KUALA LUMPUR, May 7 (Reuters) Southeast Asia takes diplomacy to a new level this week when 10 defence ministers meet for the first time in a region where territorial disputes and religious conflict have simmered for decades.
The ministers are to meet in the Malaysian capital on Tuesday under the umbrella of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), 39 years after the grouping formed with the aim of deepening cooperation and making the region a safer place.
The talks are likely to end with agreement to cooperate in areas of common interest, such as counter-terrorism, maritime piracy, smuggling and trafficking in migrants and drugs, a spokesman for the ASEAN secretary-general said at the weekend.
Notably for ASEAN, whose golden rule is non-interference in a member state's domestic affairs, the meeting also provides for each nation to brief the group on its security situation.
''An important part of the agenda is to listen to each other's threat perceptions and security concerns and priorities,'' spokesman M C Abad told Reuters.
''There will be an exchange of views ... and they are expected to brief each other on their national security situations.'' ASEAN encompasses 500 million people and covers the spectrum of Asian cultures and political systems: its members include the world's most populous Muslim nation, a Buddhist kingdom, a devoutly Catholic democracy, an absolute monarchy, two communist-run states and a military junta.
Common ground in Southeast Asia can be elusive, especially in the area of national security. There is no talk yet of the defence ministers' forum evolving into a European Union-style alliance that can assemble regional peace-keeping forces.
''We are not heading towards a military alliance or collective defence. It's not a reaction to any other country's alliances or outlook in the region,'' ASEAN's Abad said.
''But it could contribute to issues like helping each other build capability in peace-keeping operations, not necessarily as an ASEAN peace-keeping force but as individual peace-keeping capabilities.'' The need for closer defence ties and intelligence-sharing in Southeast Asia has become more pressing in recent years, in response to attacks by militant Islamists, growing piracy in the region's main sea lane, the Malacca Strait, and the 2004 tsunami.
The tsunami killed around 136,000 people in the region, all but a few thousand of them in Indonesia, and called for unprecedented, coordinated relief from the region's militaries.
The annual meetings of ASEAN defence ministers is also designed to give the grouping a clearer voice in the wider ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Abad said. ARF is an Asia-Pacific security grouping that brings in the world's major powers, including the United States, China, Russia and the European Union.
''This will help us to prepare for ARF and it could also re-charge ASEAN's leadership (within the forum)'', Abad added.
Reuters SY GC0910