WASHINGTON - Ministers from Asean countries have cautioned US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster – a former general – not to allow the war on terror to come across as anti-Islamic.
In a 45-minute meeting with Mr McMaster in Washington DC on Friday (May 5) as they wound up a two-day visit to the US capital, the ministers discussed avenues for cooperation and collaboration in intelligence and operations to counter extremism and terrorism.
Mr McMaster and another former general, Defence Secretary James Mattis, are seen as close to US President Donald Trump; analysts say the two seasoned professional military men balance Mr Trump’s mercurial temperament.
Extremism and terrorism are a “clear and present danger that confronts all of us” Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, told The Straits Times in an interview.
“It’s an area where there can be more intelligence sharing, more operational cooperation” he said.
“But at the same time, Asean ministers also conveyed to the administration that even as we do all this, it is very important that it does not come across or is perceived as an anti-Islamic movement.
“So yes there is a problem, it’s a cancer; it’s a political movement that’s abusing religion. It needs to be dealt with assertively and decisively,” the minister said.
“But it must not come across as anti-religious; getting that nuance right is essential in order to win the support of people on the ground, and it is also essential in order to win the battle for the hearts and minds of our people.”
Separately, he was asked if the issue of trade was raised at an earlier meeting on May 4 with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the context of the US administration’s abandonment of the Trans Pacific Partnership and review of America’s trade agreements. Dr Balakrishnan said there had not been enough time but the US’ free trade agreement (FTA) with Singapore was discussed.
“The US’ first bilateral FTA with an Asian country was with Singapore. We signed it in 2004. In the past 13 years, trade has more than doubled, and at this point of time there is surplus in favour of America,” Dr Balakrishnan said.
“There is no anxiety on the part of America with respect to our specific bilateral FTA. The point now, is to examine why ours works and whether lessons that can be gleaned from the US-Singapore FTA can be used.
“The Americans have been very keen to emphasise that they are not against free trade” he said.
“What they do want, and I have some sympathy for their point of view, is market access. They want free, fair and reciprocal arrangements.
“At a more political level, we need to understand that you can’t just make arguments for free trade in the abstract. Ultimately, it has to create jobs, it has to expand opportunities, it has to uplift the standard of living of your citizens,” he added.
“If we keep the fundamentals in mind, we can make progress and look forward to greater economic integration across the entire Pacific.”
“I’m not pessimistic” he said. “This review is ongoing and I believe the administration as a whole remains committed to free trade. Let’s give this process some time to mature.”