KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 290

Strengthening ASEAN-Middle Powers Maritime Security Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

해양연구소 연구원
Jeslyn Tan


The Indo-Pacific region has now become the centre of geopolitical rivalry between the United States (US) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with potential flashpoints such as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. In the Security Outlook 2021, all the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) listed major power competition as their biggest security concern, which could lead to the bipolarisation of the regional order and force the ASEAN states to pick sides. Nonetheless, ASEAN states eschew choosing sides by hedging against the great powers through maritime security cooperation to maintain their neutrality and unity (Tan, 2020). This article proposes that other than the binary options between the US and China, Southeast Asian states can also strengthen maritime security cooperation with the middle powers in the region (Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and the European Union (EU)), which can become an alternative to the great powers amidst the escalating rivalry. The convergence of interests of the middle powers and ASEAN states in maritime security provides a great platform for cooperation, which might gradually evolve to become a middle-power agency in the region.

ASEAN’s Maritime Security Cooperation with Middle Powers

The waters in the Indo-Pacific are beset by maritime non-traditional security issues like piracy and armed robbery, maritime terrorism, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, irregular migration, cybersecurity, as well as narcotics and arms trafficking. In order to tackle these threats, cooperation between ASEAN states and the external powers is required as the threats are mainly transnational and affect global maritime trade. Japan’s contribution to maintaining the safety of navigation in the Straits of Malacca is indispensable through the Malacca Strait Council (MSC) and by pioneering the establishment of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). Tokyo is also the sole non-ASEAN member of the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC), which aims to ensure the sustainability of fisheries in Southeast Asia. Besides, ASEAN and India enjoy strong maritime cooperation in connectivity and security. Among the commemorative activities to celebrate the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-India relations in 2022 is the planned ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise that will further enhance their defence cooperation (ASEAN Secretariat, 2022). Individual ASEAN states like Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia also carry out bilateral naval drills with the Indian Navy.

Furthermore, cooperation with South Korea has mainly focused on maritime cybersecurity. In a survey targeted at experts and policymakers from the Indo-Pacific carried out by the Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA), South Korea (13.3 percent) ranked second after the US (38.7 percent) as the country that could be a global leader in maritime technology and cybersecurity (MIMA, 2021). Malaysia and South Korea have long established a strong partnership in the cybersecurity domain. In 2016, CyberSecurity Malaysia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Korea Internet & Security Agency (KISA) to enhance cybersecurity cooperation between the two agencies, including in the maritime domain. Furthermore, South Korea assumes a vital role in ensuring the success of the ASEAN Cyber Defence Network (ACDN) proposed by Malaysia as they are both co-chairs of the Experts’ Working Group on Cyber Security at the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) from 2021 to 2024. The ACDN aims to connect all the cyber defence operation centres of ASEAN states to exchange experience and share information.

On the other hand, Australia also has constant engagements with ASEAN through maritime capacity building and naval exercises. In the ASEAN-Australia Plan of Action 2020-2024, both parties pledge to strengthen maritime security cooperation through the ASEAN-led multilateral mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF), and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), focusing not only on efforts to tackle non-traditional threats, but also initiatives to uphold the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a means for the peaceful settlement of maritime territorial and boundary disputes in the region. The 4th ARF Workshop on Enhancing Regional Maritime Law Enforcement Cooperation co-hosted by the EU, Australia, and Vietnam in April 2022 discussed maritime law enforcement in areas of overlapping claims in accordance with international law and potential non-binding instrument to govern the interactions between maritime law enforcement agencies in Southeast Asia (European External Action Service (EEAS), 2022). Similarly, the EU has also become more interested in strengthening the rule of law in Southeast Asia through its CRIMARIO II. CRIMARIO II aims at capacity building and sharing best practices with the Southeast Asian states to improve the judiciary aspect of their maritime law enforcement in compliance with international law.


The analysis demonstrates that middle powers have become more proactive in enhancing cooperation with their Southeast Asian counterparts, notably in the maritime domain due to the importance of the sea lanes for maritime trade and the heightening Sino-American great power rivalry. Many cooperative initiatives have been introduced among ASEAN states and the middle powers, not only bilaterally or multilaterally. New minilateral arrangement like the Australia-India-Indonesia (AII) trilateral seeks to enhance maritime security cooperation among the middle powers in order to maintain the regional power balance in the face of increased pressures to pick sides due to the intensifying US-China rivalry. This could lead to the formation of a middle-power agency and the areas of cooperation can be extended to the economy, environment, and connectivity. Dependence on the great powers will still remain heavy; nevertheless, the emergence of a middle-power agency could provide an alternative to the ASEAN states, which could help prevent them from taking sides and maintain their neutrality and unity.

Jeslyn Tan은 말레이시아 해양연구소 (Maritime Institute of Malaysia, MIMA) 해양안보외교센터 (Centre of Maritime Security and Diplomacy)의 연구원이다. 또한, 유럽연합의 기금으로 운영되는 유럽연합-아세안 씽크탱크 대화 프로젝트 (EU-ASEAN Think Tank Dialogue (EANGAGE) Project)의 안보 파트 소속 연구원이다.

  • The author’s opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not reflect the view of KIMS.

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