Chapter Four: New challenges for crisis management in the Asia-Pacific

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Third Plenary Session
The 16th Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 2–4 June 2017.

Third plenary session

Saturday 3 June 2017, 11:30


Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein

Minister of Defence, Malaysia

Harjit Singh Sajjan

Minister of National Defence, Canada

General Zubair Mahmood Hayat

Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Pakistan Armed Forces


Malaysian defence minister Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein provided the first of three different perspectives on crisis management in the Asia-Pacific. Hishammuddin warned that the region is faced with a range of fires, small and big, that regional powers will have to scramble to put out. He suggested that the region is in a paradoxical position: at relative peace, but with underlying tensions and actions by non-state actors that threaten regional tranquillity; global economics shifting eastwards but with regional economies fragile; and regional security still predicated upon ‘the whims’ of major powers.

Hishammuddin identified five key challenges: the proliferation of the Asia-Pacific ambitions of Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL; escalating tensions and volatility on the Korean Peninsula; ‘inconsistencies in the quest for hegemony in the South China Sea’; democratisation of the information flow, fake news, and cyber security vulnerabilities; and the rise of authoritarian and populist nationalism. Of these challenges, he said, the most immediate is the first, with the Asia-Pacific in Daesh’s ‘cross hairs’. This threat, according to the minister, is multidimensional. He referred to the ‘insidious’ nature of radicalisation, and he asked whether the response to this challenge is political, socio-economic or theological.

On the Korean Peninsula, Hishammuddin argued that the worsening situation is not exclusively due to ‘the erratic, unpredictable’ nature of the Pyongyang regime. He highlighted controversy over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, which he said makes for a potentially combustible situation, and called for restraint. Regarding the South China Sea, the minister highlighted progress on the framework for a code of conduct between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But he said that he remained guarded, and cautioned about the risk of a ‘black swan’ event. He said the South China Sea situation must be resolved peacefully through multilateral platforms.

Hishammuddin argued that governments need to understand better the seemingly uncontrolled spread of information and simultaneous streams of differing narratives. In terms of the rise of authoritarian, populist nationalism, he argued that this is a global phenomenon, but that having been on the receiving end of lectures on the importance of globalisation, the region could become its standard-bearer. However, a ‘more open and interconnected world’ needs to ‘benefit everyone’ if political turmoil is to be avoided. The minister also warned against seeing the management of world affairs as a zero-sum game and as the weakening of international institutions and processes. He also pointed to the positive cooperative reaction to both the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines MH370 and the shooting down of MH17.

In response to all these challenges, Hishammuddin proposed five solutions: the championing of moderation, including across borders; renewed commitments to regional and international cooperation; building trust and confidence; making security relevant in the digital age; and firm but compassionate leadership. He said the threat of religious extremism cannot be met by one country alone, or just by hard solutions. The war of ideas needs to be won through moderation, and he highlighted the inception of the joint King Salman Centre for International Peace between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. On the future of cooperation, Hishammuddin focused particularly on subregional groupings, pointing to the planned trilateral sea and air patrols in the Sulu Strait. But he also called for the strengthening of ASEAN’s credibility. He suggested that the route to greater confidence and trust could be through military diplomacy and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Finally, Hishammuddin emphasised that leadership remains indispensable, and that this is a time for ‘patience, courage, wisdom, sincerity and a stomach of steel’.


Canada’s Minister of National Defence, Harjit Singh Sajjan, stressed that Canada is very much a part of the Pacific community, with a 25,000-kilometre Pacific coastline, and many of its top trading partners in Asia. But the minister also pointed out that, like himself, 2.3 million Canadians were of Asian origin. Committing Canada to Asia-Pacific engagement, the minister highlighted the changing nature of modern conflicts and crises, including violent extremism, devastating natural disasters, and territorial and maritime disputes. He insisted that coordinated and multilateral approaches to crisis management hold the key to managing these challenges. Sajjan highlighted Canadian funding of the ASEAN Operation Sunbird counter-terrorism partnership with Interpol, based in Singapore, and continued investment in counter-terrorism capacity-building. The Canadian defence minister also pointed to Canada’s disaster assistance deployments, as well as its naval deployments in the region.

On regional tensions, the Canadian minister called for restraint, notably over tensions in the Korean Peninsula. He said Canada is bolstering its support for the United Nations (UN), for example, with the supply of additional personnel and resources for peace operations, and said that global challenges, including in Asia, are too vast and too complex for one nation or one region alone.


Speaking for Pakistan, General Zubair Mahmood Hayat, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, argued that South Asian challenges on crisis management have increased owing to a lack of mutual trust and political will and an absence of dialogue and interest from the major powers. The emerging threats of ISIS and maritime terrorism, with the increased availability of new technology, affect regional states in different ways, the General said. He also noted the apparent lack of shared threat perceptions. But he argued that the Pacific and Indian oceans are large enough to accommodate both common and competing interests. The way to manage competing interests was ‘soft balancing’, he said.

Successful crisis management in the Asia-Pacific requires diplomatic engagement and economic involvement from the major powers, the General said. He added that there is a need for restraint and the shaping of an environment of trust by reducing the scale of military manoeuvres. He called for classic approaches to economic cooperation and collaborative security mechanisms, deterrence, and diplomacy, but said that traditional approaches are insufficient to address transnational terrorism threats. He indicated the increasing importance of economic interdependence and trade promotion, and pointed in particular to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which he said could dilute the incentives for conflict. On the practical front at the subregional level, Hayat called for improved communication channels, both military and political, hotlines and notification measures for military exercises and manoeuvres, and the promotion of arms control arrangements. He also argued in favour of keeping the Indian Ocean ‘immune’ from Asia-Pacific contestation, but for South Asian participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. He pointed to Pakistan’s participation in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, counter-terrorism, and counter-piracy operations, and in UN peacekeeping operations.


Several questions were directed towards Malaysia’s defence minister. Senior Colonel Zhou Bo from China’s Ministry of National Defense asked what a perfect code of conduct for the South China Sea would look like. Dr Dana Allin of the IISS asked Hishammuddin, in particular, whether President Trump’s vision is consistent with an appeal to global solidarity, and for his view of the chances of not accidental or unintended incidents at sea, but intended ones. Richard Lloyd Parry of The Times queried the continuing relevance of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA). On the South China Sea, Hishammuddin responded that he had not said he was pessimistic on the code of conduct, but he was guarded out of concern that a ‘black swan’ event, perhaps involving fishermen or coastguards, could spiral out of control. On the FPDA, he said that two years ago its relevance might have been questioned, but its members had much to contribute in tackling terrorism. He added that the situation on the Korean Peninsula also made the FPDA more important in terms of balances and checks in the region. On the Trump administration’s policies, Hishammuddin said the region was still trying to understand them. In the meantime, he said, there is nothing to stop regional states working with established United States (US) institutions such as Pacific Command. With further reference to the tripartite Sulu Straits initiative, he said that this was intended to show the willingness of its members to take action at the subregional level against a common threat.

Patrick Keller of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation asked Canada’s minister about the challenges to the UN peacekeeping model and the consequent need for reforms. Sajjan replied that the UN headquarters evidently understood the challenges in terms of training, equipment standards, and the consistency of mandates. Useful discussions were under way, and the UN is looking towards an integrated, comprehensive peacekeeping approach, necessary because of the type of challenges now faced, including the threat of radicalisation. Dr John Chipman, as session chair, pressed General Hayat to elaborate on his reference to ‘soft balancing’. Hayat said that this covered strategic, economic, and diplomatic interests, and referred to reconciling differences in these through constructive engagement. The alternative, he said, is hard balancing and the threat of force.

Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, Ministry of National Defense, China  Dr Dana Allin, IISS Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Editor of The Times Patrick Keller, Konrad Adenauer Foundation
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