The inaugural Sub-Regional Defence Ministers’ Meeting on Counter-Terrorism took place in Perth on 1-2 February, hosted by Defence Minister Marise Payne. Attending the meeting were Payne’s counterparts from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. In the lead-up to the meeting, Payne noted that attendees would ‘discuss the threat Daesh [Islamic State] and other terrorist groups pose to regional security and explore practical measures to enhance regional counter-terrorism co-operation’, adding that the ‘new forum will enhance our ability to respond to these challenges together, to prevent terrorist groups from gaining a foothold in our region.’ The next Sub-Regional Defence Ministers’ Meeting on Counter-Terrorism, which is slated for 2019, will be hosted by Indonesia.
The joint release for the inaugural meeting was brief and mainly focussed on discussions held by the participants on counter-terrorism and the issue of returning IS fighters from Syria. Although official agreements were signed, the attendees agreed to improve defence information, intelligence sharing and co-operation to combat terrorism, as well as build on maritime co-operation and explore maritime counter-terrorism. Overall, nothing of larger substance came out of the meeting although, to be fair, it was an inaugural gathering. A meeting on the sidelines between Payne and Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, on the other hand, did produce something noteworthy as they renewed the Australia-Indonesia Defence Co-operation Arrangement. The exact details of the agreement were not publicised, but it can at least be seen as symbolically important in the context of the recent turmoil experienced in Australia-Indonesia defence relations.
The meeting has not brought anything new to the table for the attendees. In addition to bilateral arrangements, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which the attending members are a part of, frequently holds talks on counter-terrorism and has been the platform for a number of agreements in this respect such as the ASEAN Convention on Counter Terrorism. A similar meeting already held by ASEAN is the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus. The dialogue, which began in 2015, includes counter-terrorism in its list of five priority topics and includes all ASEAN members in addition to Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States. But that raises the question of what this new sub-regional group might be able to contribute to existing counter-terrorism efforts in South-East Asia. The truth is, probably very little. From Australia’s perspective, however, a smaller dialogue could be worthwhile if it leads to tangible, co-operative efforts against terrorism which could evolve into deeper strategic bilateral co-operation with the other parties.
While dialogues do hold a purpose, real progress in combatting terrorism will come from bilateral arrangements with countries such as Indonesia. Jacinta Carroll, Director of National Security Policy at Australia’s National Security College, notes that although the defence relationship with Indonesia is touchy at times, both sides stand to benefit from the different knowledge, expertise and perspectives on tackling this common security threat. Indonesia has a successful history in counter-terrorism through dismantling the extremist group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, Jemaah Islamiyah. With a new threat posed by potentially hundreds of IS fighters returning to Indonesia, there is ample opportunity for Australia to develop its counter-terrorism portfolio and further improve its working relationship with Indonesia.