U.S. State Department

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ASEAN Needs a United Front on Terrorism

In 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was created to develop strong economies, curb the rise of regional communist expansion, and encourage social progress. In this political context, nations put aside their differences to commit to principles of regional compromise, consensus, personal diplomacy, and solidarity; commonly referred to as the “ASEAN Way.”

ASEAN’s political stability and commitment to free trade has made the bloc an economic powerhouse. However, ASEAN’s very strengths make it exceptionally vulnerable to security breaches. ASEAN is now conducting multiple defense forums which will play a key role in maintaining stability beyond its borders.

This year, the Philippines holds the chair position, which rotates each ASEAN meeting. The recently concluded defense ministerial meeting of ASEAN nations particularly focused on counter-terrorism measures to prevent pro-ISIS militant groups from gaining a stronghold in Southeast Asia. The conclusion reached at the end of the meetings was that there is an urgent need to address the threat that radicalism poses to the region. States and political leaders can address this by making the ASEAN community more aware of the risks of violent terrorist insurgencies.

The ASEAN heads of state have been deliberating over which issues should be tackled during the summit. The Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, has stressed the need to promote regional cooperation to battle the Islamic State (IS) militancy as a response to the recent terrorist insurgencies in the southern Philippine city of Marawi. The recently resolved Islamic State (IS) insurgency in Marawi resulted in many deaths, disturbances and destruction and was one of the largest security crises the Philippines has ever faced and has led to concern over the expansion of terrorism within the country and the region.

According to the Philippine Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano, Duterte will place a priority on the fight against terrorism. The Philippines should promote enhancing national intelligence mechanisms and the implementation of concrete intelligence-sharing to better address security threats posed within the region. This can be patterned after that of the European Union.

The insurgency challenges to ASEAN security have increased as a result of the influx of international and homegrown terrorist attacks prompting governments to be on extreme alert and has prompted ASEAN governments to consider long-term defense strategies. The most pressing priority for ASEAN countries is the means by which they can further improve and enhance intelligence-gathering capabilities regionally. Although the region has been steadfast in modernizing military equipment, this must be backed up through an effective and efficient regional defense system.

ASEAN states are enhancing safety and security within their borders and the acquisition of modern military weapons, equipment and military exercises between and among ASEAN countries have increased as well. These exercises should be shared with regional partners. Similar to the ASEAN, the EU is vulnerable to terrorist threats. However, the EU’s united front has been able to establish concrete counter-terrorist strategies.

The EU prioritizes collective action, as solidarity is indispensable to combat terrorism. The EU has adopted a four-pillared national and regional Counter-Terrorism Strategy: prevent, protect, pursue, and respond. The EU’s law enforcement coordination agency, Europol, has pushed for increased cooperation between member states and they have successfully coordinated an operation assessing online extremist content.

The Philippines should promote the collaboration between ASEAN member states to create a regional defense research and development mechanism and should argue for the need for a close, structured ASEAN cooperation to make the member states’ actions effective. Although security is a vital national responsibility, counter-terrorism measures will be more effective through structured and systematic regional cooperation and the sharing of information. It is vital that ASEAN focus on consultation, coordination, cooperation, and collaboration among governments to build on the region’s defense and security capabilities. Further, they should focus on restricting the influx of terrorists and their affiliates into the region through enhancing intelligence measures and the promotion of the positive outcomes of strengthening regional responses in countering crises. ASEAN defense should shape or reshape itself in order to meet the challenges of new security concerns.