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Evolving threats open doors for Australia in Southeast Asia

Posted By on September 2, 2017 @ 06:00

The widely accepted view that Australia is broadly in Asia without being part of Asia is being challenged as an assertive China, threats from North Korea, foreign fighters returning to the region and insurgency in the southern Philippines set us on course for much closer defence and security ties with Southeast Asian nations.

On a trip through Singapore, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, the warmth with which Defence Minister Marise Payne was greeted by local defence ministers, prime ministers and military chiefs was telling.

Senator Payne was accompanied by the ADF’s special operations commander, Major General Adam Findlay, who met his counterparts in each country for talks on regional security and counterterrorism.

A number of nations in the region, and in ASEAN in particular, are increasingly using special forces as part of their counterterrorist response, the minister tells The Strategist.

‘So for us to provide them an interlocutor at a very senior position in the Australian Army, and in particular in the special forces, was a very useful conversation point’, Senator Payne says. ‘General Findlay had very productive talks with his counterparts, particularly Vietnam’s special forces commander, Major General Do Thanh Binh.’

The minister says the nations she visited share Australia’s concerns about China, North Korea and terrorism. ‘There was a very consistent message from the leaders and from the defence ministers, particularly in relation to terrorism. To see a fellow member of ASEAN confronted in the way the Philippines has been has certainly got countries’ attention’, she says.

‘In terms of North Korea, there’s strong agreement with Australia that we expected the regime to observe the UN Security Council rulings to act in accordance with international law and that not doing so is a threat to regional stability and security.

‘In relation to China, they have differing perspectives because they all have different relationships with China. That said, though, the key of regional stability and security, even on that subject, is not lost on any of them.’

Senator Payne says it wouldn’t be the first time adversity’s brought people closer in a joined fight. ‘We find ourselves in that situation at the moment, certainly in terrorism terms, certainly in relation to the DPRK, where the importance of regional stability and security is not for one moment lost on the countries of our region.’

At a dinner in Hanoi, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told the Australians that he was looking forward to hosting Malcolm Turnbull at November’s ASEAN–Australia special summit in Da Nang.

The ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ with Singapore is already as solid as it gets—with training of Singaporean pilots at RAAF Base Pearce in Western Australia and the massive expansion of training for Singaporean troops at Shoalwater Bay in Queensland. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Trade Minister Steven Ciobo and Senator Payne travelled to the island nation with a large business delegation.

The focus of the talks in Singapore was on updating the Five Power Defence Arrangements, the agreement put in place by Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore and Britain after the UK’s 1967 decision to withdraw its armed forces east of Suez.

DFAT officials who attended the meetings say that in each country they found a level of interest in Australia’s work in counterterrorism in the region that they haven’t seen before.

DFAT and the ADF have been quietly building foundations for these regional relationships for decades. Closer engagement was a goal of the 2016 Defence White Paper, and it will be developed further in the foreign affairs white paper that’s now being prepared.

Senator Payne says Vietnam made it clear that it wants to be more involved internationally. ‘They’re seeking re-election as a non-permanent member of the Security Council for 2020–21 and we support that bid, so it was an opportunity to reinforce our message on that. They realise we’re in a very dynamic strategic environment, that the world’s changing and their view of it is evolving. For us, the opportunity to be constructive interlocutors is very important.’

While Australia’s not a member of ASEAN, it plays a significant role on ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM-Plus) working groups. In December 2016, Australia hosted defence officials from across the region at a meeting of the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Group on Counter-Terrorism in Sydney which discussed the evolving threat of international terrorism, returning foreign fighters, the relationship between organised crime and terrorism, and opportunities for cooperation among nations to deal with these threats.

Australia and Indonesia now co-chair the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations. ‘The ASEAN countries take those working groups very seriously and I think our input is well regarded and welcome’, says Senator Payne.

Senator Payne was the first Australian defence minister to visit Laos. ‘It’s about building relationships’, she says, ‘with a nation very close to both Thailand and Vietnam where Australia’s contact is much more deeply established’.

In Vientiane, she handed out scholarship certificates to more than 30 students who will study at Australian universities. That’s a crucial element of Australia’s engagement in the region, she says. The years spent in Australia will significantly enhance the students’ English language skills and cement relationships. ‘It’s very beneficial for Defence to engage in that way given the strategic dynamic we face’, Senator Payne says.

Education Minister Sengdeuane Lachanthaboune, a graduate of Deakin University in Geelong, tells the visitors there are now over 1,200 Australian-trained men and women working in Laos, many in senior positions in government, teaching and research and in business. ‘These scholars come back as highly qualified alumni’, Mrs Sengdeuane says. That’s particularly important as Laos seeks to graduate from least developed country status to integrate into the regional and global economy.

Senator Payne says the extent of Australia’s defence links with regional nations may not be widely known but they’re part of the fabric of Australian engagement. ‘Think of the numbers of members of the Royal Thai armed forces who are graduates of the Royal Military College Duntroon, the numbers of members of the Singaporean armed forces who train in Australia or have gone through ADFA, the men and women from Vietnam who have, through their military engagement, trained in English with Australian support.’

She says great effort has gone into identifying where such ties can be reinforced. And if her recent engagement was anything to go by, then she has no doubt that the nations she visited regard Australia as a valuable ally in defence and security terms.

The defence relationship with Laos is newer and developing, she says. ‘But with the other countries, I am absolutely positive from a defence perspective that they are very, very valued relationships and they are absolutely ready to reach out. There’d be no hesitation whatsoever.’

Does Australia’s membership of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance with the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand increase its appeal to these nations in uncertain times?

‘I’m sure it does’, says Senator Payne. ‘It gives our regional counterparts some faith that we have a very strong existing relationship with our key ally, the United States, that they could always seek to ask us questions, not specifically on intelligence but as a point of contact. We’re in a very good position in that regard.’

With some extremely porous borders in the region, Senator Payne says, people movement is difficult to manage. ‘If we’re not sharing information, if we’re not sharing intelligence, then we can’t expect to be able to contain the challenge that determined terrorists and extremists will present.’

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