Since its inception 46 years ago ASEAN has emerged as an influential regional body. Through a spirit  of understanding, cooperation and respect it desires to build a strong, mutually supportive Community of Southeast Asian nations. As an Association it neither judges nor interferes with its members’ internal or foreign affairs. (1) It says it is determined to create an environment in which the region can benefit economically and socially from operating in a peaceful and secure world. This short paper suggests a way in which the ASEAN members’ naval forces can be employed to further promote the goal of achieving an ASEAN Community in the first part of a century which has the potential for turmoil, political, economic and military, among the Asia-Pacific nations. The impetus for tangible naval cooperation should perhaps have been the coastal devastation wrought on several member states by the 2004 tsunami. Unfortunately it appears even that unexpected force of nature and the subsequent embarrassing dependency on outsiders for assistance was insufficient to persuade ASEAN members that there exists a need for real naval interoperability.

In 1967 when the first five members of ASEAN declared their aspiration for regional cultural and economic cooperation, the world and Southeast Asia in particular, was a very different place. Today, in geo-political terms, regional security is more complex than it was fifty years ago. Given the significant economic and political developments in the intervening decades along with a doubling in ASEAN membership to ten regional nations, the ASEAN ‘Declaration’(2) was seen by some to be increasingly obsolescent. However, in 2008 a revitalised Association produced the new ASEAN Charter which characterised a mature ASEAN, one that reflected a more worldly-wise and realistic outlook.
Signed in Singapore, the first three purposes of the Charter’s very first article were clearly defence and security oriented. They included: ‘maintain and enhance peace, security and stability’; ‘promoting greater… security… cooperation’ and preserving ‘Southeast Asia as a Nuclear weaponfree zone and free of all other weapons of mass destruction’. (3) At the same time ASEAN also adopted a legal entity together with the decision to maintain permanent representatives with ambassador status. It is a little ironic that the Charter was signed in Singapore, with its not infrequent United States Navy visitors. ASEAN, perhaps because it is an Association rather than a formal alliance struggles on an almost daily basis with many internal contradictions between members’ words and members’ actions.
At ASEAN’s 2003 Bali Concord II, the future ‘ASEAN Community’(4) was announced. Just as a milking stool relies on three equal legs, the successful creation of the ASEAN Community depends for support on three equally important pillars, each pillar itself has a ‘community’ with specific guidance agreed at the Concord. The first pillar, to which the Defence organisations are integral, is Political and Security Cooperation supported by the appropriate ASEAN Security Community (ASC).

The ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) is the highest defence mechanism within ASEAN. One of its objectives since its inception in 2006 is to contribute to the establishment of the ASC. Others include cooperation in defence and security and giving guidance to senior defence officials. The ADMM objectives support ASEAN’s broader aims of promoting regional peace and security. In 2010 the first ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) met in Hanoi. For the ADMM-Plus, the ten ASEAN ministers were joined by ASEAN’s eight ‘Dialogue Partners’, (5) namely Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia, and the United States. The ADMM-Plus process is a tool to engage ASEAN Dialogue Partners in dialogue and cooperation on defence and security matters and there are similar ‘Plus’ groupings in other portfolio areas.
There are obviously advantages in ASEAN expanding formal dialogue with other influential and developed nations. Exchanges or importation of expertise is one area ASEAN can benefit from the goodwill of its neighbours and those with a stake in the Indo-Pacific. In Hanoi it was agreed there were five areas of practical cooperation which could usefully be pursued by ADMM-Plus. They are maritime security; counter-terrorism; disaster management; peacekeeping operations and military medicine. Each is supported by Experts’ Working Groups (EWGs). It was agreed the ADMM-Plus countries will meet formally once every two years and the first ADMM-Plus Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) and Military Medicine Exercise was conducted in Brunei in June 2013, held back-to-back with the 2nd ASEAN Militaries’ HADR Exercise. The latter is a very small step on a steep staircase to reach the level required to address the effects of a similar event to the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. In September 2013 a Maritime Security Field Training Exercise (FTX) will be conducted off Australia’s Eastern seaboard. Primarily envisaged as a maritime constabulary confidence building event its location has necessarily more of a naval construct than might otherwise have been.
Although difficult to quantify empirically, it is probable that besides advantages, there are disadvantages involved in the inclusion of external nations in ASEAN forums, especially particularly powerful ones. Although the ‘Plus’ meetings generally occur the day after members’ meetings there will inevitably be an exposure to external influences and competitive interests if only in sidebar discussions. If it is seen to be beneficial these outside influences will rarely hesitate to leverage the many internal disputes, border issues and overlapping claims of various types among ASEAN nations. Such influence may then lead to national decisions delaying the subsequent development of aspects of the ASEAN Community concept.
It may well not be in the interest of a powerful ‘dialogue partner’ for ASEAN to develop a particular policy stance and regular ‘Plus’ meetings and activities provide opportunities and potentials for regional competitors. As noted above, these may be overlaid on recognised internal disputes among ASEAN nations. ASEAN, with its noble beginnings and the understandable sensitivities of its many youthful member states still pragmatically feeling their way to a mature and secure sense of
nationhood, seems to prefer sweeping difficult diplomatic issues under a rug of inertia. The continuing tension around the South China Sea economic and territorial claims is perhaps the most obvious example and one that invites outside attention for political and economic gain.

The United States’ Seventh Fleet conducts a series of annual bilateral naval exercises with most ASEAN members’ navies under the direction of an overarching Joint Theater Security Cooperation Plan. It is sponsored by the Pacific Command, one of a handful of US military Combatant Commands encompassing the globe. Understandably, these plans are intended to exercise their influence in support of US grand strategy. In August the Australian newspaper reported that the US plans to establish a special naval task force to support the US marines in Darwin which the US Navy said was a “tangible demonstration of the sustained commitment of the United States to the Asia-Pacific region”. (6) The US has not yet said where this new amphibious readiness group will be based from 2018 onwards but from the perspective of speed, time and distance, it is very likely to be an ASEAN member nation. Australia has itself has already been ruled out. US engagement is mirrored to one degree or another by other competing regional players, for example the Australian-led annual multi-national Exercise Kakadu off Darwin in the Northern Australian Exercise Area.
Such shaping and influencing efforts are not limited to defence but they include other elements of national power, for example the growing economic involvement of China, encouraging a never before witnessed level of indebtedness among targeted South Pacific Island nations willing to cooperate. Effective naval cooperation has political and diplomatic considerations to take into account. The US would support multilateral participation in its annual series of Exercise Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) to ease the burden on its ships conducting the exercise bilaterally with seven of the nine navies in ASEAN but of course by working with the Seventh Fleet in such a manner, ASEAN would be sending a very different and likely undesirable signal to China than it would if its members just continue with their normal bilateral naval exercises.
ASEAN’s navies are capable of working together to train for future humanitarian relief. This is one small but effective way to demonstrate and underscore the positive benefits of the Association and to chip away at the religious stresses sometimes in evidence in the ‘Community’. If it is to become the secure political, economic and cultural Community envisaged in its ASEAN Vision for 2020 then in the pillar of Political and Security Cooperation it would definitely benefit from greater internally driven impetus and a little less exposure to competing international powers, some of whom are intent on playing a European style ‘Great Game’ in the Asian-Pacific region.

The first aim of the 1967 ASEAN Declaration talked of strengthening ‘the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of Southeast Asian Nations’. The second aim was ‘to promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter’. There is perhaps no more tangible and practical way of retaining the foundations of a peaceful regional community and promoting stability than through the cooperative employment of multinational naval power, preferably ‘soft’ but if ultimately necessary, ‘hard’ naval power.
The same year that ASEAN was taking its first steps onto the world stage, in the western hemisphere the focus of national leaders had been alternating between the corrupting influences of free love, ubiquitous drugs and a still very real, very serious Cold War. In 1967 NATO approved the formation of a naval contingency force, a multinational squadron of frigates and destroyers that still exists today only with a wider geographical remit and a different name. It is now the ‘Standing NATO Maritime Group One (SNMG1). (7) In the late 1960s the squadron was established as the Standing Naval Force Atlantic (STANAVFORLANT). For NATO the concept has been an outstanding success, so much so that it has been replicated with a NATO mine counter-measures squadron, the Standing Naval Force Channel and a Standing Naval Force Mediterranean (now SNMG2). It has withstood the tests of time, re-organisations and politics within a large, often unwieldy and now recently expanded political alliance.
While the formation of STANAVFORLANT in the North Atlantic may be considered ground-breaking, naval influence as an element of a nation’s power had been well practiced previously at a squadron level in peacetime. The British created the West Africa Squadron in 1808 to combat the slave trade. Indeed the United States Navy contributed vessels to the squadron for over twenty years until it founded its own Africa Squadron. Article Eight of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 stated that although the British and American Squadrons were independent of one another, the two Governments stipulated they would “nevertheless, to give such orders to the officers commanding their respective forces, as shall enable them most effectually to act in concert and cooperation, upon mutual consultation, as exigencies may arise.” (8) More recently in 1995, the European Union developed a non-standing maritime force, EUROMARFOR. (9) The size of the force is inherently flexible and may be activated within 5 days. Since its creation it has been activated for a total of 62 months in support of four operations.
NATO’s on-call squadron is composed of ships from alliance nations. Some nations permanently allocate an asset while others periodically offer a ship. There are real advantages to be gained for those nations and navies participating. Their ships integrate, operate, train and exercise as a group, providing day-to-day verification of current NATO maritime tactics, procedures, and their effectiveness. Personnel are encouraged to mix during port visits and take part in sporting and cultural events. At sea there are regular personnel exchanges. Today those that routinely contribute to SNMG1 are Canada, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and the United States. Ships are usually attached to the force for up to six months, on a rotating basis and units of one nation do not necessarily relieve ships of the same nation.
By appointing the force commander and their staff for up to one year, NATO can achieve continuity and stability in leadership while offering a valuable and respected command position to a rotation of participating nations. NATO’s ground forces, to a degree, reflect this approach with their Rapid  Deployable Corps’ organisations. The present SNMG1 Commander is Norwegian. The squadron commander is normally embarked in his own nation’s ship together with a small multi-national staff.

Throughout ASEAN’s development the emphasis for the Association has been on cooperation and peaceful coexistence. This is an ideal way forward. Unfortunately, as tensions around claims and counter claims in the South China Sea show no signs of being dispelled, the ASEAN way is proving a little too idealistic. China negotiates bilaterally but not multilaterally, a ‘divide and conquer’ policy which only serves to emphasise ASEAN’s own fault lines. President Obama’s ‘Pivot to East Asia’ (10) strategy has done nothing to lessen Chinese resolve and in a number of ways has increased pressures on ASEAN members. In 1997 when announcing their Vision for 2020 ASEAN declared: “We are now a market of around 500 million people with a combined gross domestic product of US$600 billion”. (11) By highlighting the size of the ASEAN market they were also inadvertently advertising to the major powers that they were a market worth fighting over. Overlaid on such ‘big picture’ issues are many more subtle influences affecting ASEAN’s internal and external relations. Take for example the influence of enfranchised wealthy Chinese communities in all the ASEAN nations who will have a substantial economic interest when it comes to relations with external nations and especially of course, those with China.
ASEAN has survived almost fifty years of suspicion and scepticism by promoting consensus and influencing developing dialogue. It has encouraged multinational fora like the ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN + 3 in order to protect and extend its benevolent aims beyond its immediate region. By developing the ‘ASEAN way’ it has avoided many of the economic and political pitfalls of the European Community but along the way it seems to have accepted outside interference as a fact of life. The Australian led non-UN peacekeeping mission into East Timor, in which three ASEAN nations contributed troops, provides an excellent example of ASEAN’s pragmatism. One of the outcomes of East Timor was to prompt Indonesia to develop the concept of the ASC, only to see its original strong call for an integrated defence and security institution watered down to one of more integrated security cooperation. (12). No ASEAN peacekeeping force is envisioned by 2020 or indeed is likely anytime beyond that.
It is probable that the security offered to Malaysia and Singapore since 1971 under the Five Power Defence Arrangements has contributed to limiting their impetus in considering ASEAN security cooperation as an essential element of foreign policy. Similarly, US military interests in the Philippines (given the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 and the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement) and now Singapore may be interpreted as offering a form of protection that negates the need for ASEAN to develop closer military ties. Add to these the widely perceived US strategic interest in limiting Chinese hegemony in the region. At the August 2013 ADMM-Plus meeting the US Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel, underscored Washington’s commitment to Southeast Asia’s security. He announced that the US has a $90 million budget for “foreign military financing and international
military education and training programs in Southeast Asia”. This is an increase of 50% on four years ago and includes institutions like the ADMM-Plus. (13)
Ultimately the ‘ASEAN way’ to a secure future appears to ultimately depend on trust. Trust that the US presence will continue to maintain free trade, safe and secure sea lines of communication and overall peace and stability and remain the principal regional security guarantor. Trust that China will not upset the ASEAN durian cart.
At the ADMM in Phnom Penh in 2012 the ASEAN Defence Ministers had an informal meeting with China’s Minister of National Defence. During the meeting, China reassured ASEAN that China would always adhere to the principles of peaceful co-existence with ASEAN, and resolving disputes by peaceful means. China also reassured ASEAN that it was ready to work with ASEAN to advance mutual trust for regional peace and stability. (14) Can China be trusted? Through its actions, or rather inaction, ASEAN either believes so or is prepared for someone else (the USA) to both pay the premium and pay up on any claims on ASEAN’s insurance policy if they are wrong. Over the course of the next half century and looking towards the Association’s centenary the ‘ASEAN way’ may prove to be a most successful strategic gamble.
There are so many interwoven dependency threads stretching around and across the Indo-Pacific among scores of interested nations. In a global era of strategic communications when the European Community is opening delegations across the region and Australia has representatives to NATO, newly forged relationships and agreements that cause surprise are very rare indeed. ASEAN may already have been left behind in terms of its pillar for an economic community. It is not only bilateral free trade agreements which compete. When in 2005 Brunei and Singapore joined a Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement with Chile and New Zealand they were to encourage the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement discussions which are in their 19th round and include another eight Pacific nations not least the USA and Japan and from ASEAN, Malaysia and Vietnam. (15) If agreement is reached, those four ASEAN nations will have access to products, services and bigger markets denied to the other members. So to one degree or another ASEAN remains a house divided with fault lines running through each of the three pillars required to bolster its community vision.

Why then could this be considered a good time for ASEAN to consider a standing naval squadron? There have certainly been more appropriate times, such as in the year following the Tsunami. ASEAN now stands at a crossroads. Grand pronouncements look increasingly unrealistic as 2020 approaches. Writing in 1949, George Orwell probably thought 1984 incredibly far away. Arthur C Clarke penned 2001: A Space Odyssey in the late 1960s. In 1997 ASEAN announced its Vision for 2020. If the Association is to retain sufficient relevance and credibility to continue to be a body of
influence it must deliver some measurable output toward its Vision. Words, meetings, conferences and innumerable committees simply will not suffice. Being relatively small and mobile, an advantage of a multinational naval squadron is that it does not need a headquarters or, like ASEAN itself, a permanent secretariat, fixed in one country. This removes any element of competition or compromise. If formed it would be a squadron for peace, for disaster relief, for mutual support in crises. It would not only strengthen that pillar of Political and Security Cooperation but directly benefit the other pillars of Socio-Cultural and Economic Cooperation.
Its success by 2020 would be something to point at, a distraction perhaps from other less positive developments. A recent edition of the Indonesian Strategic Review calls for exercises among ASEAN navies. (16) STANAVFORLANT was the natural progression of years of regular NATO naval exercises. ASEAN has the opportunity to learn from NATO’s experience and grasp the nettle now. Forty six years after its creation and only seven remaining before its Vision 2020, creating its own squadron would avoid a decade or so of exercises before reaching the conclusion that an ASEAN squadron is an optimum solution.
Such a squadron could support ADMM principles by permitting occasional participation by ADMM-Plus Dialogue Partners. This would enhance regional peace and security, expertise and knowledge would increase in operational terms and levels of trust increase. Such additional participation should be on an invitation only basis – if a nation offends ASEAN the invitation may then easily be withdrawn. Such a squadron would encourage more balanced and cooperative naval procurement and professional information exchange. Provoked by the USN’s 1000-ship navy concept and the threat of interference by anti-piracy patrols, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand have already proved (in the Strait of Malacca) that cooperative security patrols are achievable among ASEAN members. (17)
ASEAN should be prompted to act by its own failing vision. Navies are excellent ambassadors for peace in a turbulent world and multinational groups even more so. A worthy alternative if much less pragmatic proposal would be a United Nations Peacekeeping Flotilla for the South China Sea. That however that would only serve to emphasise that ASEAN was not itself prepared or capable of assisting its own maritime and coastal communities. Such a formation would inevitably be subject to the influence of those outside Southeast Asia with an interest in shaping and influencing in support of their own national interests.

An ASEAN Naval Squadron would be politically controversial, perhaps most crucially among its own member nations. It would inevitably send signals externally and internally to the global community, some welcome and some unwelcome. Among the twelve points contained in the ASC, one subscribes to the principle of comprehensive security as having broad political, economic, social and cultural aspects in consonance with the ASEAN Vision rather than to a defence pact, military alliance or a joint foreign policy. However, the twelfth (and last) point is that ASEAN ‘shall explore innovative
ways to increase its security and establish modalities for the ASEAN Security Community’. This paper has suggested one way to do exactly that.
We exist in an age when India and China are building their own aircraft carriers. The ASEAN way still has an opportunity, despite the differences between its members and with a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation, to provide a reasonable alternative to the direct involvement of powerful maritime powers operating in its own backyard. ASEAN itself began with a laudable vision of peace and prosperity for the people of Southeast Asia. If it is ever to be achieved it is a vision that requires defining actions not only noble ideals and honourable intentions.
1 ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation,
2 ASEAN Declaration
6 The Australian Newspaper August 23 2013.
8 Webster-Ashburton Treaty Article 8:
12 ASEAN Security Community: An Initiative for Peace and Stability by Shoji Tomotaka, pages 23-25.
16 Captain Amarulla Octavian, Chief of Staff Indonesian Navy’s Sea Battle Group, Western Fleet Command

The views expressed in this paper are the personal views of the author and are not the official view of any government or other authority.
© Tom Frederick Books 2013

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