Decades-old Asian defense pact gets makeover to face new threats

A defence pact formed in 1971 at the height of the Cold War to protect Singapore and Malaysia will be upgraded to deal with terrorism threats and new security concerns, leaders of the five Asia-Pacific countries in the pact said on Friday.

Ministers from the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA), which groups the two Southeast Asian nations with Britain, Australia and New Zealand, met in Singapore to talk about the changing security environment in the region.

Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne said the meeting was an opportunity for the FPDA to "be responsive to current events, to be responsive to what is a very dynamic and quite challenging regional strategic environment."

While the ministers said potential threats from militants in Southeast Asia dominated talks, analysts said uncertainty over both the rise of China and US commitments to the region have renewed the importance of the pact.

The FPDA was forged after Britain had withdrawn from its former colonies in Singapore and Malaysia while Indonesia, under former president Sukarno, had threatened both. The pact commits the five countries to consult each other in case of an attack.

The rise of asymmetric warfare has posed new challenges for the group.

"We will update the relevance of the FPDA both in terms of the exercises and integration of new capabilities as well as to deal with current security threats in response to the changing security environment which now includes counter-terrorism and maritime security," said Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

The ministers did not directly address broader flashpoints beyond terrorist threats, or potential responses.

Tim Huxley, a regional security expert based in Singapore wrote this week that the five countries needed to boost the interoperability of their militaries to remain effective in a "deteriorating" security environment.

"The regional balance of power is shifting as China becomes richer, stronger and assertive. American strategy and policy have entered a period of - at best - uncertainty under President Donald Trump," Huxley wrote in a commentary in Singapore's Straits Times newspaper.

"Amid this uncertainty, most states in the region are seeking to increase their military capabilities."

The FPDA defence ministers meeting is held every three years, with Singapore and Malaysia taking turns as host, while the five militaries exercise annually.

The ministers met ahead of this weekend's Shangri-la Dialogue, an informal regional security summit, that will feature a keynote speech on US regional security interests from Defence Secretary James Mattis.