In a July 27 speech to the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, U.S. Pacific Command head Adm. Harry Harris said the region would need to work together to stop ISIS from metastasizing into what the U.S. military calls the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
"I often talk about the U.S. strategic rebalance to this region," Harris said. "Regrettably, I believe that ISIL is also trying to rebalance to the Indo-Asia-Pacific. To halt the Islamic State's cancerous spread in Asia, we can't work alone. We must work together.
"Thankfully, Japan and many other like-minded nations have joined the counter-ISIL coalition. Together, we can — and will — eradicate this disease."
Experts say that ISIS is a problem in Asia but not to the extent that it is in Iraq, Syria and Libya
"I would describe the ISIS presence there as limited but significant," said Thomas Sanderson, an expert on trans-national threats with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. "It is significant because so many fighters have gone to the battlefield in the [Middle East, North Africa] region."
Lt. j.g. Alex Finnell of Riverine Squadron 3, debriefs members of Philippine Navy Seal Team 7 and the Philippine Coast Guard after a patrolling and formation training event in 2012.
Photo Credit: Gregory A. Harden II/Navy
According to the security firm The Soufan Group, the Philippines and Malaysia have each sent about 100 fighters to fight in Iraq and Syria. Indonesia has about 700 of its citizens there, China has about 300 and even Singapore has a couple of known ISIS fighters.
"That can be greatly destabilizing to governments," he said.
Sanderson said the U.S. should be proactive to deal with the threat, and called for the government to organize a multinational approach to the problem.
"The U.S. has a huge role in preventing this because it is the lead element in the global struggle against terrorism," he said.
"The 'pivot' of the so-called Islamic State to the Indo-Pacific region is aspirational at this point, but we should be alert to their attempts to gain a stronger foothold, particularly in Bangladesh and Indonesia," Stavridis said.
Stavridis agreed that building partnerships is the way to deal with the problem.
"As always, the keys to combating any terror organization are through building bridges: international coalitions, inter-agency cooperation, private-public engagement, and effective strategic communications," he said in an email, adding that the military will have to bring its power to bear at times.
"It will require a mix of hard and soft power to effectively confront them," he said.
In a statement, PACOM spokesman Cmdr. Dave Benham said Harris's use of the term "rebalance" referred to ISIS's physical expansion to Asia but also the expansion of its influence there. Confronting the threat from returning fighters is a multinational effort already underway, Benham said.
"Our partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific are attuned to the threat posed by foreign terror fighter recruitment and recognize the potential threats to security they face from returning fighters," he said. "U.S. Pacific Command and Special Operations Command Pacific are working with our regional partners to proactively counter this threat."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News. Before that, he reported for Navy Times.