Asia Pacific Roundtable revisits cyber security issue

KUALA LUMPUR: Since its inception 30 years ago, the Asia Pacific Roundtable (APR) has faced challenges in putting together topics to be discussed at highly-anticipated meetings to ensure its relevance to the region while trying to avoid being repetitive at the same time.

The APR has consistently maintained a holistic point of view when deciding on topics to be tabled at the meetings, including security issues, regional trade arrangements and their strategic implications, climate change, irregular migration and human security issues, said Elina Noor, Director for Foreign Policy and Security Studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia .

"This year, at the 31st APR, we will revisit the issue of cyber security after a debate session on the issue two years ago. It is a hot and topical issue that has not been so well understood in the Asia Pacific region.

"There is a lot of focus on cyber crime but not on the strategic aspect of cyber security, as to how governments are contending with the issue with privacy, national security and how the private sector, which is an integral part of cyber security, can be brought into the picture," she said to Bernama in an interview here.

Elina said the issue of cyber security had become a grey area, not only to the region but also globally where different sectors in the industry try to find ways to have an open conversation about cyber security without trespassing on national security ground.

She said that while government officials were less willing to talk about espionage and surveillance, there were open source reports by private cyber security companies revealing that countries like Malaysia and its neighbours in this region had been targeted regularly over the years for certain information.

There had been cases like the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)-Apple encryption dispute, the recent 'WannaCry' ransomware and also incidents where governments sought to extract private information but private cyber security companies were not willing to give up such information, she said.

"There were also cases where governments and the National Security Agency (NSA) allegedly released some of the malware to gain access to the information they needed. In this scenario, how will the private cyber security sector come to terms with this problem when malware is exploited by the government?

"Hence, this year's APR will focus on tensions between the private sector and the government and, hopefully, help them come to terms. It's one thing when governments seek to extract information from private cyber security companies but what will these companies do when governments try to exploit malware on 'national security grounds'?" she said.

The May 22-24 forum, organised by ISIS Malaysia and supported by Asean-ISIS, is expected to gather some 300 participants, among them government officials, policy makers, private and corporate sectors and academicians.

Moving on to other issues of concern for the Asia Pacific region, Elina also touched on post-Brexit and the "death" of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and what that would mean to businesses, from large corporations to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in this region.

She argued that while the European Union (EU) model could serve as a guidance for this region, it was not necessarily in the best interest to replicate the exact model of the EU, noting that the aspiration of the Asia Pacific region, especially Asean, had always been very different from the EU's.

"We have been very clear that we don't want to be the exact copy of the EU. So, now that Asean is turning 50 this year, the panellists will probably aim to discuss how we are going to differentiate ourselves from the EU but, at the same time, be aware that some of the challenges faced by the EU would visit us in the future.

Elina said the issue of SMEs being hit hard by the "death" of the TPP would probably be brought up in the strategic arrangements discussion at the meeting but not as a specific focus.

She said that while the abandoning of the TPP would have an impact on SMEs, the region was still facing a lot of uncertainties and expressed the hope that with the session on economic regionalism, APR would find new avenues to move forward so that SMEs, which are very important to the Asean region, would benefit as well.

Now that the TPP, as controversial as it was, had died in its original form, Elina raised the question of whether or not the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) would pick up that drive, even though they are two different sets of arrangements.

She said that if Asean was supposed to be people-oriented and supposed to involve the people on the ground, especially if that person was the owner of an SME, it was hoped that RCEP would be able to make a difference in their lives.

Viewed as an alternative to the TPP, RCEP is a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) among the 10 member states of Asean and the six states with which Asean has FTAs, namely Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

The negotiations were formally launched in November 2012 at the Asean Summit in Cambodia and the agreement is scheduled to be finalised by the end of 2017.

"So, these are some of the bigger issues in economic regionalism that will be discussed. With the 'death' of TPP, it is hoped that APR will steer the region and its spirit to another form of economic cooperation as the spirit among countries in the region is still very much alive," she said.

After five years and 19 rounds of negotiations, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) has failed to see the light of day following the signing of the Executive Order by US President Donald Trump on Jan 23 to back out of the agreement.

The agreement was considered the most comprehensive in history. After it fell through, many started to question the implications on the member countries, namely Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States and Vietnam. — Bernama