Videoconferences the new norm for Indo-Pacific defense talks

Videoconferences the new norm for Indo-Pacific defense talks

Tom Abke

Videoconferencing has largely replaced in-person meetings for defense-related communication in the Indo-Pacific during the COVID-19 outbreak, and officials say its relative cost and convenience could keep it around even after the pandemic.

“This has impacted communication to some extent, but the NZDF [New Zealand Defence Force] will not be compromising security, which is fundamental to an organization such as ours. This means communications, including secure communications, will continue via the most appropriate means,” an NZDF spokesman told FORUM while the country was still under a government-directed lockdown.

When New Zealand Defence Minister Ron Mark joined a Cabinet meeting March 23, 2020, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, 10 ministers participated by videoconference, according to Radio New Zealand.

Media reports across the Indo-Pacific reveal a surge in videoconferencing by defense ministries and armed forces, both for internal discussions and high-level international dialogues.

The defense ministers of Singapore and Australia, pictured, went so far as to use videoconference in March 2020 to sign a treaty on the use of Australian territory for training by Singapore’s Armed Forces. Two weeks later, Singaporean defense officials used videoconferencing to discuss best practices relating to COVID-19 with their counterparts in China.

In April 2020, the 17th Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue (KIDD) was held over videoconference, the first KIDD not held in person. Also that month, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh used videoconference to ask Army, Air Force and Navy commanders to help revive the economy post-lockdown by purchasing from micro, small and medium-size enterprises.

Questions persist concerning the security of videoconferencing, however. The Australian Defence Force banned the use of one videoconferencing platform after a comedian hacked an Air Force flight log meeting.

Such incidents are likely “growing pains,” explained Mike Harris, an analyst with Cribstone Strategic Macro in London.

“Ultimately, if you decide something isn’t to a level that allows you that security you require, then you have to go out of your way to have the face-to-face meeting,” Harris told FORUM. “You just have to set the bar where you have to set it, and whatever systems don’t fall within that bar, then that’s not an option.”

Videoconferences are cheaper and more convenient than in-person meetings, he added, and more effective than conference calls because they demand more focus from participants.

While ease of use has made Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams popular platforms during COVID-19 lockdowns, many organizations favor the older Cisco Webex for internal communication, Harris said.

“Clearly, organizations in the post-crisis environment will still be sensitive about cost,” he said, “so the likelihood of this sticking, I think, will be extremely high.”

Security issues, however, will need to be continually managed, experts said.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.