On June 19, Defense Ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines inaugurated a trilateral maritime policing agreement for the pirate-infested waters of the Sulu Sea. This is long overdue, but could fall short of expectations.
The original agreement was signed by the heads of state on Sept. 9, 2016, but went unimplemented for a variety of reasons.
The impetus for the September agreement was a spate of maritime kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) that began in March 2016. The ASG preyed on fishing trawlers and slow moving tugboats. This had an immediate impact on maritime trade. Indonesia unilaterally suspended the export of coal to the Philippines, valued at an estimated $700 million a year, and comprising 70 percent of Mindanao’s energy.
Indonesia threatened unilateral military action to save its hostages. This most un-ASEAN talk in Jakarta by senior Indonesian military and political figures was meant to pressure the Philippines, which quickly acquiesced on the issue of hot pursuit.
Despite the agreement, maritime attacks continued unabated. Between March 2016 and May 2017, the ASG staged 17 separate maritime kidnappings, capturing 70 seamen from six different countries. At least 50 escaped or were not taken. Five more seamen were killed. And to make matters worse, the ASG successfully boarded larger ships, including two regional cargo vessels from South Korea and Vietnam.
Final impetus: Marawi
But the final impetus for implementing the agreement was the May-June siege of Marawi City by units of the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute groups, both of which have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State (IS). Entering its fifth week, the Armed Forces of the Philippines is still battling to take control of the city.
To date, foreign fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Chechnya have been killed. Indonesian counter-terrorism officials estimate there are some 40 more in Marawi. One of the top Malaysian members of IS is thought to be there as well. And these numbers will continue to grow. A 2016 IS video encouraged Southeast Asians to go to Mindanao to fight if they could not get to Iraq and Syria.
And the success of the IS forces in Marawi will continue to attract followers. On June 16, Malaysian authorities arrested a national and two Indonesians who were en route to Marawi. Previous counter-terrorism operations in Sabah have shut down a Darul Islam Sabah logistics cell that included two Bangladeshis.
More importantly, the IS-affiliated cells in Mindanao control territory, which following the defeat of the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) in Sulawesi, meaning that no other IS-pledged group controls any territory. You can’t be a province of the caliphate without territory.
So foreign fighters will continue to flow into Mindanao. And that makes the maritime policing all the more important. Stemming the flow of foreign fighters is imperative for regional security.
Causes for concern
Despite the fanfare, there are several reasons for concern.
The first is the limited naval and maritime policing capabilities of the states. While Malaysia has made large investments in the past three years in improving security in Sabah and has added significant maritime capabilities, Indonesia, and especially the Philippines, have far fewer assets.
If this is to be done effectively, they will need a constant and robust presence on the water. That will stretch the resources of the three states, unless significant investments are made. Ironically the two archipelagic nations of Indonesia and the Philippines have not made maritime security a priority.
Indeed, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s ambitious Maritime Fulcrum Strategy has largely gone unimplemented, and the establishment of a Coast Guard has been bedeviled by bureaucratic infighting and resource holding.
Second, what made the multilateral maritime policing in the Strait of Malacca so successful was the establishment of a regional center in Singapore. Officers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand sat in the same center, able to share intelligence and information and relay it to operational commands in real time. The U.S. assisted in providing intelligence.
There is no such fusion center for the Sulu Sea maritime policing. Indeed, three separate centers were established in each of the countries, with little to no way to ensure or compel intelligence sharing.
Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen offered such assistance and experience sharing in the hopes that a unified fusion center will be established. In the case of the Strait of Malacca fusion center, one stakeholder – Singapore – took the lead and dedicated the resources to make that happen. I do not see that currently happening in the Sulu Sea. And if it does, expect Singapore to take the lead.
Third, there remain undefined or contested maritime borders. Technically there is no maritime border between Malaysia and the Philippines because of Manila’s continued claim to Sabah. There is also a contested maritime border between Malaysia and Indonesia, linked to the Sipadan-Ligitan dispute. There’s only a demarcated maritime border between Indonesia and Philippines. While Malaysia and Indonesia have demanded the right of hot pursuit into Philippine waters, I can’t imagine Malaysia giving Indonesia similar rights, and vice versa.
Finally, this is new, and it involves security services that have tended to have a somewhat mistrustful view of one another.
The implementation of the trilateral policing agreement is an important first step. The devolving security situation in the southern Philippines has implications for regional security. But it will require the continued assistance of external partners, the sustained political commitment of the national leadership, and the dedication of resources.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.