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Asia defense summit kicks off amid heightened regional tensions

Top defense officials from nearly 20 countries are gathering in Singapore for a three-day security summit. It comes amid rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific.

A major three day Asian security summit kicks off in Singapore on Friday, with tensions in the South China Sea, North Korean aggression and the threat of terrorism high on the agenda.

The Shangri-La Dialogue summit brings together defense and military chiefs, academics, diplomats and corporate executives for a series of open and closed-door talks on Asian security issues.

This year's summit, organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), will also discuss the security challenges posed by irregular migration, cyber-security, military competition in the region and illegal fishing.

South China Sea tensions

The summit comes amid smoldering

tensions in the South China Sea,

where Beijing's claims of sovereignty clash with those of other littoral states and the US interests.

The United States regularly conducts so-called freedom of navigation exercises to challenge Chinese claims to the resource-rich waters through which a large chunk of world trade passes.

Those US naval and air exercises - meant also to reassure the Philippines,

Vietnam,

Malaysia and Brunei which have claims over the South China Sea - come as the US implements its so-called "pivot to Asia," a refocus of US economic, political, military and diplomatic power towards Asia.

China Inseln Süd China Meer

China has built miltary facilities on contested islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

But US actions have provoked displays of military might from China and a war of words between Washington and Beijing. Territorial disputes have also shifted regional strategy and military cooperation, for example,

Japan's moves to develop closer ties in Southeast Asia.

"There is much speculation about China's next steps in the South China Sea, particularly in the context of an apparently imminent ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a Philippine submission that challenges important aspects of China's claims and activities there," wrote IISS Asia director Tim Huxley in a pre-conference blog.

China has said it would not recognize the ruling of the international court.

Military spending spree

Tensions in Asia are expected to lead to a military spending spree in the region - no doubt why top defense contractors are sponsoring the event.

IHS Jane's, a defense think-tank, said in a research note on Thursday that defense spending in the region was expected to jump nearly 25 percent from 2015 to $533 billion (477 billion euros) in 2020.

"By 2020, the centre of gravity of the global defense spending landscape is expected to have continued its gradual shift away from the developed economies of Western Europe and North America, and towards emerging markets, particularly in Asia," said IHS Jane's director Paul Burton.

Watch video 02:55

South China Sea dispute

North Korea tests

Following a

series of recent North Korean missile tests,

the erratic hermit regime has gained renewed focus in the Asia-Pacific security mindset.

Despite additional UN sanctions on Pyongyang over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs, "there is no sign that the threat it poses to the region - and more widely - will abate while the Kim (Jong-un) regime endures," Huxley wrote.

In response to the North Korean threat, the United States and South Korean are advancing negotiations for the deployment of the US's advanced anti-missile THAAD system, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Thursday on his way to the summit, where he is a key note speaker.

However, deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system would likely be viewed as a threat by China as it could upset the balance of power by challenging its ballistic missile systems.

Also high on the summit agenda is the threat posed by global jihadist groups in Southeast Asia, where concern is mounting over extremist militants that have affiliated with the so-called "Islamic State" (IS).

Hundreds of fighters from Southeast Asia have joined IS in Syria and Iraq, prompting concern they could return to Asia to wage jihad.

cw/jm (AFP, Reuters)

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