Asean to enhance response against terror threats

This article is more than 12 months old

South-east Asia's defence ministers yesterday vowed to come up with an "enhanced" regional response to evolving threats from Islamist extremists.

In a joint statement issued on the opening day of their annual meeting at a former United States air base north of Manila, the ministers pledged to work together to "identify ways to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation among Asean defence establishments".

They agreed to share more information on terrorist networks across Asia, step up surveillance of militant groups and promote public awareness about the threat of radicalism.

At a special meeting of the ministers on counter-terrorism, Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein warned that with the collapse of the Islamic State caliphate in Raqqa, Syria, "the disturbing prospect... is that the Asia-Pacific is now in Daesh's crosshairs", referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

"This threat to our region is real and multi-dimensional, whether from returning fighters, regional franchises or, more disturbingly, from self-radicalised lone wolves," he said.

He said Asean "must no longer operate in silos".

He said the war between Philippine troops and Muslim militants that levelled half of the southern city of Marawi, cost over 1,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands "can easily manifest itself in other parts of the region and beyond".

On another thorny issue confronting the region, Asean's defence ministers stuck to a non-confrontational stand towards China concerning disputes in the South China Sea, despite prodding from the US for a tougher stand.

They reiterated calls to conclude a "code of conduct" (COC) meant to prevent conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea from erupting into violent confrontations.

In August, Asean's foreign ministers endorsed a two-page "framework" paving the way for actual negotiations on the COC to take place by year's end.

The defence ministers reaffirmed "the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflights above the South China Sea".

The ministers' joint declaration came as US Defence Secretary James Mattis sought to unite Asean against China, as US President Donald Trump prepares to send a strong message to challenge Beijing.

"(Asean gives) voice to those who want relations between states to be based on respect, and not on predatory economics or on the size of militaries," Mr Mattis told reporters, without mentioning China by name.

"The US remains unambiguously committed to supporting Asean."