There is one area where the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can strengthen cooperation with hardly any disagreements among the member states: fighting extremism and the related threats of piracy and kidnapping for ransom.
The sea lanes of Southeast Asia are vital to international commerce, but they are also among the most dangerous. Pirates roam the seas, and around Philippine waters, the Abu Sayyaf has turned kidnapping for ransom into a thriving industry, threatening tourism, fishing and maritime logistics even in neighboring countries.
Security experts have warned that the Islamic State has made inroads into the region through the Abu Sayyaf and its cousin the Maute group. The bandits are also confirmed to have links with other terror cells in the region, notably the al-Qaeda-inspired Jemaah Islamiyah, which was responsible for several deadly bomb attacks in Bali and Jakarta, Indonesia.
A new fund-raising scheme for the Abu Sayyaf, according to security officials, is drug trafficking. If this is confirmed, it has the potential to spill over into other ASEAN states, particularly those that have long grappled with cross-border trafficking of prohibited drugs including opium and heroin. This risk gives urgency to stepping up regional cooperation in law enforcement and other security-related matters.
Weak law enforcement, inefficient border checks and inadequate maritime patrols in several ASEAN states including the Philippines have facilitated the movement of contraband across the region. Pirates, drug dealers and terrorists can transport everything with relative ease around the region, from foreign hostages to endangered marine turtles to guns and illegal drugs.
This is not an insurmountable problem. ASEAN has mechanisms in place to facilitate stronger cooperation in monitoring and preventing security threats as well as apprehending terrorists and other criminals. Whether or not IS has truly gained a solid foothold in the region, Southeast Asia is suffering from extremist violence, piracy, kidnapping for ransom and drug trafficking. ASEAN must intensify efforts to prevent such problems from spreading.