ASEAN finalizing intelligence-sharing initiative ahead of defense ministers’ Singapore meeting

Defense officials from six Southeast Asian nations are finalizing the Our Eyes intelligence-sharing initiative, which will be formally introduced at the upcoming ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Retreat in Singapore early next month.

Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand had a “soft launch” of the initiative in Bali on Jan 25, said Maj. Gen. Hartind Asrin, the director general for defense strategy at Indonesia’s Defense Ministry.

Kemhan Our Eyes soft launch
Indonesia’s Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, witnessed by senior defense officials from Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, struck a gong to mark the soft launch of the Our Eyes pact. Photo: Kemhan RI

But senior defense officials will still have to meet again before the retreat on Feb 6, where defense ministers from the six ASEAN members states will formally sign the initiative, which aims to increase cooperation in responding to security threats in the region.

“We have reached 90 percent of the agreement and we will need to meet at least one more time to finalize streamlining our perspectives before the retreat,” Hartind said.

He added defense ministers from the six ASEAN nations will sign the agreement, while the other four members states – Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam – will participate as observers in the pact, but are expected to formally join later along with Australia, Japan and the United States as possible future members.

Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu proposed the pact in October last year during the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in Clark, the Philippines, as an expansion of the trilateral security cooperation that Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines set up in 2016.

The trilateral cooperation was established to counter the movement of militants and extremists in the porous maritime borders between the three countries and after a series of piracy and kidnapping of Southeast Asian sailors – mainly Indonesians – in the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas by militants linked to the Abu Sayyaf Group based in the southern Philippines.

The cooperation has resulted in joint air patrols launched in Malaysia’s Subang air base in early October and joint maritime patrols that began in Sabah, Malaysia earlier in 2017.

“After conducting the patrols, we realized that we need to have intelligence-sharing so we can better monitor the movement of terrorists and militants,” Hartind said.

After signing the agreement, each defense minister will form a task force comprising senior defense officials who gather information from security stakeholders in their respective countries. The officials will meet every two weeks to exchange information on the cross-border movement of militants.

Hartind said the six countries have committed to be more open in sharing more intelligence, dismissing what observers described as a possible challenge for the pact to work due to lingering distrust between the ASEAN member states.

The Our Eyes was inspired by the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing pact between the United States and its allies.

“The soft launch of Our Eyes could be the initial barometer for cooperation between the six Southeast Asian nations most impacted by terrorism and radicalism,” Ryacudu said during the launch in Bali.

“Each country has its own way of dealing with threats, therefore it requires synergy and coordination to obtain strategic information,” the retired general added.

Also present at the launch were defense officials from the other five countries representing their respective defense ministers.

Earlier in the week, after meeting his American counterpart James Mattis in Jakarta, Ryacudu said the US had pledged to assist the six nations in gathering intelligence.

“The US will help us with sophisticated equipment, hopefully [the militants] would be detected quickly,” Ryacudu said at a joint press conference with Mattis.

Mattis said the threat by fighters affiliated with the Islamic State in the southern Mindanao in the Philippines is proof that no country can resolve security challenges alone.

“America is deeply committed to the Indo-Pacific region and building on a long history of close cooperation on economic, diplomatic and security issues,” Mattis said.

The original story appeared in Arab News

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