It is instructive that the vicious terrorist siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi drew the concerted attention of defence ministers gathered for the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue here last week. Their consensus was that South-east Asia would face long-term problems, running into decades, if militants linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) consolidated their capture of territory in the Philippines. On the geopolitical front, Marawi represents an intolerable affront to Filipino sovereignty and to Asean's security. It symbolises the incipient role which the Sulu Sea area could play as a base for a South-east Asian province of ISIS' so-called global caliphate.
That defence ministers from Asean and beyond, including the United States, recognise the severity of the terrorist eruption in the Philippines bodes well for international efforts to eradicate a transnational threat. That dimension is underscored by the presence of foreign fighters in the siege, reminiscent of ISIS' support base in the Middle East. In no circumstances must Marawi be allowed to turn into a camp from which ISIS could spread its deadly tentacles through Asean.
Much as the world might wish to help the Philippines, it falls on its Asean neighbours first to stand by the front-line state in repulsing the ISIS invasion of South-east Asia. Upcoming maritime and air patrols involving Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines would form the vanguard of such an effort. The fight against crimes on the seas, from piracy and kidnapping for ransom to terrorism, must not be hobbled by jurisdictional restrictions on the hot pursuit of militant boats. Singapore's readiness in assisting in patrols, or with other counter-terrorism initiatives, indicates the indivisibility of Asean's security.
The terrorist threat to the region today recalls the challenge posed to the founding states of Asean once by transnational communist insurgencies devoted to the overthrow of constitutional democratic orders. It is in Singapore's national interest to help prevent an insurrectionary challenge in neighbouring countries as terror might arrive at its shores one day.
The Shangri-La Dialogue also surveyed the nuclear threat from North Korea. It might not concern South-east Asia directly, since its immediate targets are South Korea and Japan, but it could lead to a conflagration that would engulf Pacific Asia. Whatever their differences over other issues, the United States, China and other countries must bring their collective influence to bear on a recalcitrant regime which cares as little for its people as it does for others. In that spirit, Washington and Beijing need to contain their own differences so that they do not embolden Pyongyang. They must behave as responsible great powers both capable and willing to incorporate the interests of other countries into their global strategies.