After five months in battle, Marawi City in the Philippines was declared liberated from the control of the homegrown pro-ISIS Maute group. The attack was significant not just for the Philippines but also for ASEAN, as terrorists were attempting to obtain a foothold in the Southeast Asian region. However, the liberation should not make ASEAN complacent. With the growing threats of terrorism and its use of modern technology, ASEAN should beef up security measures and work with other countries that share these security concerns.

modi indianexpressPhoto from The Indian Express

Several countries extended assistance to Philippine security forces during the Marawi crisis. The United States provided technical and logistics assistance, and claimed that no US troops were on the ground fighting alongside Filipino soldiers. China sent rifles and ammunition. Aside from these, the Philippine government had received rehabilitation aid even before the crisis ended. India, for instance, donated US$500,000 to rebuild the devastated city. It was the first time for the country to send outreach to another nation to help counter terrorism.

India is one country that has had much experience in dealing with violent extremism. ASEAN should take advantage of what an increasingly proactive India can offer in countering terrorism and transnational illegal activities that come along with it. In terms of long term assistance, India is providing support for the Philippines in cybersecurity information exchanges and through the training of officers handling deradicalization. New Delhi’s efforts to secure and monitor cyberspace can help track activities of terrorists and prevent extremist recruitment not just in the Philippines but in Southeast Asia.

In what other areas do ASEAN’s and India’s interests in security converge? How can their partnership enhance the broader security of the region?

From its Look East to Act East policy, India has become progressively an important player in Southeast Asia. In the political-security aspect, the country engages the region through bilateral cooperation, notably with Singapore and Vietnam being its strategic partners; and through multilateral channels by participating in ASEAN-led arrangements. It is a founding member of the East Asia Summit, and a member of ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ASEAN Defense Ministers (ADMM) Plus. Moreover in the wider Asia-Pacific region, the country participates in the Shangri-La Dialogue (organized by the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies) where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to speak this year. In 2012, ASEAN-India dialogue relations was elevated to a strategic partnership. Besides a number of sectoral initiatives, a Plan of Action to implement ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity is being carried out.

Aside from terrorism, India’s interests in the region include freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce; and also energy resources in the South China Sea. This South Asian power is known to have capabilities, experience, and resources for maritime security cooperation.

Covering a wide range of maritime duties, the Indian Navy has four primary roles. Its military role ensures the protection of national security, territory, and interests. In diplomacy, the Navy is employed to support India’s foreign policy, to build friendship, and to project naval force capability. In constabulary capacity, it polices the seas and enforces maritime law. Lastly, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), search and rescue operations, and the conduct of hydrographic surveys are among its benign tasks. The naval force is well-equipped with an aircraft carrier, surface ships, submarines, marine commandos, diving teams, damage control units, and a naval air arm including helicopters.

The Indian Navy is known for its naval prowess, having played a lead role in securing waterways against piracy and smuggling plaguing the Indian Ocean, along the Straits of Malacca, East Arabian and neighboring seas. It regularly conducts anti-piracy patrols in the exclusive economic zones of Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius at the request of their governments. In 2017, it held anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden to rescue a Liberian vessel facing a pirate attack. This was the 41st intervention by the Navy in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. Over the years, the Navy has earned credibility in the Asia Pacific.

Second, India is known for battling against terrorism, internally and transnationally. Conflicts in its own backyard such as Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, and Northeastern states produced terrorist incidents ranging from Left Wing Extremism to ethnic separatism and religious militancy. As the center of South Asia, the country is confronted with terrorism and transnational illegal activities that pass through its seas. In response to these challenges, New Delhi has designed a combined strategy of military operations, social and economic development, international aid, and public support. The Ministry of Home Affairs oversees the national police, paramilitaries, domestic intelligence, and other agencies responsible for combating terrorism.

In 2016, India successfully launched a surgical strike on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, killing terrorists and reportedly some Pakistani soldiers. Such surgical strikes were carried out in a precise and swift manner while minimizing collateral damage, departing from  India’s traditional strategy. Despite these advances, however, India’s approach and effectivity in counter-terrorism continue to be criticized; New Delhi still needs to adopt new measures to cope with emerging threats that make use of sophisticated technology.

Closely related to terrorism is cybersecurity. Extremist groups have become quite adept at using modern technology to serve their interests, from radicalization to hacking of data and information, from targeting financial markets to calling for donations. Cybercrime however is not limited to terrorists or violent extremists. India has been a target of cyberattacks by hackers as well, including a media leak in 2016 of a document outlining a secret combat capability of submarines designed for the Indian Navy. More recently, Indian websites including government-run online portals have been breached by hackers.

The government thus created the Defence Cyber Agency, which intends to acquire both offensive and defensive capacity against cybersecurity threats. India has also turned to using artificial intelligence to connect the dots, find patterns, and predict future events.


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Indeed, security cooperation between ASEAN and India centers on these three areas: maritime, counter-terrorism, and cybersecurity. Since the signing of a key document in 2003—the Joint Declaration for Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism, combating terrorism continues to be on the table. The Plan of Action to implement ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity spells out joint actions in maritime security cooperation, transnational crimes and counter-terrorism, as well as disaster management and emergency response that the parties shall pursue from 2016 to 2020.

The Indian Navy participated in a series of drills and exercises by the ADMM Plus on Maritime Security and Counter Terrorism, which allowed countries to engage with their counterparts in harbor security as well as in complex operations at sea. An Indian naval offshore patrol vessel also joined ARF Disaster Relief Exercises in 2015 which aimed to share information and to facilitate networking among national agencies. Its field component included training on addressing scenarios of collapsed structure, mass evacuation, and chemical leakage. A few weeks before the ASEAN-India Leaders’ Summit in November 2017, Indian vessels conducted their regular goodwill visit to the region as part of the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of their relations.

Although several ASEAN-India plans of action have been issued, it seems that bilateral arrangements between India and individual Southeast Asian countries are far more observable. For instance, Singapore and India just signed a new naval pact to increase cooperation in maritime security, including holding joint exercises, temporary deployments from each other’s naval facilities, and mutual logistics support. More significantly, the small city-state gives Indian warships access to Changi Naval Base. Several coordinated patrols, bilateral exercises at sea, and exchanges with other ASEAN states have also been carried out. Since 2002, India has been conducting coordinated patrols with Indonesia twice a year. On the other hand, the Malaysian navy visited India’s Southern Command in Kochi in 2017.

The menace of cybercrime has also exposed ASEAN’s deficiencies in its capability and strategy. Cyber heists are targeting banks or financial institutions in Southeast Asia. For instance, the Government Savings Bank in Bangkok closed almost half of its ATMs after thieves loaded a malware on to its machines and stole money. Terrorists and hackers are also taking advantage of the underdeveloped cybersecurity systems in ASEAN. Social media and communications apps have trended as tools in campaigning to influence potential extremists, as well as in transacting and committing crimes. This was demonstrated when terrorists used Telegram app to disseminate a video calling on Indonesian and Malaysian fighters to join and strengthen radical forces in the Philippines; likewise in communicating regarding the transfer of funds. In October last year, a recruiter was arrested in Taguig, Philippines on suspicion of agitating Muslims in India through social media and the Internet. Both sides can learn from each other’s experience and practices, including regarding the different ideologies prevailing among extremists, and the misuse of religion that led to radicalization.

Given this convergence of security interests, ASEAN should intensify security cooperation with India. Only if ASEAN accommodates New Delhi can India increase its role in the Southeast Asian region—giving it more opportunity to promote its Act East policy. Some criticize ASEAN for having no regional defense policy towards New Delhi, hindering the bloc from conveying a strong sense of embracing the South Asian country. For this reason, cooperation predominantly exists through bilateral arrangements. While some may argue that India’s expanding reach to the east serves to balance against China, the areas of cooperation mentioned here are non-threatening to any state as cooperation is directed against non-state actors.

Singapore, as this year’s ASEAN Chair, has presented the key themes of Resilience and Innovation for its ASEAN chairmanship. One of its priorities is technical development which includes stepping up collaboration on cybersecurity. This is essential for a more secure cyberspace for both the digital economy and against terrorism. As chair, Singapore should promote security cooperation with India. The city-state has long served as a gateway for Indian economic integration with Southeast Asia; it could do the same for security cooperation with an emphasis on collective action.

ASEAN must recognize that India is stepping up its regional engagement as shown in the recent summits. The emphasis on an inclusive Indo-Pacific and the quadrilateral meeting among Australia, India, Japan and the US give New Delhi an opportunity to take greater part in the affairs of the Asia Pacific region, much like the other three players.