Tag Archives: Indonesia

Maritime Security in Sabah: ESSCOMM On the Rise

By Zachary Abuza, PhD

Security in Sabah

 In 2013, a group of several hundred armed militants from the southern Philippines landed in the Sabahan city of Lahud Datu in an attempt to retake the land in the name of the Sultan of Sulu. 10 security force personnel and 6 civilians were killed. 45 militants were killed, 30 were captured and nine were sentenced to death. Since then, the eastern Sabah State of Malaysia has witnessed a series of armed incursions, kidnapping for ransom, one of which led to the decapitation of a Malaysian policeman. Additionally, from March 2016 to April 2017, a spate of maritime kidnappings threatened regional trade. According to open source data, 70 seamen from six countries were taken in 19 separate incidents.1 Five were killed during the attacks, while others died while in captivity. By the fall of 2016, pirates were attacking large ocean going vessels, including Korean and Vietnamese vessels, while a Japanese ship took evasive action.

This forced the establishment of trilateral maritime patrols involving the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. While that led to a sharp decline in maritime incidents, they recommenced in 2018 and again in June 2019. Gunmen kidnapped 10 Malaysian fishermen, though they were soon released. Since 2017, Malaysian police have arrested 39 members of the Abu Sayyaf (ASG), a jihadist group, including two in 2019. Additionally, some of the most important terrorist cells arrested in Malaysia have been in Sabah, a key transit route for foreign fighters entering and leaving the Southern Philippines, including at least three of five suicide bombers since July 2018. All of this points to the fact that Sabah is not only the crux of Malaysia security, but regional security as well.

ESSCOM

The Malaysian government established the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) in April 2013 in response to the chaotic and un-coordinated response to the Lahud Datu incursion.

The organization was supposed to be a coordinated and joint operational headquarters for the Malaysian Armed Forces (RMAF), the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP), including the Special Branch which is the lead counterterrorism agency, the maritime police, and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA). The navy has deployed special forces to the region, and upgraded their fleet of small craft, as well as set up two offshore vessels as operational hubs. The maritime police established two operational bases on coastal islands.

Starting in 2015, Malaysia deployed the first of eight advanced coastal radar stations to give them greater maritime domain awareness (MDA). It was an important step. In 2018, Malaysian officials claimed to have thwarted 10 incursions by ASG militants, and killed nine kidnapping suspects in maritime skirmishes. The only successful maritime kidnapping in 2018, was that of two Indonesian fishermen.

A map of the ESSCOM area of responsibility (Wikimedia Commons)

But there were a number of shortcomings. Most importantly, Malaysia has little experience in joint operations, let alone inter-agency operations. ESSCOM was faced with an almost insurmountable challenge. It also goes to the highest levels as there is no formal National Security Council-like process.

Even with the nascent inter-agency planning and operational process, rivalries remained problematic. In its first operational year in 2014, it had a budget of RM660 million ($200 million at the time), but there were immediate fights over it. The army still controls the lion’s share of the ESSCOMM budget, despite being a largely maritime and policing issue. Many security analysts, however, noted that the police were the worst when it comes to coordination and inter-agency cooperation. That intransigence has given the army the space to step in. When there is close cooperation within ESSCOMM, it tends to come down to personal relationships, rather than formal coordinating mechanisms and processes. But even operational areas of responsibility between the RMAF, the police and MMEA were not always delineated and de-conflicted.

Budgets remain very tight. Even before the historic victory of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, the first opposition government in 61 years, Malaysian defense spending began to fall from its peak in 2015. The $4.5 billion debt that the PH government inherited from the government of Najib Razak from its massive 1MDB fraud case will mean that Malaysian defense spending will continue to fall as the government is predicting large deficits  for the next few years. In the past five years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s military expenditure data set, Malaysia’s defense budget fell from RM16.1 billion to RM14 billion, a 13 percent decline. In dollar terms, in the past five years, Malaysia’s defense budget contracted by 22 percent from $4.1 to $3.2 billion. Malaysia has among the lowest defense expenditure as a percent of government spending, at 4.3 percent. This has declined from 5.5 percent a decade ago. In the past decade, Malaysian defense spending as a percent of GDP was cut in half from 2 to 1 percent. We see this in terms of per capita spending as well. In the past five years, Malaysia’s defense spending has fallen from $160 to $108 per capita, a 32 percent decline.

But the problem isn’t simply budgetary; it is one of priorities. The RMAF budget is dominated by the army, despite the fact that most of the country’s security threats are maritime in nature. The army’s budget is larger than the combined budget of the navy and air force, and it has 80,000 men compared to the navy and air force with only 15,000 each. Moreover, this fiscal austerity is shared across the agencies.

Another issue is the sheer scope of the area to patrol. The coastline of ESSCOMM alone is around 1,400 kilometers, and includes seven districts in eastern Sabah. There have been discussions about expanding it, but to date that has not happened. The ratio of resources to area is just not there. In addition to the geographical scope is the fact that Sabah is home to an estimated 800,000 illegal migrants, most of whom are ethnic Tausigs, the same ethnicity of most of Abu Sayyaf. Those clan and kinship ties have proven invaluable for Abu Sayyaf and other kidnapping syndicates.

Finally, there is the fact that Sabah is treated differently. There is a sense of “internal colonialism,” which is shared by both Sabahans and peninsular Malaysians. RMAF forces from Peninsular Malaysia resist deployment there.

Reforms in the Offing

 The news is not all bad. There is an understanding of ESSCOMM’s weaknesses and an acknowledgement that it needs to be fixed. A former Sabah assistant minister, Ramlee Marahaban, from the former ruling UMNO party, provided a solid criticism. For him it was not a need for more resources or personnel, but a shift from army authority to the police and MMEA, with clearer lines of authority:

“The weakness of ESSCOMM, which has been in operation for six years now, is due to the lack of a clear jurisdiction of the agencies involved. Full power should be given to the police and maritime agencies as they have the authority to arrest, investigate, and prosecute. The army can support through asset deployment, including usage of radar. The number of assets and personnel stationed at the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSCOMM) is more than sufficient but the weakness lies in the overlapping of power and duties.”

When the author interviewed senior members of the Pakatan Harapan government, they broadly concurred with this. Though they would not spell out the details of the ESSCOMM

reorganization, they made clear that it would be much more in terms of statutory authorities, chain of command, and procedures, rather than a host of new resources, manpower, or assets. The Minister of Defense Mohamad Mat Sabu announced the government’s intention to re-organize ESSCOMM, on 6 May 2019, which has since been endorsed by the Inspector General of the Police. What is more likely in terms of personnel is changes in command of certain bases or security sectors.

The Deputy Minister of Defense, Liew Chin Tong, has made maritime security a priority: “[W]e have to realise that Malaysia is a maritime nation and the seas are our lifeline, with many resources coming from the waters, and many strategic water spaces to protect in an increasingly complex security environment.” While he acknowledged that the army’s budget and size was unlikely to change, he was insistent that they would have to broaden the scope of its operations and take on some maritime roles. As he wrote, “The army has to learn to swim.” The army will soon deploy one battalion to train alongside naval special forces in Sabah. Perhaps more importantly, the Army is contemplating a major reorganization, along territorial lines, which would give Sabah greater primacy. But more importantly he prioritized joint operations, and at least pointed to “whole of government” solutions to Malaysian security concerns. These plans will be officially rolled out in the 2019 Defense White Paper, which should be released soon. 

While the overall budgetary pressure on the RMAF is large, the budgets allocated for Sabah-deployed forces have not taken such hits. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad is not a fan of conventional military spending, which he views as being something that antagonizes China. The Defense White Paper has prioritized non-traditional security threats, including those in Sabah, such as kidnapping for ransom and terrorism, in particular.

The government has a political incentive to improve the security situation in Sabah. The Sabah Heritage Party (Warisan) is a key member of the governing coalition with 8 of 121 parliamentary seats; and the state’s Chief Minister, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, heads the party. In the 2018 election, Sabah proved to be a critically important vote bank, and it will remain so. The Sabah government itself is supportive of ESSCOMM. Shafie Apdal said in June 2019, “We welcome whatever changes, whether it is for cost cutting or not, but most important is the effectiveness of ESSCOMM’s role in Sabah.” He previously  made it very clear that ESSCOMM is not going away. The local economy in general, and tourism sector in particular, have been very hard hit by the kidnappings. Moreover, the curfews are very unpopular.

The Special Branch also knows how important Sabah is in terms of counterterrorism. This area remains the key logistics hub for getting militants in and out of the southern Philippines. In 2018 alone, Malaysian police arrested 29 foreign fighters in Sabah. This is critical as the southern Philippines remains a key draw for foreign fighters following the loss of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and it is the only place in all of Southeast Asia where militants have any possibility of controlling territory. Militants in the Southern Philippines continue to bill themselves as the leaders of the Islamic State in East Asia.

While Malaysian security forces have publicly stated that they have not seen a revival of JI networks, as is very evident in Indonesia, privately, a number of Malaysian security analysts have told the author this is nonsense, pointing to the resilience of Darul Islam Sabah, which since 2014 has been working with Indonesian JAD and other pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines, but whose ties to traditional JI networks remains deep and enduring. In the ideology of both JI and ISIS is the concept of “Hijrah,” emigrating to join a struggle.

MMEA’s Growing Pains

One of the keys to Sabah’s security is the development of the MMEA, which is lauded for their professionalism and lack of corruption. It was established in 2004. While the police feared losing their maritime police functions, the Navy advocated for it because they didn’t want brown water constabulary functions. The MMEA was originally under the Prime Minister’s  Department, though since late 2018 it has been under the Ministry of Home Affairs. To date, it has been headed by a uniformed naval officer, while much of its senior leadership are also naval personnel. But now in its 16th year, it is developing its own leadership from within its ranks.

Like every security agency in Malaysia, its budget remains tight. It is currently constructing three offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) under license from the Netherland’s Damen Group. Japan recently donated two OPVs from its Coast Guard, as it has with the Philippines and Vietnam. The Malaysian Navy transferred two OPVs to them, as well. However, the deployment of smaller fast craft is what remains so important in the Sulu Sea off of Sabah.

A map depicting a series of kidnappings near Sabah (The Star/ANN/File)

While Sabah remains very important for MMEA, it has a host of other concerns: the territorial dispute with Indonesia, the Strait of Malacca, and countering Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) gray zone operations in the South China Sea, including defending Petronas oil platforms at Luconia Shoal that have been increasingly harassed by the CCG. The organization also has limitations in its personnel pipeline, as well as sheer budgetary constraints.

Trilateral Maritime Patrols

 The trilateral maritime patrols that commenced in 2017 are far short of their potential, yet they have worked. The data is very clear: since the patrols began maritime incidents have declined. And while the improved situation is not irreversible, other scholars haver agreed with this assessment. And in addition to naval and coast guard coordination, Malaysia and the Philippines established a maritime policing agreement in 2017. In July 2017, the three states augmented the trilateral maritime agreement, with a trilateral air patrol agreement.

(From left) Malaysian Minister of Defense Hishammuddin Hussein, Indonesian Defense Minister General Ryamizard Ryacudu and Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana at the Third Trilateral Defence Minister Meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia on Aug 2, 2016. (Photo:EPA)

But by focusing limited resources on protecting key channels, they are leaving a lot of open ocean un-patrolled. While that might be fine for countering piracy, maritime kidnappings, and protecting regional shipping it has a downside for illicit smuggling and infiltrating terror suspects in and out of the Philippines.

There is still not a single place where the patrols are coordinated, and there is no fusion center such as what exists in Singapore’s Changi naval base. This coordination problem remains an issue of pride and sovereignty, where every state agrees to it in theory, but as long as they get to run it. But no state has the resources dedicated to make this effective. And they have been unwilling to take funding that Singapore or other outside partners (the United States and Australia) have offered. None of the states want to broaden this to be a multilateral force. Suggestions to shelve the sovereignty issue by basing it in a neutral third party, such as Brunei, have gone nowhere. Nonetheless, the Changi Fusion Centre in Singapore has greatly expanded its monitoring and reporting capabilities. Indeed, more information from the Sulu Sea region is being shared with them by both states as well as the shipping and fishing companies.

The lack of clear demarcated maritime borders that the author originally assumed would be a major impediment to the trilateral patrols has not borne out. The Philippines and Indonesia demarcated their 1,162 kilometer maritime boundary in the Celebes Sea in 2014, which came into effect in 2019. Malaysia and Indonesia still do not have a maritime border between Sabah and East Kalimantan, though there have not been any major flareups in the past few years. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reiterated his country’s claim to Sabah (still on the books, but long shelved) in 2016.2 The Malaysian government refused to discuss the issue with the Philippines, and maritime cooperation has continued.

It is a mere 15 minutes by fast boat between Lahud Datu and Tawi Tawi, so a clearly demarcated border, at least a de facto one, is important. At the very least, the countries have not let ongoing legal disputes interfere with maritime policing operations. Indeed, Indonesia and Malaysia were able to wrest the right of hot pursuit, a major concession, from the Philippines, after threatening unilateral military action.

The Malaysian security forces have maintained a very active defense posture on the water. They have not been shy about using force, and in 2018 thwarted ten attempted incursions, and killed nine suspected kidnappers, including four in a well-publicized incident in April.

No doubt, each country has increased their maritime capabilities, but they are still dwarfed by their land-based counterparts. In all three nations the army’s budget remains larger than the navy and air force’s combined. Indonesia’s attempts to stand up their Coast Guard continues to fall short. None of the three countries has maritime capabilities in proportion with their security needs or coastlines. And yet, even a small degree of coordinated patrols and additional resources has been a relatively effective deterrent.

Conclusion

 No Malaysian security official that the author interviewed saw any significant improvements in the security situation in the Southern Philippines, and especially throughout Sulu and Tawi Tawi. Despite bilateral pledges of cooperation in counterterrorism, they expect incursions, maritime kidnappings and ship-jackings to continue. And since they have little confidence in Philippine authorities, they know that the onus was on them to enhance security and deter incursions.

And yet, there is real concern that this over time will be a money pit that Malaysia simply cannot afford. As one Malaysian security analyst put it: “They don’t have an endgame [in Sabah]. Tell me how this ends?”

Zachary Abuza, PhD, is a Professor at the National War College where he specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. The views expressed here are his own, and not the views of the Department of Defense or National War College. Follow him on Twitter@ZachAbuza.

Endnotes

1. The author maintains an open-source data set on southern Philippine security incidents by non-state actors. As it is based on media reporting, it tends to be conservative, as many incidents do not get reported on.

2. The Philippines claims that Sabah was patent of the Sultanate of Sulu, which leased the land to the North Borneo Company, a British royal concession in 1878. The British claim that the land was ceded. In 1963, Sabahans voted in a referendum to join Malaya (along with Singapore and Sarawak), creating Malaysia. The Philippines has maintained the claim, though it has largely been dormant, until President Duterte’s 2016 statement.

Featured Image: Philippine government soldiers fighting the Maute group watch a helicopter attack (not pictured) as they take a break inside a military camp in Marawi City, southern Philippines May 30, 2017. (REUTERS/Erik De Castro)

Trilateral Maritime Patrols in the Sulu Sea: Asymmetry in Need, Capability, and Political Will

By Zachary Abuza, Ph.D.

A spate of shipjackings and kidnapping-for-ransoms has imperiled regional trade in Southeast Asia and prompted calls for trilateral maritime policing in the waters between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Though an important first step, this will not end the kidnappings or lead to an overall improved security situation.  

The Context

Starting on 26 March 2016, militants from the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) began a spate of maritime kidnappings. Three Indonesian vessels and a Malaysian tugboat were hijacked, and some 18 sailors were taken hostage. 

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A screen capture from Abu Sayyaf’s fifth video of Norwegian, Kjartan Sekkingstad (l), and Canadian, Robert Hall (r), released on 14 May 2016.

Their treatment was very different than the three Western hostages abducted from a Davao resort in September 2015. The two Canadians, Norwegian, and Filipina were held incommunicado for a period of time, with six videos demanding ransoms issued over seven months. The hostages were filmed in all but one video in front of the black flag of the Islamic State, and in the last two wearing orange T-Shirts, representing the ubiquitous orange jumpsuit of Islamic State (IS) prisoners. The two Canadian hostages were executed when their ransom deadline, already extended and reduced, were not paid, on 25 April and 13 June. On 24 June, the ASG released the Filipina hostage as an “act of good will,” though, at the time of this writing they still hold the Norwegian prisoner.

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Photograph of the four Malaysian sailors, released via Facebook, on 15 April 2016.

The Malaysian and Indonesian sailors, by contrast, were quickly put in contact with their families and companies to arrange ransom payments. Although the ASG threatened to behead the four Malaysian sailors if no ransom was paid, there was no IS imagery in the photo posted on Facebook in the proof of life picture that the ASG released. In all three cases, ransoms were paid and the suspects released. Various press reports indicate that the four Malaysians were released with the payment of 140 million pesos ($2.97 million), while ten Indonesians were released following a 50 million pesos ($1.06 million) ransom, and the final four released with a 15 million pesos ($319,000) ransom. The payment of ransoms was always officially denied. While governments may have not paid the ransom, family members, shipping firms, friends, and insurance companies appear to have come up with the requisite funds. Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi acknowledged that money changed hands, but “channeled not as ransom, but to a body in the Philippines which assists in an Islamic struggle.” There is no ideology here, this is abject criminality.

Not surprisingly, with the payment of large ransoms, shipjackings/kidnappings have continued. On 20 June another Indonesian tugboat was boarded and seven of its thirteen crew members taken hostage. Though the remaining six were able to steer the ship to a safe port, the ASG is demanding $4.8 million in ransom for the release of the seven. Within days of the hijacking the captain was able to call his wife and convey the ransom demand.

The Costs

These shipjackings/maritime kidnappings imperil regional trade. While only a small amount of the $40 billion in regional maritime trade passes through these waters, it is not insignificant. Indonesian coal exports from East Kalimantan account for 70 percent of  total Philippine coal imports, worth over $800 million. There are an estimated 55 million metric tons of goods that transit these waters annually. These exports are all the more important as Chinese imports of raw materials from Southeast Asia continue to fall with China’s economic slowdown. On 21 April 2016, Indonesian authorities temporarily  blocked ships from sailing to the Philippines, warning that the waters were becoming the “New Somalia.” The small shipping companies run on thin margins, and the millions of dollars in ransoms pose a threat to the small-vessel maritime shipping that dominates the region. Following the 20 June kidnapping, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, announced a ban on licenses to ship coal to the Philippines from Indonesian ports, “The moratorium on coal exports to the Philippines will be extended until there is a guarantee for security from the Philippines government.”

Calls for Trilateral Maritime Policing

For the first time in many years, Malaysian and Indonesian leaders have been speaking of the Southern Philippines as being the weak link in regional security and began to call for trilateral maritime policing in  waters to the north and northeast of Sabah. There was a most un-ASEAN drumbeat of threats by Indonesian civilian and military leaders to engage in unilateral military operations to rescue their sailors. On 27 April, Philippine President Aquino acquiesced to Indonesian and Malaysian calls for joint maritime patrols based on the joint operations in the Strait of Malacca. 

On 5 May, the three foreign ministers met and issued a communique “recognized the growing security challenges, such as those arising from armed robbery against ships, kidnapping, transnational crimes and terrorism in the region, particularly in reference to the maritime areas of common concern.”

  1. To conduct patrol among the three countries using existing mechanisms as a modality;
  2. To render immediate assistance for the safety of people and ships in distress within the maritime areas of common concern;
  3. To establish a national focal point among the three countries to facilitate timely sharing of information and intelligence as well as coordination in the event of emergency and security threats; and,
  4. To establish a hotline of communication among the three countries to better facilitate coordination during emergency situations and security threats.
  5. They instruct the relevant agencies of the three countries to meet as soon as possible and subsequently convene on a regular basis to implement and periodically review the above-mentioned measures and also to formulate the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).

With the agreement in principle, the sides had to negotiate a standard operating procedure, which had to have more teeth than a poorly implemented 2002 trilateral agreement to respond to Abu Sayyaf attacks.

On 20 June, the Malaysian, Indonesian, and Philippine Defense Ministers agreed to establish transit corridors. “The ministers have agreed in principle to explore the following measures, including a transit corridor within the maritime areas of common concern, which will serve as designated sea lanes for mariners,” they said in a joint statement. In addition, they pledged to increase the number of air and sea patrols as well as maritime escorts. 

Most controversially, the draft SOP will allow for the right of hot pursuit, something that the Indonesians insisted on. The Indonesian Minister of Defense, Ryamizard Ryacudu told the media “We’ve agreed that if another hostage situation occurs, we will be allowed to enter [Philippine territory].” His Philippine counterpart, Voltaire Gazmin, who was in the last week of his job, qualified the agreement: the hijacking/kidnapping must have taken place in Indonesian waters, before Indonesian vessels could enter Philippine territory, and Philippine security forces would have to be immediately informed so that a “coordinated and joint operation could immediately be undertaken.”

Limitations

Even if the three countries implement the SOP and begin implementing trilateral policing, there would be serious limits for seven key reasons.

First, this is not the Strait of Malacca, one of the most critical maritime straits in the world. Those patrols, now in their 11th year, have been successful and resulted in a dramatic drop in piracy and shipjackings. But they have benefited from members with very robust capabilities, such as Singapore and Malaysia, a critical international chokepoint, and with  technical support from the United States, which made it clear that if the littoral states did not increase patrols it would. The Strait of Malacca has the most sophisticated network of radars and maritime domain awareness capabilities in the region.

Second, sovereignty remains the paramount concern.  No country will allow “joint” patrols in their territorial waters. They might do “coordinated patrols” in their respective national waters, but there will be no joint patrols. Each country has been adamant on this point. As the Philippines said, “’joint exercises” can only take place “in the high seas and not within [Philippine] territorial waters.” As Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi put it, any joint actions “must be agreed on without any of them sacrificing their sovereignty.”

Even the agreement on hot pursuit seems problematic. While Malaysia and Indonesian may be keen to have the right to hot pursuit into Philippine waters, it is hard to see them accepting one another exercising this right.  Second, the incoming Duterte administration has not signaled their approval of this agreement. It is possible that they do not feel bound by agreements signed by the outgoing Aquino administration.

Third, and more to the point, this really requires Indonesian leadership. As we have seen, President Widodo’s Maritime Fulcrum Strategy has been terribly implemented, and he has shown little interest in compelling his various services and ministries to come up with an integrated implementation strategy, let alone serve as a regional leader of ASEAN. The Indonesian military’s threat perception and budgetary allocation priorities have returned to an inward focus, after nearly a decade of maritime orientation.

Fourth, the capabilities of all three remain very limited. There is an asymmetry between the threat and the capabilities  deployed to this region. Even though Malaysia has beefed up maritime policing off of Sabah, especially following the incursion by Sultan of Sulu-backed gunmen in 2013, it has not been enough to prevent the ASG from still launching kidnappings. Malaysia and Indonesia have only limited naval, coast guard, and maritime law enforcement capabilities, and this region has not been a priority. The Strait of Malacca and increasingly the South China Sea have been far greater priorities. But those limited capabilities are exactly why cooperation is so necessary.

Fifth, there are still significant suspicions between the countries and lingering border disputes. The Indonesians remain distrustful and angry towards the Malaysians over the maritime demarcation between Sabah and East Kalimantan in the Ambalat region. On 26 June, Indonesian jet fighters intercepted a Malaysian military cargo plane flying too close to Natuna Island. While Indonesia and the Philippines successfully demarcated their maritime boundary in 2014, Malaysia and the Philippines do not have a formally demarcated maritime border owing to the disputed claim over Sabah. That may possibly worsen as president elect Duterte stated that he would revive the Philippine claim to Sabah which had been dormant for number of years.

EEZ demarcation between the Philippines and Indonesia. The PH-RI EEZ Boundary is defined by geodetic lines connecting eight points. These points are indicated in geographical coordinates that form a single line as illustrated in the chart shown below. The total length of the line is 627.51 nautical miles or 1,162.2 kilometers from points 1 to 8.
EEZ demarcation between the Philippines and Indonesia. The total length of the line is 627.51 nautical miles or 1,162.2 kilometers from points 1 to 8. (Government of the Philippines/Government of Indonesia)

Sixth, one needs to study a map of the trade routes to understand that even if there is  international cooperation as well as designated corridors, they will only have a limited impact.

A majority of Abu Sayyaf operations occur in Philippine waters, and only a small portion occur in waters that may have joint patrols. If militants want to avoid Indonesians exercising their right to hot pursuit, they merely have to wait for targets to enter Philippine waters. Manila is unlikely to allow armed convoys from Malaysia or Indonesia, to continue into Philippine waters, let alone ports, even if they do not have the assets in place to receive the handoff.  The weak link remains the limited capabilities of the Philippine Navy, Coast Guard, and law enforcement authorities. What little the Philippines actually has is primarily focused on their maritime claims in the South China Sea.

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The Sulu and Celebes Seas. (Image courtesy of author)

Even if we take away the large LNG tankers and large container ships that come up through the Lombok and Makassar Straights, which then either continue on to Northeast Asia to the east of the Philippines or cut through the deep waters between the Malaysian state of Sabah and the Tawi Tawi Islands of the Philippines, there are simply too many small tugboats, small bulk cargo ships, and tramp steamers that ply those waters to protect.

Ships coming out of Balikpapan and Samarinda in East Kalimantan or Makassar and Monado on Sulawesi traveling across the Celebes Sea to General Santos or Davao in the Philippines could be better protected. Yet, ships leaving any of those four ports traveling to Cebu, Cagayan d’Oro or Manila must transit the waters around Jolo, Tawi Tawi and Basilan, the Abu Sayyaf’s heartland. Likewise, ships sailing out of Western Sabah or Sarawak states traveling to Manila, Cebu, or ports in northern Mindanao can operate at the furthest edges of Abu Sayyaf capabilities. But ships from there or from the port of Sandakan going to Zamboanga or east to General Santos or Davao must transit the pirate infested waters between Tawi Tawi and Basilan. Abu Sayaf can launch quick attacks from their hideouts along this poorly policed coastline throughout the archipelago. 

Again, the ASG can operate close to shore, in Philippine waters, without triggering the right of hot pursuit. And even if Indonesian or Malaysian forces were able to operate in hot pursuit, only on sea; they can do nothing when the Abu Sayyaf reach shore.

Finally, the lesson of Somalia is that international maritime cooperation cannot defeat piracy. Piracy is defeated on land, not sea. Despite ample support from the United States since 2002, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has proven unable and unwilling to  defeat the Abu Sayyaf group. This is a small group, geographically contained, and enjoys little popular appeal. Yet, they endure. There are simply too many vested interests in keeping the thuggish militants around. The ransoms not only go to bribing local officials, military, and law enforcement despite their vociferous denials, but local communities profit from the kidnappings as well. The proceeds have gone not just to buy new weapons and ammunition from the black market, but to support a sub-economy.

Indeed, there is growing evidence that new kidnap for ransom gangs are carrying out operations, and then selling their captives to ASG leaders such as Al Habsyi Misaya. The six Indonesian sailors who were not taken hostage on 20 June recounted that their seven colleagues were taken by two separate groups  with very different behavior and professionalism.

It is yet to be seen what approach president-elect Duterte will take. Like most issues, he has said one thing and immediately contradicted himself. He has has prided himself on the use of extra-judicial killings to eliminate Davao of crime and drugs, and said that Abu Sayyaf should be liquidated. He brashly warned the ASG that “there will be a time, there will be a reckoning,” but then said that it was not his “top priority,” and announced a willingness to negotiate with them. There is no evidence that they will accede to his demand that they “surrender unconditionally, release your prisoners, your hostages.” His messaging on the Bangsamoro peace process has likewise been contradictory, which has added to the sense of regional insecurity. 

Duterte recently warned that he would not continue the Armed Forces of the Philippines modernization program, re-orienting the security forces back to an internal security focus. The limited Philippine naval modernization program, may be very short-lived.  But then his Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana stated that the ASG was the country’s primary security threat, whose “illegal activities, including kidnapping, must stop,” Delfin warned: “We have to end this once and for all. This problem is giving us a very bad image abroad.”

In short, trilateral policing can only deliver so much until the capabilities of the Philippines improve. Delfin announced that military spending would be diverted from acquiring assets for use in the South China sea to fast patrol craft and helicopters for counter-terrorist operations. But it is hard to imagine that China will not act aggressively and start reclamation of Scarborough Shoal following an adverse ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration, set for 12 July. Perhaps they will try to leverage that for further maritime assistance from the United States and other partners such as Australia and Japan.

Tempered Expectations

The frustration on the part of the Indonesian and Malaysian governments is palpable. In addition to hurting trade, a number of land-based kidnappings in Sabah since 2013, have impacted tourism.  Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman was blunt in calling for a meeting with his new Philippine counterpart following the 30 June inauguration of President Duterte:

“We need to have this urgent meeting. I would like to stress upon the seriousness of this problem that involves Filipino nationals. We accept that it is a complex issue. The Philippines military has been going after these people with limited success. The question now is how can we work together.”

So what can we expect? There may be some coordinated patrols,but expectations about what these entail should be low. These navies and maritime law enforcement organizations do not have a great track record of working together in this area, which for all three countries has received a disproportionately low share of their respective maritime security budgets.  

That they are even discussing them and trying to come up with standard operating procedures is well and good.  But this will need to be routinized and taken to a higher level if it is to succeed. Perhaps external actors, including the United States, Australia, Japan, and even Singapore, can help  bridge some of the gaps. 

The three sides are discussing database and intelligence sharing on local extremists and militants.  There have been suggestions of establishing joint military command posts, yet undefined. But an actual fusion center as what was established in Singapore seems a long way off, and the reality is that none of the three has adequate maritime domain awareness capabilities.

With regional trade dominated by slow tugboats and tramp steamers, even groups with limited capabilities such as Abu Sayyaf can wreak havoc in the Sulu and Celebes Seas. With limited capabilities amongst the three littoral states, there is an imperative to cooperation, especially considering the importance of regional trade. Yet a history of mistrust, continued border disputes, a fixation on sovereignty, and a lack of leadership is making the necessary cooperation more difficult to achieve.

Zachary Abuza, PhD, is a Professor at the National War College where he specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. The views expressed here are his own, and not the views of the Department of Defense or National War College. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAbuza.

Featured Image: A navy cutter patrols the shores of a fishing village near the capital town of Jolo in the southern Philippine province of Sulu 30 June 2000 as an outrigger races across its path. (AFP PHOTO)

Sea Control 116 – Indonesia, A History of Violence and Horror Fiction

983650568_bfdf96be73_zIn this week’s episode of Sea Control: Asia Pacific, Natalie Sambhi chats with Nadia Bulkin, a Senior Associate at The Asia Group, on Indonesia’s history of violence, its turn towards democratic nationalism and what that means for the country today. They delve into legacies and policy implications of military rule and colonialism. Natalie and Nadia also discuss the recent confrontation between Indonesian and Chinese coast guards in the South China Sea. Lastly, they explore Nadia’s passion for writing ‘socio-political horror’ fiction and what literature and film can teach us about understanding Indonesia’s psychology.

DOWNLOAD: CIMSEC Bulkin Indonesia

Nadia Bulkin is a Senior Associate at The Asia Group where she is the defense industrial team lead. Nadia holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service and graduated summa cum laude from Barnard College with a B.A. in Political Science and a double-minor in Economics and Environmental Science. She is fluent in Indonesian. Read her fiction writing here.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Chez Julius Livre 1.

Sea Control 114 – South China Sea with CAPT James Fanell

seacontrol2For a discussion on the South China Sea, Sally DeBoer, our Book Review Editor, brings in CAPT James Fannell (USN, Ret), the former Director of Intelligence and Information Operations (N2) for the US Pacific Fleet.  During the course of his thirty year career, CAPT Fanell specialized in Indo-Asia Pacific security affairs, with an emphasis on the Chinese navy and its operations. CAPT Fanell is an experienced public speaker noted for his candor and expertise. He is currently a government fellow for the Geneva Center for Security Policy and the author of Red Star Rising.

Download this week’s episode here!

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