Defense ministers from the ten Southeast Asian countries today inked a joint declaration focused on strengthening regional security on issues ranging from the Islamic State (IS) to the South China Sea.
At the 9th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) held in Langkawi, Malaysia, the ministers signed a joint declaration that reaffirmed their commitment to address common security challenges.
In the statement, seen by The Diplomat, the South China Sea did get a mention, with all parties underscoring “the importance of freedom of navigation in, and over-flight above, the South China Sea as provided for by universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea.”
But much of the focus – unsurprisingly – was on other ongoing security proposals within ASEAN, many of which I discussed here previously as initiatives to be advanced under Malaysia’s chairmanship this year. For example, concept papers were adopted on the ASEAN Militaries Ready Group on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as the establishment of the ASEAN Center of Military Medicine proposed by Thailand. Movement was also made in response to the request for informal engagements or meetings by ADMM-Plus nations, which include Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States.
There was also mention of cooperation to counter the “imminent threat” of terrorist or extremist organization and radical groups through information-sharing, surveillance and promoting public awareness. Local media reports said Malaysia’s defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein chose to highlight this as a priority and said there was unanimous agreement on the global and regional threat that IS poses.
“We cannot afford to take this threat lightly…we have agreed that there is a need for greater cooperation to cope with the threat. This is a position that we hold very clear as the ministers responsible for security and stability in our region,” Hishammuddin said.
“We will do whatever it takes, whether sharing intelligence or monitoring progress in countering the IS threat,” he added.
As The Diplomat reported last week, Malaysia has been calling for greater cooperation within ASEAN against IS, in part due to the challenges it is facing at home from the movement. Speaking at a recent conference, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman argued that IS was far more dangerous than any terrorist organization the world had ever faced given that it had the resources of an organized state and was seen by many potential recruits as a “winning team.”
ASEAN has recognized the seriousness of the IS problem over the past few months. At the ASEAN foreign ministers’ retreat last month, ASEAN’s statement said its ministers “condemn and deplore the violence and brutality committed by extremist organizations and radical groups in Iraq and Syria, whose impact increasingly poses a threat to all regions of the world.”
That focus can be expected to continue during the rest of the year if current trends hold. For instance, Anifah had said that Malaysia would convene an ASEAN Special Ministerial Meeting on radicalism and extremism in October, which would be held back-to-back with the meeting on transnational crime. Singapore, meanwhile, is expected to hold a symposium in April for East Asia Summit countries to share best practices.
There also continues to be an ongoing conversation about establishing an ASEAN peacekeeping force, a proposal which has been around for a while and which I’ve considered here. According to The Bangkok Post, Hishammuddin expressed optimism that it would eventually materialize, but said it “requires time and a lot of negotiations on how to go forward.”