Why is Asia so quiet on the ISIS front?

Why is Asia so quiet on the ISIS front?
Soldiers riding in a truck as they patrol a road in Jolo, Sulu, in the southern Philippines on September 25, 2014.

Asia's role in the battle against ISIS is increasingly coming into question as governments in the region continue to sit on the sidelines of the fight.

Not a single South-east Asian country is part of the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group, and ASEAN has thus far been silent on it.

China is also staying out of the fray despite concerted courting by Washington, with experts saying Beijing will not join the coalition because it sees greater advantage in being a passive bystander.

South-east Asian leaders who have spoken so far at the ongoing United Nations summit in New York - a meeting that has been dominated by the ISIS threat - have also largely steered clear of addressing the issue.

All this stands in stark contrast to how involved militants in the region have been in the ISIS saga so far.

The Abu Sayyaf rebel group in the Philippines has threatened to kill two German hostages if Germany does not withdraw support for the US campaign, and the Pentagon estimates that some 1,000 ISIS foreign fighters come from the Asia Pacific.

Observers cite a variety of reasons for the Asian reticence - from pressing domestic issues to a reluctance among leaders of some Muslim states to take actions that might spark retaliation from domestic radical groups.

"The Asian states are preoccupied with so many thorny problems of their own, and they may be worried about retaliation by radical groups. The situation at home in several states is sensitive because of the Muslim populations," said Professor Jerome Cohen from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Outgoing Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is cited as among those determined to stay on the sidelines.

As the leader of the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation and one with aspirations for regional leadership, he had raised hopes that his UN speech might articulate his country's stand on ISIS.

Instead, experts felt, he gave a largely uninspiring speech focused on big power relations and ASEAN unity.

"He continues to be insecure about how he is portrayed by the small but vocal extremist community back home, some - though not all - who are sympathetic to ISIS," said Dr Joseph Liow, the Lee Kuan Yew chair in South-east Asia Studies at New York-based think-tank Brookings Institution.

He adds that many South-east Asian states might also be taking a wait-and-see approach to the US possibly being drawn back into another eventual quagmire. "After what happened with Iraq, I suppose their caution is understandable," he said.

As for China, while its interests as a major importer of Iraqi oil and a declared target of the radical group are closely aligned with Washington's, China will not join the coalition as it suits its purpose better to stay out of the fray, say experts.

"China does not want to alienate the radical anti-Western groups in the region, and it also is not unhappy to see the US failing to get a clean retreat from the region," said Professor Joseph Cheng from the City University of Hong Kong.

"If the US can withdraw completely from the Middle East as it wanted to, it can deploy more of its resources to the Asia Pacific to rebalance the rise of China."

Still, China has taken a supportive tone towards the US' anti-ISIS efforts - Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the UN Security Council on Wednesday voted in favour of a US-sponsored resolution to bind countries to stop their citizens from going abroad to join terrorist groups.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

rchang@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Sept 27, 2014.
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