MANILA • South-east Asia's defence ministers yesterday vowed to come up with an "enhanced" regional response to evolving threats from Islamist extremists.
In a joint statement issued on the opening day of the annual Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) at the Clark Freeport north of Manila, the ministers pledged to work together to "identify ways to strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation among Asean defence establishments".
In talks on the sidelines of the meeting, Singapore and China also agreed to work closely to deepen ties between Asean and China, including planning for an inaugural Asean-China maritime exercise.
The Asean defence ministers agreed to share more information on terrorist networks across Asia, step up surveillance of militant groups and promote public awareness about the threat of radicalism.
In a statement, Singapore's Ministry of Defence (Mindef) said the ministers "highlighted the need for Asean to respond collectively given that terrorism is a problem that no country can single-handedly manage".
They also "reaffirmed the importance of regional counter-terrorism initiatives" such as joint maritime and air patrols of terrorist-plagued waters off the Sulu archipelago in Mindanao and Sabah, initiated by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, the ministry said.
Singapore, in particular, will "step up counter-terrorism collaboration between the Asean defence establishments" during its chairmanship of Asean and the ADMM next year, Mindef quoted Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen as saying.
At a special breakfast meeting on counter-terrorism, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein warned that with the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in Raqqa, Syria, "the disturbing prospect… is that the Asia-Pacific is now in Daesh's (ISIS') crosshairs". Asean, in response, "must no longer operate in silos", he said.
Concerning disputes in the South China Sea, the ministers stuck to a non-confrontational stand towards China despite prodding from the US for a tougher stance. They reiterated calls to conclude a "code of conduct" meant to prevent conflicting territorial claims in the sea from erupting into violent confrontations.
As Singapore, the Asean-China coordinator from 2015 until next year, prepares to assume chairmanship of Asean next year, Dr Ng and his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan yesterday discussed "further practical initiatives to advance Asean-China relations".
"This includes planning for conduct of an inaugural Asean-China maritime exercise," Mindef said.
China proposed such an exercise last year, at the China-Asean Defence Ministers' Informal Meeting in Vientiane. It aims to build mutual trust between China and the regional grouping, several of whose members have competing claims with Beijing in the South China Sea.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, Dr Ng said such an exercise will "promote collaborations and deepen cooperation".
The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, he said, can be practised during the exercise.