ASEAN Naval Force: the next defense regionalism?


Today’s intertwined world requires cooperation among countries, including Southeast Asian nations. The two hotspots identified in Southeast Asian waters might bring up common maritime threats. Increasing maritime tensions in the region drive scholars and observers discussing the possibility of the formation of ASEAN naval force to maintain regional stability. However, considering the nature of ASEAN, such initiative is hard to realize, even though contemporary ASEAN adopts what is widely known as the three pillars of the ASEAN community, which one of them is political-security community. Defense pact or any closer defense arrangement would only happen if countries share common security perception. What is need for ASEAN navies is to enhance existing arrangements and further discussion in more applicable SOP for operational units at sea.


Dunia yang saling berkaitan dewasa ini membutuhkan kerjasama antarnegara, termasuk negara-negara di Asia Tenggara. Dua hotspot yang terdapat di Asia Tenggara memungkinkan munculnya persepsi terhadap adanya “ancaman bersama.” Para pakar dan pengamat keamanan Asia Tenggara menggulirkan kemungkinan dibentuknya ASEAN naval force untuk bersama-sama memelihara stabilitas Kawasan. Meskipun demikian, dengan melihat karakter dari Lembaga ASEAN itu sendiri, ide pembentukan ASEAN naval force sulit untuk diwujudkan, walaupun ASEAN sebagaimana diketahui menganut prinsip tiga pilar komunitas ASEAN, yang salah satu di antaranya adalah komunitas politik dan keamanan. Pakta pertahanan atau kerjasama militer yang lebih intens hanya dapat diwujudkan apabila ada kesepahaman bersama terhadap ancaman yang timbul. Yang dibutuhkan oleh Angkatan Laut negara-negara ASEAN untuk saat ini adalah meningkatkan kerjasama militer yang sudah terjalin dan mendiskusikan SOP yang aplikatif untuk unsur-unsur operasi di laut.


Southeast Asia is geographically located in a very strategic area, connecting Europe and Middle East to East Asia, a region comprises 21.53% of the world population[1]. Southeast Asia consists of two geographic natures: mainland and maritime. On the land side, known as Indochina, there are several countries like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Maritime part of Southeast Asia makes up groups of islands, historically called as Nusantara, span from the Strait of Malacca, Singapore Straits, Indonesian waters, to South China Sea.

At least two hot spots identified if we talk about Southeast Asian waters, namely the Strait of Malacca-the Singapore Strait and the South China Sea. The international community is concerned with the security of the Strait of Malacca and the Singapore Strait, as the straits are important for the world’s economy. These importances are simply derived from the strategic location; connecting Europe and Far East Asia, the straits become points of convergence of shipping lanes. The South China Sea heats up in the past decades due to China’s sovereignty claim over it. Several clashes recorded as tensions increased between countries.

The two hotspots identified require some efforts to handle. Southeast Asian maritime nations operate Navies to cope with threats they are facing in the region. Considering growing threats in the region, questions arise: is it possible for ASEAN navies to cooperate and form ASEAN naval force to counter common threats or provide common security? Or, is it better for them to take care of their own security? To answer these issues, this paper argue that ASEAN countries need cooperation to take care of the common threats faced but not in form of ASEAN naval force. However, they need more than coordinated patrols and combined exercises to ensure maritime security in the region. To come up with that closure, this paper will first explain what is ASEAN and its characteristics. Then, the discussion continues with the threats ASEAN countries face and a short review of naval engagement in the region. To conclude, this paper will analyze the possibility to form deeper naval cooperation by examining past efforts ASEAN made in defense-matter cooperation.

ASEAN Formation and Its Security Background.

ASEAN is a regional organization formed by its five core members in 1967. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines, represented by each foreign minister, sat down together and signed the ASEAN (or Bangkok) Declaration, a short document containing just five articles. One the aims written in the Declaration is “(t)o promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region”[2].

Before this common goal was agreed upon, historically, Southeast Asia was a contested region, notably during the Cold War era. In 1963, Indonesia’s Soekarno proclaimed Crush Malaysia campaign. In the relatively same time, the Philippines under the Macapagal’s Administration claimed Malaysia’s North Borneo. Cambodia and Vietnam also involved in clashes motived by Cambodia’s fear of Vietnam’s influence post-victory against the United States in the Vietnam War. In the midst of US-Soviet competition, West-bloc led by the United States initiated the formation of SEATO, a Southeast Asian defense pact, which ironically, participated only by two Southeast Asian countries: Thailand and the Philippines. In practice, SEATO failed to benefit its members before being dismissed in 1977. It was unsuccessful to attract Indonesia, for example, because it was perceived as “too much of a military alliance” and failed to satisfy the others[3]. The establishment of FPDA (five power defence agreement) in 1967, following the departure of Great Britain, was perceived as a catalysator of destabilization by some of Southeast Asian countries. The chaos occurred surely hindered region’s economic development. Probably the willingness to preserve the regional security led to the formation of ASEAN, together with the desire to accelerate economic growth.

Since 2009 ASEAN introduced ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), a shared spirit among ASEAN members with the aim to create peaceful and harmonious environment in the region. On its blueprint, it is written that all members hold equal responsibility to achieve “a cohesive, peaceful, stable, and resilient” regional security[4]. Moreover, ASEAN members agreed upon the idea of an integrated and interdependent world that requires intense cooperation[5]. The adoption of APSC, however, does not necessarily mean a defense pact. It was formed from awareness of the importance of cooperation to face common threats for the purpose of collective prosperity. ASEAN still holds principal of non-interference, consultation, and consensus. Considering differed political stances amid ASEAN members, security engagement conducted is merely cooperation, not a pact, thus limited in nature.

Contemporary Threats and Security Cooperation

Southeast Asian countries face more complex maritime threats nowadays. The threats range from military to non-conventional threats, such as naval threat, drugs smuggling, border disputes, piracy, sea robbery, accident at sea, natural disaster, and other illegal activities. Non-conventional threats own common characteristics, among them are transnational in nature, not an interstate competition, causing social and political instability, and require regional and multilateral cooperation[6].

ASEAN countries face non-conventional threats in their waters. The Strait of Malacca and the Singapore Strait have become the world’s spotlight as piracy has increased since 1990s. The area turns into one of the hottest security issues in the Southeast Asia region besides the South China Sea conflicts as modern piracy activities continuously threaten merchant ships passing the straits. Tri border area of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines is recognized as a “key hub of terrorist and related criminal activity in Southeast Asia”[7]. Domestic conflict in Myanmar leads to the emergence of refugee problem that become concern to neighboring countries. Piracy, maritime terrorist, and refugee are some of common maritime problems confronted by Southeast Asian countries that threaten regional stability, which inevitably must be overcome collectively.

ASEAN countries have practiced bilateral and multilateral engagement to cope with such threats. In the Strait of Malacca and the Singapore Straits, the four coastal states (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore) have taken necessary measures to counter pirate threats in this area, including unilateral, bilateral, and trilateral efforts. Indonesia and Malaysia jointly patrol their shared maritime borders through MALINDO. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore also cooperate each other through Malacca Strait Patrol (MSP), consisting of Malacca Strait Sea Patrol (MSSP) and Eyes in the Sky (EiS), as well as the intelligence working group (IEG). Security cooperation arrangement in Southeast Asia often involves non-ASEAN countries. Among them are the Five Power Defense Arrangement (FPDA) and the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS). FPDA membered by Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom as a consultative defense arrangement. FPDA periodically conduct exercise Bersama Lima, which one the exercises is anti-terror drill[8]. US Indo Pacom initiated WPNS, brings together 18 navies in the region, with the purpose of promoting mutual understanding among navies of the region[9]. Indonesia also hosts a biennially Komodo Exercise, conducting HADR exercise together with score of Navy guests.

Inside ASEAN mechanism itself, there are meetings and engagements conducted as confidence building measures with the purpose of promoting mutual understanding. ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting (ADMM) Plus, Navy-to-Navy Talks, and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) regularly held as dialogue platform to discuss contemporary security issues and potential security cooperation. For example, ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX) conducted in 2019 was a follow-up of ADMM Plus 2017 and 2018[10]. During AUMX, ASEAN Navies and the US Navy conducted maritime exercise comprises boarding exercise, maritime domain awareness, and maritime asset tracking, which are designed to reinforce interoperability and to build capacity as well as confidence[11].

Military regionalism: Can ASEAN form ASEAN Naval Force?

Common maritime threats ASEAN nations face are mostly non-military in nature. These kinds of threats are categorized as common problems thus need to tackle collectively. ASEAN navies have shown how to cooperate with other navies, whether it is bilateral, trilateral and multilateral, including partnership with non-ASEAN navies. It shows that no navy can operate alone in this complex world. Does this phenomenon reflect the positive sign for the creation of a deeper security arrangement?  Before jumping into conclusion, it is worth to look back what ASEAN have done in the past in search of closer forms of military arrangement.

ASEAN, initiated by Indonesia in 2003, sought to form ASEAN peacekeeping force. It is widely known that some ASEAN members have been contributors to UN peacekeeping operations for decades. Indonesia as ASEAN chair at that time called for the creation of ASEAN standby force, which “could respond to crises in Southeast Asia[12]. The proposal was inspired from Indonesia’s experience during East Timor crise, which found Australian-led intervention was disturbing. This proposal strongly rejected by Singapore, and presently, the ASEAN standby force does not exist yet.

Another attempt in the grouping was to form ASEAN Militaries Ready Group on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (AMRG on HADR). This idea was a result of the 2014 ADMM retreat that accepted the recommendation to establish a ready group, with the aim of this combined force is to provide fast response aid at the time of natural disaster. According to Malaysian defense minister, AMRG on HADR is a combined force that specializes in disaster relief and military medics under a single banner ASEAN[13]. The process is still undergoing. ASEAN members held discussion, table top exercise (TTX), drafted SOP, and conducted STAFFEX since 2015 to present to refine the plan. The last event held was during the ASEAN Defense Senior Meeting in October 2020, when the final SOP document was submitted. The SOP is said not as a directive, but “guides the actions of the AMRG during disaster response operations in a manner that is aligned with internationally accepted protocols for the use of military assets and capabilities in assisting the affected state”[14].

Both instances of security cooperation imply at least two things: the military collaboration within ASEAN is achievable in the form of loose cooperation, and that the threats faced have to be perceived as common threats and are not politically sensitive. One of the reasons why ASEAN countries have never succeeded to involve in a formal ASEAN joint-force is that because ASEAN adopts principal of non-interference in their conflict resolution. This principal prevents countries to intervene other’s domestic problem. Moreover, the nature of closer defense cooperation, a pact for example, is based on mutual interest principal. ASEAN countries often against each other of perceiving certain problems. This mainly is caused by varied political stances among the administrations. Political disagreement, coupled with principal of non-interference, cause the dream of having ASEAN formal combined force is not an easy task. The formation of ASEAN peacekeeping force, for example, does not show any satisfactory progress, mainly because reluctancy within each ASEAN member that may feel that the peacekeeping force created would intervene their domestic problem. Different path shown when ASEAN is creating AMRG on HADR. The ongoing progress, even though slow, demonstrates mutual understanding of ASEAN countries in perceiving the need of such force creation to tackle HADR issues in the region.

In case of the possibility of ASEAN naval force creation, all parties would ask whether it could interfere their national interest in the future or not. In addition, they may ask the urgency of such establishment is really needed, or just accommodated with current loose naval arrangements. This paper argues that the formation of ASEAN naval force is hard to achieve because maritime threats are not necessarily seen as common threats. Migration problems, for instance, is certainly not perceived threat for certain countries. The thing ASEAN could do is probably to enhance naval cooperation by intensifying coordinated patrols and to create applicable SOP like CUES.

Conclusion ASEAN principals mandate cooperation among countries, yet it hampers the deeper cooperation. This is because ASEAN embraces the principal of non-interference. Different political stance and different threat perception impede the creation of formal ASEAN force, as showed by the failed formation of ASEAN peacekeeping force. Moreover, ASEAN was formed mainly to enhance economic cooperation, not for defense matter. Each country adopts their own defense policy, driven by own’s political stance. However, common maritime threats faced require more intense cooperation. Current arrangements need to enhance in order to preserve ASEAN maritime security. ASEAN navy also need to discuss applicable SOPs that can be used as guides for operating units.

[1] “Population of Eastern Asia (2021),” Worldometer, 2021,

[2] “The Asean Declaration (Bangkok Declaration) Bangkok, 8 August 1967,” ASEAN, January 27, 2016,

[3] Evelyn S. Colbert, “SEATO: Confrontation Symbolized,” in Southeast Asia in International Politics, 1941-1956 (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1977), 291–309.

[4] ASEAN, ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint. (Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat, 2009).

[5] ASEAN.

[6] “About Non-Traditional Security,” NTAS-Asia (blog), 2021,

[7] Angel Rabasa and Peter Chalk, Non-Traditional Threats and Maritime Domain Awareness in the Tri-Border Area of Southeast Asia: The Coast Watch System of the Philippines, Occasional Paper, OP-372-OSD (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2012).

[8] Joshua H. Ho, “The Security of Sea Lanes in Southeast Asia,” Asian Survey 46, no. 4 (August 1, 2006): 558–74,

[9] Ho.

[10] “First ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise Successfully Concludes,” U.S. 7th Fleet, 2019,

[11] “First ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise Successfully Concludes.”

[12] David Capie, “Evolving Attitudes to Peacekeeping in ASEAN,” in New Trends in Peacekeeping: In Search for a New Direction, 2014.

[13] Prashanth Parameswaran, “ASEAN Peacekeeping Meeting Concludes in Cambodia,” 2015,

[14] Deon Canyon, Elizabeth Kunce, and Benjamin Ryan, 2020.

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