ASEAN’s Interoperability Challenges

by Paul Pryce. Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.

ASEAN member states.

ASEAN member states.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an intergovernmental organization comprised of 10 member states, has set out to form a so-called Political-Security Community by the end of 2015. There certainly have been some accomplishments made with regarding to security integration since 2009, such as a series of dialogues on how to enhance maritime security cooperation and regional efforts against piracy. But there has been a glaring lack of substantive action to achieve interoperability, a particularly crucial aspect of security integration if ASEAN’s commitment to collective defence is to be anything more than a slogan.

One of the measures NATO has employed to achieve a deep level of interoperability is the adoption of a common standard for small arms ammunition. Regardless of the standard issue assault rifle utilized by a NATO member state’s infantry forces, all generally employ the 5.56x45mm NATO standard round. This allows soldiers of various nationalities to share ammunition when deployed alongside one another. However, in contrast, ASEAN lacks a common standard. The land forces of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand all employ the 5.56x45mm NATO standard round, while the 7.62x39mm round once used by the Warsaw Pact countries are still the preferred ammunition of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

With an even split among the ASEAN member states, it will be difficult to reach consensus on a standard type of small arms ammunition. NATO certainly experienced some challenges with standardization during its period of expansion following the Cold War. New member states like Poland needed to quickly switch to the 5.56x45mm round as well as adopt standard operating procedures that had been honed through decades of joint exercises. But institutions like the NATO Standardization Agency have been able to coordinate the transfer of knowledge and assist in Alliance-level force planning to great success.

The Political-Security Community Blueprint adopted by ASEAN members in 2009 envisions no equivalent body to the NATO Standardization Agency. Article B.1 of the Blueprint proposes a system of regular meetings among defence officials, not just at the ministerial level. But an ad hoc approach to standardization will produce less than impressive results. Formalized institutions will be better able to evaluate the equipment and practices of ASEAN member state militaries, producing common standards and strategies on how to adopt these best practices.

Leaders of ASEAN pose for a group photo during the Welcome Dinner on May 10, 2014. In a joint statement , ASEAN foreign ministers expressed "serious concerns over the on-going developments" in the sea disputes with China.

Leaders of ASEAN pose for a group photo during the Welcome Dinner on May 10, 2014. In a joint statement , ASEAN foreign ministers expressed “serious concerns over the on-going developments” in the sea disputes with China.

The involvement of external actors might help ASEAN achieve greater coherence in this area. Japan has indicated a willingness to enhance ASEAN’s defence capabilities, such as by providing the maritime forces of Vietnam and the Philippines with patrol vessels. Although the standard issue assault rifle of Japan’s land forces – the Howa Type 89 – also employs the 5.56x45mm NATO standard round, a large-scale transfer of these small arms to Vietnam and other ASEAN members is unlikely. The Howa Type 89 has never been exported outside Japan due to the country’s strict anti-hardware export policy, though it must be noted that Shinzō Abe’s administration has been considering potential changes to this ban which could open the Howa Type 89 and other small arms designs to export.

It may fall to South Korea to take leadership in the region. The Daewoo K-2 issued to South Korea’s infantry forces uses the 5.56x45mm NATO standard round and the country has no bans on the export of its small arms and light weapons. Coincidentally, South Korea may also soon find itself with a very large surplus of K-2 assault rifles. The South Korean military is currently developing a next-generation rifle to replace the K-2, which is expected to be combat ready by 2020. As such, the country might soon find itself with more than 500,000 K-2 assault rifles in need of deactivation or destruction. A better option would be to transfer these arms to ASEAN member states interested in adopting the K-2 as their standard issue infantry weapon, enhancing ASEAN’s security capabilities, improving South Korea’s image in the region, and securing a future market for Daewoo Precision Industries’ products. Even if there are problems in the development process of South Korea’s future assault rifle, the country’s land forces are expected to bear the brunt of significant personnel reductions planned for 2020. This alone will leave South Korea with a stockpile worth transferring.

The Daewoo K-2 in action.

The Daewoo K-2 in action.

Regardless of whether South Korean officials recognize this opportunity, ASEAN’s Political-Security Community seems positioned for failure. Member states have proven unwilling to cede any authority to community-wide institutions, as reflected in the lack of an equivalent body to the NATO Standardization Agency. More than a distrust of ASEAN itself, the project suffers from a mutual distrust among member states. When rebels attempted to seize control of Malaysia’s Sabah region in early 2013, the Malaysian and Philippine governments lobbed accusations at each other. First, the Malaysian authorities demanded assurances from their Philippine counterparts that the rebels in Sabah were not receiving government assistance, perhaps as part of an attempt by the Philippines to annex the territory. In response, the Philippines raised questions as to whether Malaysian troops were using excessive force to put down the rebellion and were targeting the Philippine community living in Sabah. This escalated until Malaysia announced it would be boycotting the 2013 Asian Confederation Youth Boxing Championships and other international sporting events hosted by the Philippines that year.

Evidently, if ASEAN is unable to reduce tensions between member states at this stage, talk of a security community within Southeast Asia is overly optimistic. Rather, the region will need to work quickly to develop effective confidence- and security-building measures similar to those found in Europe. Information sharing on defence capabilities and the disposition of forces will be particularly essential in order to avoid the sort of infighting witnessed during the Sabah conflict. There is already some provision for this in the Political-Security Community Blueprint adopted previously, but it would be worthwhile to pursue even greater transparency, modelling the exchange of information on that originally pursued through the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE Treaty). Of course, such an ASEAN variation on the CFE Treaty should include serious punitive measures for non-compliance with the information exchange so as to avoid the disastrous effects of a unilateral withdrawal, such as that experienced in the wake of the Russian Federation suspending its participation in the CFE Treaty in 2007. Whether ASEAN member states can find the political will and take this step, unfortunately, is unclear. In the meantime, China will continue to advance its territorial claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere, faced only with the opposition of individual ASEAN member states.

More Information
Felix F. Seidler, “PATO statt NATO: Amerikas neue Wunschallianz?” (in German), offiziere.ch, 27.03.2013.

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada's Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
This entry was posted in English, International, Paul Pryce, South Korea.

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