Asean ministers to discuss territorial and security issues

Flags of Asean members displayed in a conference room at the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) Building Complex in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei.
Flags of Asean members displayed in a conference room at the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) Building Complex in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei.PHOTO: ST FILE

As South-east Asia's foreign ministers gather here to gaze into the crystal ball for a glimpse of the dangers lurking ahead, what they are likely to see include the spread of extremism across South-east Asia and choppy waters in the South China Sea.

At a briefing ahead of the first ministerial-level meeting the Philippines is hosting as Asean chair, Mr Charles Jose of the Philippines said Asean leaders would have to deal with new challenges unleashed by changes in the world.

Among these are the threat of extremism and United States President Donald Trump's policy in Asia, which could turn the South China Sea into a flashpoint, said Mr Jose, spokesman for the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs.

Asked about recent criticisms by Mr Trump's aides of China's island building in the South China Sea, Mr Jose said "new leaders, other countries, bringing their own style of governance and leadership" will be discussed at this week's meetings.

"All Asean member states are concerned about developments in the South China Sea. Among Asean member states, the common concern is the maintenance of peace, stability and security in the region," he said.

Mr Jose stressed that as far as discussions on the territorial row are concerned, the focus will be on the "de-escalation of tension".

"Of course we are calling on all parties concerned to exercise restraint and not do anything to further complicate the issue," he said.

Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan will be at the ministers' retreat today and tomorrow.

In a statement yesterday, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the ministers "will discuss ways to strengthen Asean centrality and unity in line with the Asean Community Vision 2025".

"They will also exchange views on Asean's external relations, as well as regional and international issues," the ministry added.

Asean's ministers are holding talks even as a US aircraft carrier strike group began patrols in the South China Sea on Saturday amid growing tension with China over the disputed waterway. China wrapped up its own naval exercises there last Friday.

China lays claim to almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the waters.

Mr Jose said Asean will also have to grapple with the spread of extremism across the region, as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) loses ground in the Middle East.

Philippine security officials have confirmed reports that ISIS, via groups like the Abu Sayyaf, has been trying to establish a province in strife-torn southern Philippines as a new rallying point for its beleaguered fighters in Iraq and Syria.

The Philippines has already worked out cross-border arrangements with Malaysia and Indonesia to curtail the movement of terrorists in the region.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2017, with the headline 'Asean ministers to discuss territorial and security issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe