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Australia’s interests are strongest in our region, so why do we prioritise events in the Middle East, Europe and America? Former diplomat Bruce Haigh reports.

AUSTRALIA’S INTEREST in the politics and prosperity of South East Asia is stronger than that of the United States — however you might think that was not the case by the priority Australia gives to events in the Middle East, Europe and America.

Australia is inextricably linked to South East Asia through geography, trade, education and population. It is where the greatest expansion in our trade will take place. Close or linked time zones make business easier. Shorter air and shipping routes enhance contact and productivity.

Why, then, does Australia expend so much money, lives and time trying to crush the Taliban and ISIS in Iraq and Syria when we have a potentially bigger and more complex problem emerging on our door step?

For decades, the radical Muslim organisation, Abu Sayyaf, has fought the Philippine army and police in an attempt to establish a caliphate on the island of Mindanao. They have recently been joined by ISIS fighters forced out of the Middle East. Their route to Mindanao is through Malaysia and Indonesia by boat.

On 23 May, fighting broke out between the Philippine Army and Abu Sayyaf in the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi on Mindanao. Abu Sayyaf is led by Isnilon Hapilon, a man with a US$5 million bounty on his head. He has joined with the Maute group led by two brothers and both groups have been bolstered by ISIS fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Chechnya.

The fighting, which was predicted to be over in a week, looks set to drag on into a second month. This attests to the skill and experience of the ISIS fighters, who have deployed resources, including strategically placed snipers, on the basis of local knowledge provided by Abu Sayyaf. They occupy the business district of Marawi.

The Philippine Army has used armoured vehicles and conducted air strikes. The U.S. has deployed a small group of special forces personnel and are providing intelligence through Lockheed P-3 Orion surveillance. The President of the Philippines, Rodrego Duterte has denied knowledge of U.S. involvement.

Mawari had a population of 200,000 many have fled the fighting, some are being held hostage by the fundamentalists. Around 400 civilians, soldiers and radicals have been killed, with around twice that number wounded, including children and ABC journalist, Adam Harvey.

Abu Sayyaf was connected to the 2002 Bali bombing. Extremism and membership of extremist groups is growing in Indonesia and Malaysia, and the presence and influence of ISIS is expanding.

Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have reacted to the threat with joint naval and air patrols of the Sulu Sea, through which ISIS fighters pass. The patrols began in mid-June. Singapore has undertaken to share intelligence processed through the Changi Naval Base.

Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, is aware of these regional developments. In January, she warned of the possibility of ISIS fighters returning from the Middle East seeking to establish a caliphate on Mindanao. As it transpired her intelligence was good.

Until recently, Australia had not sought to act or get involved. On the contrary, reacting to U.S. pressure, on 29 May, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a further 30 Australian troops would be sent to Afghanistan to help counter and fight ISIS.

On 23 June, it was announced that Australia would undertake surveillance flights over the southern Philippines. Whilst useful this is not enough and doubles up on what the U.S. is already doing.

Australia’s border protection regime seeks to maintain a maritime cordon in the waters north of Australia and south of Indonesia. The aim is isolation. It ignores the reality of Australia’s extensive involvement and interaction in the region.

Many Australians live, work and have holidays in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines. Airports, CBD’s and holiday resorts, such as Bali, Penang, Palawan and Panglao, to name but a few, are increasingly vulnerable to well planned and organised ISIS attacks. Australian interests and Australians extend well beyond their shores; the mentality that feels secure behind a naval cordon is both limited and myopic.

The Australian elite, particularly the political elite, is paranoid about asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Internal displacements of people due to ISIS and associated radical activity are inevitable unless this activity can be addressed and contained. Internal displacement might well translate into cross water movement of asylum seekers, perhaps on a large scale and difficult to contain unless unacceptable brute force were to be used.

Aircraft surveillance is useful when hostile ground activity occurs. What would be far more useful is for foreign ISIS fighters to be prevented from joining local Islamist groups. For this, naval interdiction is the key. Australia should join with its regional counterparts in undertaking this essential activity.

ISIS is a threat to Australia with its growing involvement in the region; Australia should be engaged and active in containing and eliminating this threat.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat. He has served in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, run the Indonesia section and visits Mindanao. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceHaigh2.