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ASEAN defense ministers lock in against terrorism and other common threats

Call for denuclearization of Korean Peninsula, self-restraint in South China Sea, respect for UN

ASEAN Defense chiefs, led by Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, center, link arms at the start of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Monday, Oct. 23, 2017 in Clark Freeport.   © AP

CLARK FREEPORT, Philippines -- Southeast Asian defense ministers have agreed to step up joint efforts to counter regional terrorism, and have expressed "grave concern" about heightened recent tensions on the Korean Peninsula after North Korea carried out nuclear testing and ballistic missile launches. 

In a joint declaration issued at the end of a summit on Monday that included extra non-plenary sessions, the ministers said they will "work together to combat terrorism in all forms and manifestations" in line with counter-terrorism frameworks already adopted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. They also "strongly urged" North Korea to comply with a raft of U.N. Security Council resolutions. 

The ministers agreed to seek ways to improve counter-terrorism cooperation within ASEAN and among dialogue partners, with increased intelligence sharing, surveillance, and public awareness campaigns about radicalism.

The Philippines, which holds the rotating chair of ASEAN this year, officially announced on Monday the end of the five-month siege of Marawi, a city in the southern state of Mindanao, by militants with links to Islamic State. The fighting has claimed over 1,000 lives and left 400,000 people displaced.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, suicide bombers killed three people in Jakarta in May, and there continue to be regular fatalities linked to militant activity in three Muslim-majority states in southern Thailand.

The ministers re-affirmed the importance of freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea, where China has been carrying out a program of land reclamation by creating artificial islands to support military installations. They reiterated the importance of following a code of conduct in disputed areas. This is being negotiated by ASEAN with China, which has laid claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. The ministers called on all parties to avoid raising tensions, and to abide by the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The defense ministers are due to meet regional dialogue partners -- Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, and the U.S. -- on Tuesday. 

Speaking to reporters on his way to the Philippines from the U.S., Defense Secretary James Mattis said he will discuss the "regional security crisis" caused by North Korea, and "our respect for shared values," including national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and freedom of navigation in international waters. Mattis made no mention of China, and will meet his counterparts from India, the Philippines, and South Korea, among others. 

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