Monday, September 25, 2017

ASEAN, US pledge to fight IS extremists

ASEAN and the US will join forces to fight against the growing threat of Islamic State extremists in the region.

Mattis attending the International Institute for Strategic Studies 16th Asia Security Summit in Singapore, June 3. Photo - EPAMattis attending the International Institute for Strategic Studies 16th Asia Security Summit in Singapore, June 3. Photo - EPA

ASEAN defense ministers held a special meeting with US Defense Secretary James Mattis on the sidelines of the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday to discuss the latest developments in terrorist activities in Southeast Asia, including recent incidents in Indonesia and the Philippines.

According to Dr Panitan Wattanyagorn, security adviser to Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, ASEAN and the US will intensify their anti-terrorism campaign to include intelligence exchanges and surveillance.

He said the meeting was requested by Thailand recently to ensure that the US and ASEAN are on the same page on the rising number of militants in the region. “We want to make sure the US is with us,” he said in a telephone interview.

At the meeting, the US also reaffirmed its security commitment to Southeast Asia, which was welcomed by the ASEAN defence ministers and senior officials, he said. At the meeting, Thai Deputy Defence Minister Gen Udomdej Setabutr represented Gen Prawit, who was not able to attend due to prior commitments at home.

According to Channel News Asia, Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the US-ASEAN meeting showed that both sides are ready to help the Philippines through information, intelligence and other ways.

“There was a general affirmation by all ASEAN countries that the US presence is welcomed, and they strongly supported Secretary Mattis’ affirmation of the continued US presence in this region. That was quite uniform,” Ng said.

During the 2016 US presidential campaign, ASEAN was uncertain about the US commitment because Donald Trump did not pay any attention to the region. However, with Mr Mattis meeting ASEAN defence leaders for the first time, the US has given long-awaited assurances.

Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia plan to launch joint air patrols this month at their common boundaries in the Sulu Sea in addition to their existing programmes, Ng said. Their pledge came after the militant assault in the city of Malawi in Mindanao.

In a speech Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, as the annual security conference is also known, Mattis maintained that the Asia-Pacific region is still a US priority and Washington wants to strengthen its alliances and “empower the region.”

“Currently 60 percent of all US navy ships, 55pc of army forces and about two-third of fleet marine forces are assigned to the US Pacific Command area of responsibility. Soon 60pc of overseas tactical aviation assets will be assigned to this theatre,” Mattis said at the annual security forum.

The bloody fighting in recent days between Philippine government forces and the Islamic State-backed Maute militant group in Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city on southern Mindanao Island, was also on the agenda of the US-ASEAN meeting.

Ng said the US and ASEAN vowed to assist the Philippines. “We recognised that if the situation deteriorates in Mindanao, it can have a direct bearing on the well-being of other cities. We – the US, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia – offered our help,” the Singapore defence minister said.

“We stand ready to help, whether its information, intelligence or in other ways. Also, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have started the Sulu Sea patrols.”

The fighting in Marawi started on May 23 when government troops tried to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the notoriously violent Abu Sayyaf rebel group, who was believed to be in Marawi for medical treatment at the time.