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Typhoon underscores hard security truths in SE Asia

By JEFF M. MOORE, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Nov. 22, 2013 at 12:03 AM   |   Comments

ARLINGTON, Va., Nov. 22 (UPI) -- Typhoon Haiyan has revealed festering security problems in Southeast Asia.

How so? First, on Nov. 12, communist insurgents of the New People's Army attacked the Philippine Army's 903rd Infantry Brigade while on a relief mission headed for Leyte, so reported Col. Joselito Kakilala, the unit's commander.

Second, after initially ignoring the Philippines' calamity due to a sticky maritime dispute, China eventually offered a mere $2 million and a handful of rescue personnel to help with disaster relief.

These two Philippines issues -- low-intensity conflict (LIC, or terrorism and insurgency) and state vs. state friction -- mirror similar problems throughout the rest of Southeast Asia.

This is an issue if the United States is going to make its Asia pivot a reality. It means increased politicking, security assistance and business activities in Asia. In the process, the United States will get closer to these LICs and state vs. state problems.

Regarding the Philippines, on top of the NPA, there are four other groups fighting the government, some with links to al-Qaida. They include the Moro National Liberation Front, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayaaf Group.

A fifth, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, is in tenuous but hopeful peace talks with Manila.

The others are quite active.

The MNLF, for example, attacked Zamboanga in September, seizing 180 hostages, burning 500 homes and forcing some 69,000 civilians to flee for their lives.

In Thailand, while Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is desperately trying to keep tense domestic politics from devolving into widespread civil unrest, an Islamist jihadist insurgency seeking its own homeland on the border with Malaysia rages. It's killed more than 5,000 since 2004.

And while Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has made great strides over the past 10 years striking peace deals with most of its 20-plus insurgent groups, some continue to fight.

The Kachin Independence Army remains active in the northeast along the border with China where some of the world's newest natural gas and oil pipelines run.

Other troubling signs in Myanmar include a string of bombings in October by unknown assailants. One exploded in the Traders Hotel in Yangon, injuring a U.S. woman.

Worse, Buddhist vs. Muslim Rohingya violence that, since 2012, has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands shows no signs of stopping.

In Indonesia, the new version of JI and other terror groups such as Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid and Indonesian Islamic State continue their quest to turn that country into a strict Islamist state. Indonesian authorities have been rounding up terrorists in a nationwide crackdown for months. The latest arrest happened in October when Detachment 88, the police counter-terror unit, seized an NII suspect wanted for robbery, terrorist training and illegal weapons possession.

Regarding state vs. state friction, China has claimed the entire South China Sea as its own, which would be fine if Vietnam, the Philippines and four other claimant states didn't see this as infringing on their territorial boundaries.

Vietnam has deployed naval patrols and is protesting internationally instead of shutting up and just accepting the situation, as a miffed Beijing would prefer. And the Philippines, with no real navy, has taken an aghast China to court at the United Nations.

No small matter, China and Vietnam have fought over this issue before, which cost Vietnam more than 60 killed in 1988 at Johnson Reef.

China in March staged amphibious exercises 50 miles off the coast of Malaysia to boost its claims. A similar scenario is playing out further north between Japanese and Chinese naval forces between Okinawa and Taiwan.

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What's it all mean?

First, it means outside Iran and North Korea, Asia's maritime disputes are, collectively, one of the world's most contentious conventional security problems. An epic, WWII-style sea battle any time soon is highly unlikely but with so many naval vessels "hawking" each other amid high tensions, a skirmish is certainly possible. History shows that.

The problem is twofold: A skirmish might get quickly out of control and Asian maritime commerce could be severely curtailed, which would smack the global economy in the face.

Second, regarding Southeast Asia's LICs, while the sky is by no means falling -- countries there have well-functioning economies and governments -- from little, local wars come bigger terror attacks. And little wars can spill over borders and spread chaos.

Witness 9/11. It turned Afghanistan, which was generally ignored once Russian withdrew in 1989, into a multination battlefield for more than a decade because Osama bin Laden received refuge there.

In Asia, Myanmar's religious violence has resulted in a Buddhist temple bombing in Jakarta and a bombing attempt on the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta.

And while Southeast Asia's LICs don't portend failed states, they certainly portend failed regions of functioning states, which is troubling.

It behooves Washington, then, to get educated on these problems ASAP so it knows how to better deal with Asia.

To be sure, there are experts in the U.S. arsenal engaged in these issues, especially the South China Sea. But are there enough? And with all the leaderless chaos and incompetence swirling around D.C. these days, is Washington up to the task? It doesn't appear so.

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(Jeff Moore, Ph.D., is the chief executive officer of Muir Analytics, which assesses threats from insurgent and terror groups against corporations.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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