From the Sydney Morning Herald (Feb 6): Philippines' Battle for Marawi shows how South-East Asia can unite to fight terrorism (By John Blaxland)
The battle for Marawi, on the Philippines island of Mindanao, raged for months in the second half of last year as the Philippines' military and police struggled against an insurgency aligned with the so-called Islamic State group, or Daesh.
Recognising the potential regional ramifications if the conflict were to spread, neighbours aided the Philippines. Malaysia and Indonesia, for instance, looked on with deep concern, seeking to coordinate and de-conflict their efforts. They had earlier signed a maritime cooperation agreement in July 2016 covering the Sulu Sea – an area that sits in the legal and administrative twilight zone between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. They attentively looked on, as did Brunei, as the battle raged.
An armed Philippine coast guard unit leave the liberated Marawi late last year. Photo: Bullit Marquez
Australia and Singapore offered to help, as did the United States. Australia made available upon request some maritime patrol aircraft.
The battle for Marawi appears to be over – for now. But there is genuine concern that the flames of violent Islamist jihadism could erupt again – not just in Mindanao but across the archipelagic space that is maritime South-East Asia. Mindful of the potential for a recurrence, a joint taskforce was sent afterwards to help the Philippine security forces as part of a broader counter-terrorism program. Beyond such bilateral engagement, however, the collaborative efforts over Marawi point to the need to develop extra, sub-regional institutional mechanisms to preserve that level of collaboration and take it even further.
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With such concerns in mind, Indonesia's Defence Minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, along with his counterparts from Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Philippines and Thailand, recently agreed to form the six-party "our eyes" intelligence-sharing network. In announcing its creation, Ryacudu noted that Japan, Australia and the US were viewed as countries that would be looked to for support. This is unsurprising given the advanced intelligence and military capabilities these three countries possess.
In particular, though, there are indications that the Philippine authorities were impressed with the low-key and non-bellicose approach the Australian Defence Force took to helping the Philippines' armed forces. As a result, Australia has emerged as arguably the most significant training partners for the Philippines' military. The Australian joint taskforce's job is to cooperate with Philippine security forces, exchange information and share insights on improving each other's counter-terrorism capability.
As it happens, while Australia has shared lessons from its experience with maritime, air and land-based security operations in the Middle East, Australia has, in turn learned from the Philippines and derived a greater understanding of how urban terrorism tactics are morphing when applied in South-East Asia.
Australia's Defence Minister, Marise Payne, capitalised on these developments to convene in Perth last week a sub-regional defence ministers meeting. It included officials from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
A P3 Orion US surveillance plane flying over Marawi. Australian Orions also helped the Philippine government. Photo: Aaron Favila
The meeting exchanged lessons from recent counter-terrorism operations in the Philippines, shared information on regional threats as seen from an Indonesian perspective, and sought to enhance maritime counter-terrorism activities.
For some time now, Payne has advocated for contributing states to share more information on regional terrorist threats. Her initiative seems aimed at bolstering archipelagic maritime border security by working collaboratively with the respective navies and coast guards to choke off terrorists' inter-island freedom of movement.
Australia has always had an interest in working in and with the region to bolster security and stability, particularly with the states of South-East Asia and, where possible, with the Association of South-East Asian Nations itself. But "unity in diversity" has been more of an aspirational motto than a statement of fact within ASEAN. Still, that doesn't preclude the emergence of a sub-regional grouping like this.
Along with Australia, six contributing South-East Asian nations make up this sub-regional group – the original five that formed ASEAN at the height of the Cold War in 1967, plus Brunei. For Australia, it makes sense to work closely with these six. After all, they are geographically close to Australia, with many institutional links dating back generations. And it is in the shared space that the challenges of terrorism and maritime security have been most salient.
[John Blaxland is a professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University's Coral Bell school of Asia Pacific affairs. Twitter: @JohnBlaxland1]