Asean should fill vacuum if US scales back presence in region: Malaysian Defence Minister

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said should the US scale back its engagement in the Asia-Pacific, Asean should step up to fill the void.
Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said should the US scale back its engagement in the Asia-Pacific, Asean should step up to fill the void. PHOTO: THE STAR

SINGAPORE - Should the US scale back its engagement in the Asia-Pacific, Asean should step up to the challenge of filling the void, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on Monday (Jan 23).

While US President Donald Trump has indicated he wants to reduce American commitment overseas, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin urged him to reconsider as the region is crucial to the US' security and economy.

Still, Asean should stand ready to pick up the slack through initiatives like Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) and the ADMM-Plus, he said.

The ADMM-Plus includes the 10 Asean members and its dialogue partners: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the US.

Such groupings have been critical in addressing issues such as maritime security, counter-terrorism, and disaster relief, he added.

For instance, the navies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have been jointly patrolling the Malacca Straits since 2006.

"Indeed, I see both these initiatives as crucial part of Asean's regional security architecture, which provides us with the flexibility to address fast evolving challenges in a punishingly complex landscape," he said.

Mr Hishammuddin is the first foreign defence minister speaking at the fifth Fullerton Forum: The Shangri-La Dialogue Sherpa Meeting, which serves as a prelude to the Shangri-La Dialogue taking place later in the year.

He also suggested that smaller groupings with common security concerns within Asean can work on those specific issues more effectively.

"Our approach is always to prioritise Asean's centrality, I'm not denying that. However, the reality of our very diverse political systems and foreign policy priorities means that it is sometimes more productive to work via focused caucuses among member states.

"At the end of the day, these initiatives are fundamentally building blocks towards greater goal of a secure and united Asean community," he said.

He cited the example of joint patrols in the Sulu Sea conducted by Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to deter piracy and terrorism .

Mr Hishammuddin again stressed the importance of Asean when he was asked about the South China Sea issue during the dialogue session after his speech.

China has overlapping territorial claims in the waters with four Asean members - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - and Taiwan.

He said Asean's role should be emphasised as it can amplify the voices of individual countries that may otherwise be too small to have a decisive say.

"But... nobody, not the US, not China, can ignore the destiny and the future of 10 Asean countries that are united," he said.

During his speech, Mr Hishammuddin also touched on other topics such as the current anti-globalisation wave, the spread of misinformation, and the impact of climate change on national security.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is scheduled to speak later in the evening.

Mr Hishammuddin will be hosted to dinner by Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Monday evening and call on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana on Tuesday.

Mr Lorenzana will also call on PM Lee and Dr Ng on Tuesday.