Could Southeast Asia be turning the page on its inter-state disputes to focus on its internal ones? This is one theme that emerged from the recently concluded meeting of defense chiefs from all over the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The meetings, held last week in Clark, Pampanga, highlighted the heightened threat of terrorism as a priority for the region moving into 2018. As the chair of ASEAN next year, Singapore took the reins on this theme and will be keeping it in focus into next year’s discussions.
On the tails of the defense ministers’ meetings and in advance of the ASEAN leaders’ summit and related meetings in mid-November, the Stratbase ADR Institute is hosting a conference entitled “ASEAN Leadership Amid a New World Order.” Speaking on ASEAN defense-related cooperation will be no less than Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana, who will be accompanied by Professor Renato de Castro, ADRi Trustee; Professor Masashi Nishihara of Japan’s Research Institute for Peace and Security; Professor Christopher Roberts of the University of New South Wales; Professor Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines; and Professor I Made Andi Arsana of Universitas Gadjah Mada. The panel promises to cover a breadth of topics, particularly in maritime security and other areas of cooperation in Southeast Asia.
The defense chief’s thrust on transnational terrorism is not particularly surprising given the devastating effects of the conflict in Marawi, which lasted for several months until the government had announced the end of the fighting. Months are too short of a measure for the full breadth of the Marawi crisis, as the clean-up, reconstruction and rehabilitation of all the damaged areas will take years to be completed with any success.
Moreover, the effects of the Marawi crisis are not contained to the Philippines. The interlocking network of violent actors has already implicated personalities in other countries in Southeast Asia, who have also seen their citizens victimized. The fighting is a wake-up call to the Philippines and all our counterparts in Southeast Asia. This is truly a regional concern.
Taking an even broader look at our region, the Asia Pacific continues to cope with threats to the stability of inter-state relations and to the welfare and ways of life of its people. For Southeast Asia, the challenge in the South China Sea persists, as states trade moves aimed at improving their respective positions in the waterways.
Plying the same waterways are the non-state actors taking advantage of relatively porous borders. For this reason, it is important for us to keep our eyes on how the affected countries intend to pursue avenues of cooperation that reduce the risk of violence and escalation, such as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, and promote the peace and stability of the region such as through cooperation on maritime humanitarian activities or even search and rescue activities.
SOUTHEAST ASIA IN ACTION
This is not to say that ASEAN has been sitting on its hands on internal security matters.
After all, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia have all been cooperating on joint sea and, more recently, joint air patrols. This cooperation has been years in the making, but with time and careful planning it has been possible for the three states to get their planes off the ground and their boats off the docks in a way that helps them maximize their assets at hand. If these patrols help ensure that fewer illegal arms, funds, and fighters are transported across our borders and that fewer fishermen or sea vessels are captured, then we should be all for it.
Of course, our Southeast Asian neighbors have also contributed directly to ending the fighting in Marawi. Secretary Lorenzana has already thanked Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Singapore and Brunei, for their support to this effort. Such cooperation acknowledges the reality that these threats are not contained in any one country’s borders. Some of the Marawi conspirators had ties to organizations in Malaysia, funder Mahmud Ahmad among the foremost among them. Researchers working for the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium have said that they believe at least 30 Malaysians alone had fought in Marawi. Others would have come from other countries in Southeast Asia as well as beyond it.
With Singapore as the head of ASEAN next year, the country has already said that its defense focus will be zeroed in on this subject. This year, the country offered drones and urban warfare training facilities to the AFP to help in building up our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, as well as to better meet the new challenges faced by fighting in dense urban areas.
Given the many factors encouraging ASEAN neighbors in this direction, it is hard to imagine serious reasons blocking further cooperation within our region. At least on this front, it is a good thing that we have a platform such as ASEAN that encourages neighbors to cooperate where they can and that promotes an environment that makes cooperation more possible.
Prof. Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the founder and managing director of the Stratbase Group and president of its policy think tank, Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ADRi). Prof. Manhit is a former chair and retired associate professor of Political Science of De La Salle University. He has authored numerous papers on governance, political, and electoral reforms.