Are ASEAN military forces ready to cooperate?

Having been established for nearly 50 years, ASEAN's 10 member countries have demonstrated their willingness to leverage their cooperation in a more concrete way through the concept of the ASEAN Community (AC).

This vision is primarily designed to facilitate economic interactions among the member countries and also political, security and socio-cultural interactions. These are the foundation for the establishment of the AC in 2015.

The AC will also include the development of the defence sector.

Though ASEAN countries have vowed commitment to more active in cooperation among one another, this area still needs more improvement. Several tensions between member countries have occurred throughout history. A few years back, a conflict over the Ambalat block challenged the relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Additionally, a dispute over territory between Thailand and Cambodia also dominated the dialogue between ASEAN countries several years ago. Today, the South China Sea conflict, which involves six claimants including numerous ASEAN member countries, is the focus.

By 2015, the AC is expected to leverage its partnership between member countries. This is possible as long as all member countries can manage their commitment to implement the concept. Moreover, they also have to build common interest and goals. Defence and military cooperation may focus more on Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW) since the organisation has ruled that military intervention is not recommended between member countries.

MOOTW is feasible as the region is vulnerable to natural disasters, apart from piracy, terrorism, illegal smuggling and several other non-traditional issues. Thus, after the establishment of the AC in 2015, there is a big hope to see more interaction through joint MOOTW, either for actual operations or military exercises.

However, to date, there are no common standard operating procedures (SOPs) that can facilitate the collective initiative. Every ASEAN member country has its own military platform. Some resemble American systems and doctrines while others follow the Commonwealth ones.

This distinction needs to be standardized and customised among militaries within ASEAN countries to leverage their interaction, both in operations and exercises. Communication will be easily performed since every platform used will be interconnected. Similarly, customised doctrines and tactics may also help all militaries operate together without difficulty.

Additionally, there should be more active engagement between ASEAN militaries, not only at the highest level, but also at the junior officer level. Building a common interest and identity will be a good unifying factor in fostering regional collective leadership.

Brotherhood among leaders is expected to contribute to upgrading trust and confidence. By taking part in a joint programme such as joint training, ASEAN military leaders may develop their very own sense of regional identity.

Nevertheless, the establishment of the AC may also impose some constraints for the defence sector given the plurality of regional military elements and economic disparity among members.

Thus, there should be a simultaneous commitment to anticipate this gap, for instance regarding the need to upgrade military resources.

Having assessed the potential strengths and weaknesses, in particular in the defence sector, all ASEAN countries have to initiate adjustments to their respective military systems and platforms.

This does not mean eliminating their indigenous capability, but this will require a more integrated and interconnected system as well as platforms that may assist the organisation in tackling regional defence and security problems in the forthcoming years.

Several critical issues like non-traditional threats and also flash points like the South China Sea and Malacca Strait, may expect more attention from all ASEAN countries.

Military interoperability between member countries is mandatory, which may demand an integrated education and training system, and which to some extent would build brotherhood between leaders and collective identity among member countries.