a “trusted mainstay” in an October 6 statement by Australia’s Department of Defence.

“When our five nations come together we strengthen cooperation, deepen our interoperability and sustain professional links,” he said. “The 50th anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on our achievements, reinforce the FPDA’s constructive role in regional security, and shape its future focus.”

Koh suggested that the Monday showcase also served to reflect the growing capabilities of partner nations, particularly Malaysia and Singapore. He said that when the FPDA was first conceived, the two countries had relatively weak defence capabilities but had gradually built up their air forces.

There was added significance to this year’s exercise for Britain, he said, as it could be seen as part of its “post-Brexit Global Britain strategy”.

The FPDA is the second oldest post-World War II multilateral defence pact, after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).

Writing on Facebook on Sunday, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the FPDA was formed at a time when “Southeast Asia was not so stable, and the Vietnam war was still going on”.

The prime minister said he was glad the pact was “still active and relevant today”.

He said: “This cooperation fosters peace and security in the region, and Singapore continues to support it in a very different world”.


Category: Regional, Singapore

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