Amid debate on initiatives such as the Quad and AUKUS, Malaysia and Indonesia are looking for alternative security frameworks based on cooperative principles in line with ASEAN’s aversion to notions of collective security.
To this end, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein met with his Indonesian and Philippine counterparts, Prabowo Subianto and Delfin Lorenzana, in March to extend their trilateral cooperation agreement (TCA) to bolster national security.
They agreed to expand the TCA by including other organisations and ministries, deploying a permanent trilateral marine officer, improving intelligence sharing to direct surveillance operations more productively at regional crime–terror nexus activities, and enhancing strategic engagement and commitment among the three states.
The TCA was established in 2017 after terrorist attacks in Marawi City and a wave of kidnappings, and it’s understood that cooperation will cover combating violent extremism, terrorism and transnational crime. Communication among the partners will be improved along with greater collaboration among their military forces. These significant steps towards addressing common threats could not have been imagined two decades ago.
The TCA is one of a number of minilateral security frameworks to emerge in the Indo-Pacific. Several Indian Ocean and Malacca Strait littorals have launched such mechanisms. The Colombo Security Conclave, initiated in 2011 and revived in 2020, comprises India, Sri Lanka and Maldives—which have upgraded their 2013 agreement to a maritime and security agreement—plus Mauritius. The Trilateral Dialogue on the Indian Ocean involved Australia, India and Indonesia. The India–France–Australia dialogue was established in 2021. The 2004 Malacca Straits Patrol was established by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in 2004 and joined by Thailand in 2008. It was expanded to take in Eyes in the Sky, a program of combined maritime air patrols.
This marks a significant shift. Responsibility for maritime security, once the domain of superpowers, especially during the Cold War, is now being taken on by rising, middle and small powers.
The nations building these minilateral frameworks prefer to keep themselves away from major-power machinations. Their goal is to reach out to the farthest corners of their respective maritime subregions by carefully mapping threats and vulnerabilities. These developments are not surprising when great powers can no longer affect events without support. Events in Ukraine have signalled that countries need to be able to deal with ‘locale’ concerns without depending on the diminishing capacity of great powers.
Significantly, the contributing nations have broken the bonds of mutual suspicion and, more crucially, the lack of discourse on these matters.
These developments are in complete contrast with the Cold War years in Asia. As a leading regional power, India was wholly averse to any superpower intervention until recently. Other important South Asian nations such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives took similar positions. Sri Lanka spearheaded the successful initiative to secure UN General Assembly support in declaring the Indian Ocean, with the air above it and the ocean floor, a zone of peace for all time.
For decades, the Indian Ocean remained distant from any cooperative military endeavours. Mutual suspicions were so high that in the 1990s when India tried to scale-up its military capabilities, Indonesia and Australia were alarmed. The situation has turned around to the point where Indonesia has agreed that India can modernise its Sabang port.
And while ASEAN was formed in the late 1960s amid security concerns, Cold War politics, Britain’s decision to withdraw from east of Suez and elsewhere in Asia, and the export of communist ideology by China, the association has focused primarily on strengthening economic integration and cooperating on addressing non-traditional security matters.
The last attempt to establish a security platform in the conventional sense in this region was in the 1960s with the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, but it was relatively short-lived. Today, the only institutions addressing security issues have been the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus. But even these institutions still focus on non-traditional security and elements of human, cooperative and common security.
However, much has changed and it was little surprise that ASEAN members Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines decided to launch a cooperative arrangement covering maritime and joint air patrols in and around the Sulu and Sulawesi seas.
Some might argue that despite the recent measures to address the TCA’s shortcomings, cooperation remains focused in a narrow area and there’s good reason for the three countries to strengthen it further.
China is the elephant in the room. From reclamation and militarisation of islands in the South China Sea to the activities of its naval militia and coast guard, China’s assertiveness has been extensively chronicled. A report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative mapped out the paths of Chinese survey ships across the South China Sea in 2020–21, revealing considerable activity in waters straddling the coasts and economic zones of the three countries. Malaysia and the Philippines have responded officially to incursions into their maritime and air spaces.
Strategic uncertainty and military anxiety over China are common features of maritime trilateral mechanisms across the Indo-Pacific. While relations between the three TCA countries and China have ebbed and flowed over the years, they are gradually converging to a shared state of complexity in which each has a relationship with China epitomised by cooperation with an important economic partner and concerns over China’s increasing assertive behaviour. Even Indonesia has had brushes with China over the Natuna Islands.
Another issue is Indonesia’s decision to relocate its capital from Jakarta to Nusantara in East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, which will require relocation of civil servants and military personnel. According to one source, 30,000–50,000 personnel will be deployed in the new capital’s regional commands. There will undoubtedly be spillover effects, such as the establishment of new businesses to meet a growing demand for goods and services. This will have an impact not just on Indonesia’s part of Borneo, but also on the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Could the impact also be felt in the southern Philippines, which has long struggled with security and insurgency challenges? Given Indonesia’s need to provide security for its new capital, the TCA could curb illegal immigration and criminal activities such as piracy and smuggling through joint operations.
Huge economic opportunities will be available for enterprising businesses in all three countries. It might be a watershed moment for this area that has always had great potential. We may see a new impetus, for instance, in the Brunei–Indonesia–Malaysia–Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area, which was established in 1994 only to be hampered by its small market, lack of physical connectivity and security concerns.
Malaysia stands to gain the most. Even though incidents such as kidnappings have reduced significantly since 2020, security concerns remain, including the threat of maritime kidnapping. Malaysia must also continue to deal with threats from the Abu Sayyaf jihadist group, illegal migration and smuggling. These are expected to increase once Covid-19 restrictions, particularly on border crossings, are relaxed. The TCA will do a lot to address some, if not all, of these issues and take some of the burden off Malaysia.
The TCA could significantly help safeguard global supply chains through the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait. Another key shipping lane runs through the Makassar Strait, providing nations including Australia and New Zealand a more direct route to East Asian markets. There may one day be an opportunity to expand this arrangement through cooperation with Australia and China.
A complication is that Indonesia and the Philippines have outstanding territorial issues with Malaysia, and Malaysia has similar issues with Indonesia, but they are being managed well.
Arrangements like the TCA strive for greater collaboration on the maritime front, despite unsolved issues and mistrust. A wish to preserve regional stability used to result in inaction. Now, in a more fragmented world, the same goal drives ASEAN member nations towards greater collaboration to preserve common interests.
Rahul Mishra PhD is a senior lecturer at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, where he heads the European Studies program. He is also associated with the University’s Centre for ASEAN Regionalism. His publications include Asia and Europe in the 21st Century: New Anxieties, New Opportunities (Routledge, 2021) and India’s Eastward Engagement from Antiquity to Act East Policy (SAGE, 2019). He tweets @rahulmishr_
Peter Brian M Wang is has held various positions in the Malaysian government, primarily at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). He is currently attached with the National Institute of Public Administration (INTAN), where he lectures and undertakes research on economic and international-relations policy. He is working on his PhD at the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya. He tweets @PBMWang
Article was first published at ASPI THE STRATEGIST.
Last Update: 14/05/2022