Late Monday, crew on the Emirati-owned oil tanker Aris13 activated a distress call indicating they were being pursued by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The subsequent hijacking, once confirmed, would mark the first successful Somali act of piracy since 2012. This of course begs the question: Is Somali piracy back?
The answer is probably yes; also probably no (forecasting is a bad business to be in these days). Credible arguments could be made in either camp. Here I’ve chosen to explore some of the key points on either side.
Is Piracy in Somalia is Making a Comeback?
When Somali piracy spiked in the late 2000s, the international community was fairly quick to respond. Somalia sits alongside some of the most important shipping lanes in global trade, and precipitously close to three maritime chokepoints: the Suez Canal, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz. Rising insurance premiums for shipped goods and the market-wide consequences of scares to the free flow of oil made addressing piracy off the horn of Africa an issue of importance for many navies. One of the largest such engagements was operation Ocean Shield, NATO’s contribution to counter-piracy. Ocean Shield and related efforts, like EU’s operation Atalanta, were heavily credited with the dramatic reduction in Somali piracy that followed. As Rear Admiral Terry McKnight (USN, Ret) notes, though after years of no successful attacks, Ocean Shield was suspended at the end of 2016. If the deterrent effect of NATO and other warships in the region was indeed primarily responsible for suppressing Somali piracy, the minimization of that deterrent could be credibly seen as providing an opening for resurgent piracy.
At the height of regional piracy, a CNA study warned that “the resilience of the pirate enterprise should not be understated.” Four years later, that cautionary note remains relevant. First, it should be noted that piracy rarely just disappears. Like any crime, eradication is an unlikely end state. That is the case off Somalia as well. Even though attacks were unsuccessful after 2012, a small number of attempted attacks were reported in the Gulf of Aden in 2013 (6) and 2014 (4). Attempts by Somali pirates in the Red Sea were also reported in 2013 (2) and 2014 (4), while attacks closer to Somali waters occurred in 2013 (7), 2014 (3) and 2016 (2). These numbers are orders of magnitude smaller than in previous years, and gaps in attacks in 2015 tell a remarkable story. For all those reasons we could look at those numbers and conclude this most recent alleged attack is an outlier (and in truth it likely is, I suspect). Nevertheless, as per the International Maritime Bureau(the organization that actually collects all this information), the attempted assaults in 2016 indicate that the “capacity and intent to attack merchant shipping still exists off Somalia.” Lingering institutional knowledge means that a resurgence is not impossible. Closely linked to this point is the idea that (like other types of crime) piracy may have a contagion effect. A successful hijacking now could produce copycat attempts, the success or failures of which would have significant consequences for the overall trajectory of regional piracy.
Of course, it is now almost a cliché to note that piracy is ultimately solved on land, not at sea. Suffice it to say that, despite apparent gains in power consolidation, Somalia remains quite clearly a country in search of greater stability (it was the top ranked state in the most recent Fragile States Index report). Like the pirate havens of lore, ungoverned spaces will always run the risk of attracting maritime criminality.
Is Piracy in Somalia is Gone for Good?
The numbers reflected above speak in large part for themselves. Piracy in Somalia, for several years now, has been as close to nonexistent as is practicable. One incident does not make a convincing trend.
Moreover, while a decline in anti-piracy-tasked warships is important to note, other deterrents continue to play an important role. In addition to a remaining naval presence, shippers also developed myriad means of combatting piracy. Embarked armed security is a very credible threat, while passive security measures (watch Captain Phillips), and best management practices (like better reporting standards) all likely contributed to declines in piracy rates and remain just as relevant today as in 2012.
Some systemic arguments are harder to make with certainty but are also worth noting. Unlike piracy in the Gulf of Guinea or parts of Southeast Asia (Indonesia, notably), Somali piracy was remarkably organized (i.e. not opportunistic). A wide-scale resurgence in Somali piracy, in the vein with which we are familiar with it, would mean a major retooling of operations for the regional transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) that provide a backbone for piracy’s infrastructure (bank accounts, negotiators, financiers). Like most TCOs, it is likely that Somali gangs have diversified to survive, perhaps branching into weapons smuggling or, as a report from 2012 suggests, kidnapping foreigners on land. Making the switch back to piracy is far from impossible, but could run into bureaucratic resistance (even criminals have bosses).
Globally, piracy has also just hit its lowest rates in 18 years. And when you get deeper into the details, the numbers don’t not look ripe for a Somali resurgence. Overall piracy attempts are down, including hijackings, which are the typical type of attack employed near the horn of Africa. What is up are kidnappings, seen increasingly in Nigerian piracy (which is still very active). Indonesia, meanwhile, saw a large decline in piracy, but still owns a substantial portion of total attacks, almost all of which are simple and opportunistic. If global numbers can say anything about a specific region (which is admittedly a big ‘if’), one potential takeaway is that opportunistic piracy and hit and run kidnappings are (for now) more viable tactics than those that Somali pirates usually employed.
There is more to this conversation to be sure. Historically, claims that Somali piracy was a response to toxic dumping and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing (the Somali coast guard narrative) struck some experts as an inadequate explanation for the phenomenon. Fishing has not traditionally been a major part of Somali culture or economies, nor were most pirates former fishermen. (That does not excuse the devastation of toxic dumping and IUU fishing, only its ability to causally explain piracy.) In response to this latest incident, however, that claim has resurfaced as a direct cause of the Aris 13 hijacking. Should it prove that fishermen were indeed responding to predations in Somali waters, that could spark a much wider debate once again. Only time will tell whether Somali piracy will ebb or surge. For now, our thoughts are with the crewmembers and their families.
Joshua Tallis is a Research Analyst at CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA. He completed his PhD in International Relations at the University of St Andrews’ Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. The views and opinions in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of his employer.
My colleague, Joshua Tallis, wrote a recent article on CIMSEC on the current controversy regarding the nature of a navy. The controversy revolves around a recent conversation between CIMSEC members regarding the understanding of a navy’s central organizing principle. It was brought about by concerns raised about the rise of a global non-state fleet of vessels called the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) conducting missions “other than war” such as fisheries enforcement and interdiction of whaling vessels. Of significant concern is the increasing problem of piracy, which is currently introducing a wider maritime security challenge that must be addressed.
How should states deal with piracy, which is engaged in by non-state actors and prohibited under international law? There is concern that as organizations such as Sea Shepherd continue to expand, the likelihood that they will engage with traditional nation-state navies will increase. Does this suggest there should be a change in Navy lexicon on piracy? Or does it suggest, as Joshua Tallis argues, that we need an updated definition of piracy, which is currently not legitimate because in our system, only the state has the right to exercise violence?
Fundamental to the challenge is the way a military is differentiated from non-state groups either by the scale of the force it can exert or because it is made up of ships that are designed for war. N.A.M. Rodger is cited as an example of a naval historian who defines a navy as a permanent fighting service. In other words, a navy fights.
In her book, How Everything Became War and The Military Became Everything, Rosa Brooks argues that the collapsing barriers between war and peace threaten both America and the world. In her first chapter, Pirates!, she relates the incident on April 8, 2009, in which four young Somali pirates boarded the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama, making it the first U.S – flagged ship to be seized by pirates in nearly two hundred years. Four days later, Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed three of the pirates, rescuing the Maersk Alabama captain and capturing the fourth pirate.
Ms. Brooks argues that the Navy assault on the Maersk Alabama was in many ways a typical twenty-first century military engagement. “The nature of piracy has changed”, she asserts. Although modern piracy is largely engaged by non-state actors, states are becoming more challenged in counterpiracy operations, which are probably here to stay. “What is the military for in a world in which future threats are as likely to come from non-state actors as they are from the navies of foreign states?” she asks. The boundaries around war, military power, and legitimacy are getting even more blurry and she makes a case that America may pay a price.
A Larger Issue
Several members of the academic community have begun to raise much broader issues about the nature of contemporary warfare and the changes in the roles of the military vis-à-vis the different civilian actors with whom it works. For example, in her book, Borderless Wars: Civil-Military Disorder and Legal Uncertainty, Antonia Chayes speaks of how civil-military relations have become blurred in the attempt to adapt to festering gray area conflict situations. Rosa Brooks book looks not only at the impact of war’s blurriness on the Navy’s patrol of the seas for pirates. Rather, it points out that there are many other problems today’s military personnel are being asked to perform, such as training Afghan judges, building Ebola isolation wards, and eavesdropping on electronic communications. The need for deeper civil-military integration, especially for Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief, is another emerging mission that has also been discussed on CIMSEC and elsewhere.
In general, Rosa Brooks argues that we are tackling problems that are too narrow and that states should find new ways to redefine the military, which, in her view, has become a one-stop-shopping solution to global problems. In this sense, we do need updated definitions of not only piracy, but of the increasing interaction of the roles of military and civilian organizations in maintaining maritime security in the world. This interaction has been largely caused by the ambiguity in current international conflicts between states that occupy the space between war and peace – sometimes called the “Gray Zone.”
The Gray Zone
In the last few years, there has been increasing interest in what has been called a “Gray Zone” between traditional notions of war and peace. Again, this concept is introduced by Rosa Brooks, where she cites the May 19, 2015 article by David Barno and Nora Bensahel in War on the Rocks that describes Gray Zone challenges, including cyber and globalization, that is characterized by intense political, economic, international, and military competition more fervent in nature than normal steady-state diplomacy, yet short of conventional war.
CNA’s Special Operations Program has been monitoring Gray Zone developments in which the traditional mode of competing is political warfare. The Gray Zone requires intensive interagency cooperation and may need a new national security structure that make current military campaign models obsolete. Do we need two militaries – one for military combat operations and one for Gray Zone conflicts? Do we need to determine what Gray Zone success looks like and establish meaningful criteria for measuring the effectiveness of such operations? These are areas of analysis that will lead to new laws, politics, and institutions premised on the assumptions – according to Rosa Brooks – that the U.S. will forever remain unable to draw sharp boundaries between war and peace and will frequently find itself in the space between, a space that Sea Shepherd occupies.
The current CIMSEC discussion on the nature of piracy and non-state navies is part of a larger dialogue on a range of DoD responses to piracy that are already underway. In her recent book, Rosa Brooks introduces many underlying questions that go beyond the definition of a Navy. One question is how deeper civil-military integration will occur as more “soft power” missions are undertaken in the future. Should the military continue to expand its activities into traditional civilian spheres, or should it re-define the laws of war to accommodate the Gray Zone between war and peace and change the way it defines the military’s role in this zone? I recommend the book as a thoughtful look at the increasingly blurred boundaries between “war” and “not-war” and the call for creative new ways to reinvent our military, to protect human dignity, and to prevent abuses of power.
Marjorie Greene is a Research Analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses. She has more than 25 years’ management experience in both government and commercial organizations and has recently specialized in finding S&T solutions for the U. S. Marine Corps. She earned a B.S. in mathematics from Creighton University, an M.A. in mathematics from the University of Nebraska, and completed her Ph.D. course work in Operations Research from The Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed here are her own.
Featured Image: Sea Shepherd vessels the Atlas Cove (left) and the Bob Barker patrolling the Southern Ocean. (Photo: Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Global)
A recent pair of dueling articles on CIMSEC sparked a firestorm of debate. The point of contention: does the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s (SSCS) fleet of whaler-chasing ships constituted a navy? The conversation was lively, informed, and freewheeling, bouncing from historical examples of British privateers to modern day terrorists in a bid to pin down a surprisingly elusive understanding of a navy’s central organizing principle. Interspersed throughout this debate is a conversation on legitimacy and how it relates to defining a navy. Legitimacy touches on nearly every component of the arguments put forth by both the Affirmative and Negative articles. It is my belief that the resolution to this debate lies, in large part, on how we interpret such a loaded word.
Legitimacy and the State
When we are talking about legitimacy in the realm of politics and violence, the most fundamental question in international relations is who has the monopoly over the legitimate use of force (a la Max Weber). In the Westphalian system (which, despite news of its untimely demise, is still very much in force), only the state has the right to exercise violence. Legitimacy, violence, and the state are inexorably intertwined. And, as the Negative article points out, violence is truly at the center of this debate. Navies fight; an organization that is not coercive in nature could not even make the prima facie case for being a navy.
As a consequence of this nearly 400 year old understanding of sovereign legitimacy, very few would argue that a non-state body has the legitimacy to exercise violence. Even the nations that allow Sea Shepherd to operate from their ports, as the Affirmative article notes does happen, would never permit the organization to roguishly harass, ram, or board ships in their territorial waters. In the more extreme instances where a state authorizes Sea Shepherd’s involvement in kinetic maritime security operations (as detailed in the comments by Captain Paul Watson, ostensibly the actual founder of Sea Shepherd), the very sanctioning of the use of violence by the state reinforces the argument that only the state has the authority to legitimately employ force.
The associated argument that some states do not de jure recognize countries like Israel or Taiwan, and thus defining a navy need not be tied to a nation’s legitimacy, is creative but erroneous. Such a claim obfuscates the reality of their universal de facto recognition as sovereign states around the world, despite occasional political fictions maintained for domestic expediency.
More to the point, legitimacy is granted as much (if not more) by domestic consent than external validation. Under this interpretation, we could more reasonably debate the merits of regarding something like Hezbollah’s maritime components as a Navy, since the group has some internal validity and some external recognition. Of course, labels like paramilitary or terrorist organization are more appropriate even in that instance, as the group’s position as a sub-state entity clearly invalidates the notion that it has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force.
Legitimacy and Semantics
This question of legitimacy also bears on the historical point brought up by the Affirmative article of eighteenth century privateers. Putting aside that contemporary, professional navies would have been unlikely to regard licensed privateers as peers (despite the quite genuine might of the latter), the fundamental point that the sovereign granted letters of marque to deputize privateer fleets again underscores the notion that legitimacy for violence stems from the authority of the state.
This last point informs an argument in the Negative article that a military is differentiated from non-state groups by the scale of the force it can exert. A navy, it argues, has warfighting capacity that exceeds the capability or intention of a non-state group like Sea Shepherd. Such an argument is semiotic, a way of understanding something through comparison to known others. The problem, however, is that a semiotic (and not theoretical) definition is vulnerable to false equivalencies. If a privateer fleet rivaled the local power of the Royal Navy, as some pirate bands did in the Golden Age of Piracy, a semiotic definition would backfire and elevate them to the status of a navy. Today, if a non-state actor (say a cartel) had the power to topple a small Caribbean nation, would the cartel be a military? Using the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence as our yardstick, the answer is clearly no. This approach negates the need entirely to define navies by their fighting capacity (something small states will be happy to hear).
There are, of course, other important questions raised in this debate. Most centrally, why does a fleet have to be a navy? If we already have a word to describe a collection of ships, is it valuable to take a concept like navy (however nebulous, at least you ‘know it when you see it’) and widen its use so far you risk entirely deflating it? The answer may well be yes, but it needs defending. Lexicons, even if somewhat amorphous, have inherent value. The Affirmative’s argument about a post Westphalian system is an admirable attempt to define the need for that new lexicon, though one I find highly premature (and I staked a dissertation on elevating the significance of nonstate actors).
Finally, if (as I have argued) Sea Shepherd cannot be regarded as a navy because its use of violence is either illegitimate or statesanctioned, a follow on question emerges: is Sea Shepherd piracy? The answer, like the former debate, is far from clear. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines piracy as “any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft…” UNCLOS has, in the past, come under fire for separating piracy and armed robbery at sea by drawing an artificial distinction between acts of predation within or without territorial seas. As a consequence, many bodies (including the UN Security Council) prefer some version of the International Maritime Bureau’s definition, which is less territorially focused and more functional. According to the IMB, piracy is “an act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the apparent intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act.”
The problem, here, with either of these two most common definitions (legal or de facto) is that Sea Shepherd clearly employs coercion or force for political ends, not personal or private ends. Political ends are not a component of these definitions. One option, of course, is to argue that there exists an even greater need for a change in the lexicon on piracy than on navies.
Pirates the world over operate for a mixture of both private economic and broader political objectives. Pirates off Nigeria steal oil not only for financial gain, but to help fund political agendas as well (piracy typically peaks near elections in Nigeria). Pirates in Somalia hijack ships for astounding ransoms. They also cloak themselves in narratives of defending territorial waters against the predations of multinationals depleting fishing stocks and dumping toxic chemicals. Even the privateers of old, who often morphed into pirates themselves, attempted to form politically independent units in the Bahamas or Madagascar and fought in part to defend this short lived independence from the British or French monarchies. Jacobite-leaning pirates in the Caribbean even considered trying to help reinstate the Stuart line.
Instead of revolutionizing the use of the term navy, therefore, might we instead simply apply the term piracy as it conforms to its historical character, inclusive of both private and political ends?
Sea Shepherd’s fleet does engage in maritime violence and coercive acts. This was a prima facie requirement for even debating its eligibility as a navy. As Captain Watson noted in the comments of the original article, “Since Sea Shepherd was established in 1977 we have rammed more ships, sunk more ships, boarded more ships and blockaded more harbours than most of the world’s Navies.”
Without commenting on the ethics of Sea Shepherd, the organization’s coercive actions are clearly illegitimate in the current international system. Consequently, Sea Shepherd might fit far better into an updated definition of piracy than of navy. Such a definition, which conforms to piracy as it has been practiced for centuries, recognizes not only the pursuit of private wealth, but also the role of pirates’ political agendas—even if those pirates are fighting for ocean conservation.
Joshua Tallis is a Research Analyst at CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA. He completed his PhD in International Relations at the University of St Andrews’ Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. The views and opinions in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of his employer.
Featured Image: Sea Shepherd ship MV Gojira, presently the MV Brigitte Bardot. (Sea Shepherd photo)
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.
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.
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.
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 Facebookin 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 a50 million pesos ($1.06 million) ransom, and the final four released with a15 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.
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 goodsthat 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 theweak 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.”
To conduct patrol among the three countries using existing mechanisms as a modality;
To render immediate assistance for the safety of people and ships in distress within the maritime areas of common concern;
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,
To establish a hotline of communication among the three countries to better facilitate coordination during emergency situations and security threats.
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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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)