AS global defense chiefs debated what “America First” and China’s rise meant for Asia’s future, regional officials focused on a more immediate concern: terrorism.
Southeast Asian defense officials who attended Asia’s most high-profile security conference in Singapore this weekend repeatedly urged cooperation to counter what they said was the growing threat of Islamic extremism in the region.
They said the risk was growing that Islamic State (IS) fighters might gravitate toward predominantly Muslim countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, and Muslim areas in the southern Philippines, as they lose ground in the Middle East.
“To me, the most immediate challenge in my mind is meeting head-on the threat of Daesh,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said, using an alternative name for the IS. “Real military gains have been made against Daesh in the last couple of months. This, however, gives rise to the disturbing prospect that the Asia Pacific is now in Daesh’s crosshairs.”
Hishammuddin ranked the threat above North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and territorial disputes in the South China Sea—great-power debates that dominated speeches by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and US Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Shangri-La Dialogue. The annual gathering has often been preoccupied with questions about strategic competition between a rising China and the US, where the election of President Donald J. Trump has fueled doubts about its post-World War II commitment to the region.
The final day of the conference was overshadowed by the latest terror attack in London, which killed seven people. Concerns about Islamic extremism have long simmered in Southeast Asia, which is home to about 15 percent of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims. In the last month the Indonesia capital Jakarta was struck by twin suicide bombings that killed three police officers, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law to fight IS-linked militants in the country’s restive south.
Hishammuddin and Indonesia’s Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu were expected to travel to Manila this week to discuss ways to improve regional cooperation against violent extremism. The three countries are expected to begin their first joint antipiracy patrols in the Sulu Sea on June 19, a water body that sits between them and has become a popular access point for terror groups.
Ryamizard described the patrols as a platform for greater security collaboration in the region, inviting Singapore, Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations to join. “No single country can deal with and resolve security threats independently,” he said.
The nascent framework fit with Turnbull’s advice during his keynote address last Friday that smaller nations couldn’t rely on great powers and needed to band together against common threats. The 10 states of the Asean have been divided over how much sway to give the two big powers jockeying for influence, China and the US.
“Coordinating to fight terrorism is an easy thing, where everyone can agree on who the bad guy is,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “By the same token, it doesn’t negate sources of strategic tension or suspicion.”
Asean has been vexed over how to handle China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, which overlap those of five other nations. China has used patrols by its growing naval and coastguard fleets to establish sovereignty over the region’s disputed territory.
Such questions surfaced during one public to-and-fro last Sunday when Colonel Lin Liu, an associate research fellow with China’s Academy of Military Science, asked defense officials from Indonesia and the Philippines what her country could do to help. Philippine Undersecretary for Defense Ricardo David said any additional participation would have to be discussed by the trilateral patrol group.
Mattis, during his own remarks, highlighted US efforts to provide assistance to Malaysia and Indonesia to improve information sharing and maritime domain awareness and to train Philippine counter terrorism forces fighting in the south.
Several Southeast Asian defense officials warned of active groups of extremists within their borders. David said 250 to 400 foreign fighters were believed to be operating in the Philippines, while Hishammuddin said at least six people suspected of ties to Islamic State had been arrested in Malaysia in the past week.
Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said at least 31 regional groups have pledged allegiance to the IS and there was evidence of growing transnational cooperation between them.
“Porous borders and dense jungles provide easy access and safe havens for terrorism training camps,” Ng told the conference. “If these groups further entrench themselves in our region, more attacks will occur.”