Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Southeast Asia
     Oct 18, 2007
Page 2 of 2
'Triborder sea' is SE Asian danger zone

By Ian Storey

fishermen hostage off Mindanao - neither incident was reported to the IMB. The IMB received just six reports of maritime crime in Philippine waters in 2006, a grossly inaccurate figure.

Both the ASG and MILF have established linkages with JI, and a recent RAND study noted that the Sulawesi-Mindanao arc provides the terrorist organization with a "key logistical corridor" and "theater for jihadist operations" [1]. JI members Umar Patek and Dulmatin, both suspected of planning the 2002 Bali

bombings, are believed to be in the Sulu Archipelago after escaping from Indonesian authorities. JI operatives are known to undertake training in camps in the southern Philippines, and travel from Sulawesi to Mindanao via Sabah which is just a short boat ride from the Sulu Archipelago.

Sulawesi itself constitutes an important base of operations for JI as the organization has grafted itself on to sectarian and communal violence in Poso over the past few years. Sabah is also important to JI and the ASG for another reason: it provides a place of sanctuary. Sabah is home to more than half a million illegal immigrants from the Philippines and Indonesia, allowing operatives from both groups to blend in and lie low.

States lack capacity to handle threat
Tackling transnational security threats in the triborder sea area is hindered by the lack of state capacity, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Starved of funding for years, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is one of the weakest military forces in Southeast Asia. As the country's primary security threats are land-based - separatist, communist insurgent and terrorist groups - the army has received priority funding. The operational effectiveness of the Philippine Navy (PN) and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has suffered accordingly, leaving the country's sea lanes largely unprotected.

In October 2006, Philippine National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales summed up the situation: "We cannot check every boat that travels between Indonesia and Mindanao. Over 26,000 trips are made by these boats [every year] and it is impossible to monitor each of them given the government's meager resources" (The Philippine Star, October 16, 2006).

The PN's inability to effectively monitor the sea lanes in the Sulu Sea enabled ASG and JI operatives to flee from Jolo and Basilan in the wake of a major US-backed AFP offensive earlier this year. In early September, for instance, Philippine authorities arrested six alleged ASG members on Palawan Island, who were believed to have escaped the dragnet around Jolo.

The Indonesian Navy faces similar problems. In the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Indonesia's defense budget was slashed, and by 2003 it was estimated that less than 30% of the Navy's 113 vessels were operational. Since 2004, improved economic conditions have enabled the navy to purchase new corvettes and patrol boats, but it is still significantly below strength and incapable of monitoring the country's 34,000 miles of coastline and 4.9 million square miles of territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

The navy estimates it needs another 262 warships to adequately patrol the country's vast maritime domain (Antara, September 18). Moreover, due to international pressure, the navy has been required to concentrate its limited resources on the Strait of Malacca. Indonesia's participation in the MSP, and increased naval patrols in its territorial waters adjoining the strait, have put severe pressure on the navy's aging and fuel-thirsty vessels.

Malaysia is in a better position to deal with the problem. The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) is more professional and better equipped than its Philippine or Indonesian counterparts, and after the 2001 raid on Sipidan its presence on Sabah was beefed up. In 2005, Malaysia launched its national coast guard, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), which is responsible for enforcing maritime law in both east and west Malaysia. However, both the RMN and MMEA have focused their efforts on the Strait of Malacca for the past several years to the detriment of security in the waters around Sabah.

Security cooperation among the three countries is very limited. The naval forces of Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia conduct coordinated patrols but their effectiveness is limited by infrequency and lack of available assets. Indonesia and the Philippines conduct operation "Corpat Philindo" four times a year, but each patrol involves only one vessel from each country and lasts for only 10 days. Nevertheless, Manila and Jakarta have agreed to strengthen the patrols in an effort to stem arms trafficking into Poso, but resources are very limited. Malaysia and the Philippines conduct just two coordinated patrols (Ops Phimal) each year.

In 2006, the Philippines proposed year-round coordinated naval patrols like the MSP, as well as designated sea lanes for all maritime traffic to facilitate easier monitoring and inspection by the three navies, but so far no agreement has been reached (Associated Press, March 13, 2006). The Philippines has, however, recently announced a program designed to enhance the PN's ability to conduct surveillance and interdiction of security threats in the country's "southern backdoor" called Coast Watch South.

The concept, developed with help from Australia, envisages the establishment of 17 Coast Watch Stations from Palawan to Davao provinces, equipped with fast patrol boats and helicopters. Funding the US$380 million program, however, will be a challenge.

If maritime security threats in the triborder sea area are to be effectively addressed, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia will require sustained assistance from external powers in the form of capacity building. Capacity building efforts need to focus on improving the communication, surveillance, and interdiction capabilities of regional maritime law enforcement agencies such as the navy, coast guard and marine police.

So far, the focus has been on the Strait of Malacca, but this is gradually changing. The United States has agreed to supply Indonesia with 12 radar stations, some of which will be situated in North Sulawesi, as well as 30 patrol boats for the Marine Police. Australia, meanwhile, has agreed to supply the Philippines with 28 high-speed boats for Coast Watch South. This is a good start, but much more needs to be done in the coming years to undo decades of neglect and rein in this ungoverned space.

1. Angel Rabasa, "Case Study: The Sulawesi-Mindanao Arc," in Angel Rabasa et al, Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks (Santa Monica: RAND, 2007), p. 116.

Republished with permission from The Jamestown Foundation. Copyright 2007, The Jamestown Foundation.

1 2 Back




asia dive site

Asia Dive Site

All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2007 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110