East of Suez: A British Strategy for the Asian Century: Part Six. Malaysia and Singapore

Young Fabian, Ash Dharmasingham writes on British strategy in Asia. Over the last few weeks we have been publishing his research into this important issue. This week's topic is "Malaysia and Singapore". This post also includes the conclusion as the series has drawn to a close. You can access a PDF version of the entire document here.

British security engagement with Malaysia and Singapore is done mainly via the FPDA. The FPDA is one of Britain’s longest military partnerships, created in 1971 served to closen defence ties among the 5 nations of Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. In the event of an attack on Malaysia or Singapore, ministers of all five nations are mandated to consult each other and decide on a course of action although they are not committed to intervening and there is no mention of EEZs in the FPDA making them an issue for the individual state (Tossini, 2017). As part of the FPDA, the 5 states carry out an annual exercise called “Bersama Lima” that aims to strengthen integration and interoperability, and show a collective commitment to the relationship (FCO, 2016-a). FPDA also provides integrated air defence for the Malaysian peninsula and Singapore (Tossini, 2017). Lord West believes that the FPDA arrangement is important as it keeps a European power firmly involved in the region on a defence basis, helping Malaysia and Singapore improve their capabilities and providing reassurance to Australia and New Zealand. Indeed Tossini argues that the FPDA provides military cooperation that is credible, deters threats against Malaysia and Singapore, fosters closer cooperation and mutual trust, and provides opportunities to play a greater role in regional defence (Tossini, 2017).

 Britain as part of FPDA maintains a permanent naval presence in Singapore via Naval Party 1022 that runs a support facility at Sembawang Wharf allowing naval repair and logistics for the Royal Navy’s ships. Defence secretary Fallon announced in June 2016 that the FPDA was “more necessary than ever” and that Britain will increase the number of military assets across the Asia-Pacific region including the deployment of one of the two new carriers to the Asia-Pacific (Chow, 2016). This is certainly the right course of action. Britain should increase its commitment to FPDA and should seek to maintain a permanent deployment of naval vessels in Singapore - which need only be a single surface combatant to start off with and could be increased as resources increase. The increase in the size of the Royal Navy and projected repeated yearly real increase in the British defence budget would help facilitate this (BBC News, 2015-b). Doing so would increase Britain’s visibility and influence in regional affairs, and bring Britain closer to the FPDA states. This could, in turn, help build bilateral and multilateral ties with nations like India and Japan that seek close relations with Indo—Pacific states such as Australia.

 It will also allow a greater ability to increase defence engagement with the region and make it easier for the Royal Navy to carry out more regular FON operations. This again would help regional standing amongst the many nations of the Indo-Pacific that support it from India as established to Australia who seem to have carried out their own FON operations in the past (BBC News, 2015-a). Britain could also coordinate with France who in June 2016 called on EU navies to undertake “regular and visible” in the SCS (Panda, 2016-a).


 As the Japanese embassy official stated, if Britain wanted to “be taken seriously” in Asia and remain a global force then it cannot be just an economic force in the region. Britain must be serious about, “shaping the security environment in the region, against the background of assertive voice which belittles the rule-based international order” (Japanese Embassy Official, 2017). Britain has the choice of either remaining a prosperous and influential global player that has some ability to shape the global order, by playing a constructive role in Asia or it can accept a loss of influence and be shaped by the international order itself. Engaging with Asia economically, politically and militarily would secure Britain’s interests and help protect the ILO. The rise of Asia provides exciting opportunities for economic engagement and Britain should pursue, for example, an FTA with India and help China internationalise the RMB. Asia’s rise also poses challenges, particularly from China. While the UK should engage with China, it must be measured and firm. Britain, as argued, should work together with like-minded nations such as India and Japan in order to protect the rules-based order, encouraging China to become a responsible stakeholder in the ILO rather than a revisionist power. By deepening security ties with India and Japan, Britain and the aforementioned nations could jointly tackle transnational issues, while improving the quality of their armed forces. As briefly touched upon, the FPDA is another mechanism through which Britain can play a positive role in Asia. Further research on British strategy in Asia should focus on how Britain could reinforce its ties with Indonesia and the FPDA states, particularly Australia - an important Commonwealth actor in the Asia-pacific with which Britain enjoys strong connections.


Ash Dharmasingham is a Young Fabians member

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