Singapore assumed the chairmanship of the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) yesterday, with the focus on three "thrusts", chief among them pushing regional efforts to combat emerging threats from violent extremism.
Apart from fighting terrorism, Singapore will also focus on growing the collective capability of Asean countries to deal with chemical, nuclear and radiation attacks in the region, as well as on "confidence-building measures" which would "build understanding, if not trust".
"On top of everybody's mind was terrorism, and for good reason. Marawi was a wake-up call to all Asean countries and a grim warning that the devastation that we see in Iraq and Syria can very well happen in Asean countries," Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen told reporters.
The Asean defence ministers met at the Clark freeport, north of Manila, as the Philippines declared an end to fierce fighting in Marawi, exactly five months after hundreds of Muslim militants, inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), stormed the southern Philippine city.
The protracted and intense fighting, which went door to door, left more than a thousand people dead, displaced hundreds of thousands of others, and destroyed half of Marawi. The cost of rebuilding the once bustling city is estimated to be at least US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion).
"That shows you the amount of devastation that terrorists can inflict. Just imagine the scale of that if other major cities in Asean are affected," said Dr Ng.
Counter-terrorism experts have warned that Asia's capitals will have to wrestle with new forms of violent extremism, following the collapse of the self-declared ISIS caliphate in Raqqa, Syria, and the end of fighting in Marawi.
S'pore military remains committed
Singapore yesterday affirmed its commitment to extend its contributions to the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) "for 2018 and beyond".
In bilateral talks on the sidelines of the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting at Clark freeport, Minister of Defence Ng Eng Hen informed his US counterpart James Mattis that Singapore would still contribute a KC-135R tanker aircraft, an imagery analysis team and a medical team next year.
"As Prime Minister Lee (Hsien Loong) announced, we agreed to extend our deployments beyond 2018," Dr Ng told reporters.
Saying that the US had requested that Singapore extend its deployment, Dr Ng, clearly referring to the setbacks ISIS has suffered in Iraq and Syria, noted that the first part of the campaign against the terror group had succeeded.
"But we agreed with the US and the coalition partners that we shouldn't let up, that we have gained so much because of the concerted effort," he said, adding that Singapore and the US were still working out "the specific components" of the extension.
"But I think in principle, it's the right thing to do. If we want to deal with terrorist networks in this region, you have to deal with terrorist networks at source," he said.
The two defence chiefs' meeting came a day after Mr Lee met President Donald Trump at the White House, during which the Prime Minister told the US leader that Singapore would extend its deployment of military assets and personnel to the global coalition to defeat ISIS.
Dr Ng also met his Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman yesterday to discuss ways to "enhance bilateral defence cooperation under the revised Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA), signed in November 2015".
Under the DCA, Singapore and India, among other things, agreed to establish a regular defence ministers' dialogue, deepen cooperation in maritime security and encourage cooperation between their defence industries.
Dr Ng is due to visit India next month for the second defence ministers' dialogue.
The biggest threat to the region could come from battle-hardened militants - including many from Indonesia and Malaysia - leaving Syria and Iraq, who could end up in South-east Asia to sow violence and inspire "lone wolf" attacks.
Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have already begun joint sea and air patrols over terrorist-plagued waters separating the insurgency-racked southern Philippine island of Mindanao and Malaysia's Sabah state.
All three nations are also looking into measures to starve terrorist funding. Indonesia, during the two-day ADMM meeting, proposed the creation of a "mini-Interpol" that would involve six countries in the region sharing intelligence.
Dr Ng said that apart from fighting violent terrorism, Singapore will also address, as ADMM chair, instability in the Korean peninsula.
"We recognised that there's instability in the Korean peninsula. We hope related parties can make progress."
He said Singapore is looking at encouraging information sharing to help individual nations prepare for chemical and nuclear threats "because in most countries that expertise resides with the military".
Singapore will further push for an inaugural Asean-China maritime exercise.
"I thought it was a very good idea," he said. "Singapore fully supports it. We will push it. We will push it for the very reasons both Asean and China want. We think if you exercise, you at least build understanding, if not trust."
China proposed such an exercise last year, at the China-Asean Defence Ministers' Informal Meeting in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.