Notoriously described as the 'terrorist transit triangle' (T3), the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas have recaptured global attention after the Mindanao-based Abu Sayyaf Group kidnapped Indonesian and Malaysian nationals in late March-early April 2016. The kidnappings prompted Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to initiate trilateral patrols. On May 5 the three governments met in Indonesia and issued a joint declaration that would serve as the political basis for such patrols. The declaration included initiatives to establish a 'national focal point' for timely information and intelligence sharing, and a 'hotline of communication' to 'facilitate coordination.' Some of these initiatives are apparently similar to the current Malacca Straits Patrols, which have been lauded as a 'model' for implementation in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas.

A higher resolution version of this map can be found here. Source: Philippines government

The nexus between maritime piracy and terrorism in the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas is not new. The 2013 Lahad Datu standoff should have taught the littoral nations some lessons in the risks posed by ungoverned, under-governed, or ill-governed maritime space. What happens at sea is basically a spillover of what essentially is a land problem. So long as peace between Manila and the various militant groups in Mindanao remains elusive, no amount of maritime forces can calm the seas. The patrols that the three nations suggested should therefore be regarded only as a stopgap measure pending the implementation of a lasting solution, which will certainly require better law enforcement in the southern Philippines.

Information is scant on whether the proposed patrols would be coordinated or joint.

'It’s called coordinated patrols,' Philippine’s foreign minister Jose Rene Almendras said, 'when '[Malaysia and Indonesia] will have their own patrols in in their own territorial waters so there will be no more threats to the movement of ships, including the kidnapping of sailors.' On other occasions, however, they have been referred to as 'joint' patrols, where maritime forces from other countries are authorised to conduct patrols within everyone’s territorial waters. The difference may seem trivial, but it is operationally significant. If agreed, joint patrols would allow Malaysian and Indonesian maritime security forces to pursue pirates into Philippines’ territorial waters. Given the littoral nations’ sensitivities over sovereignty, the idea of joint patrols might seem uninviting, especially to the Philippines where maritime security capacity is arguably the lowest among the three. Citing legal requirements, Manila recently reminded Indonesia and Malaysia to conduct 'joint exercises' only in the high seas and 'not within [Philippines] territorial waters'. The absence of 'high seas' in the Sulawesi Sea naturally left coordinated patrols as the only acceptable alternative (see map). 

But even coordinated patrols can be problematic. First, maritime boundary and territorial disputes still militate against closer cooperation among the littoral states. For example, Indonesia still deploys warships in the 'Ambalat' block disputed by Malaysia in the Sulawesi Sea, whereas the Philippines’ new president Duterte suggested retaining Manila’s claim over Sabah, prompting diplomatic protests from Malaysia. Unresolved maritime boundary disputes would obviously make coordinated patrols impractical. Second, coordinated patrols might demand equal contribution from the participating nations. This could be difficult for the Philippines whose navy and coastguard haven’t been radically modernised, despite recent transfers of vessels from the US and Indonesia. Third, the littoral nations still work under different standard operating procedures (SOPs). Harmonising these SOPs would be a challenging task for the three nations haven’t operated together under a trilateral arrangement for a specific mission set. Fourth, tensions with China over the Spratly Islands would also divide, if not divert, Manila’s attention away from the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas. Finally, there are issues on who should be included in the patrols. Malaysia has suggested inviting Singapore and Thailand as observers, but non-littoral state involvement would certainly depend on approval from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, the three nations should anticipate the challenges above by utilising existing arrangements. Some of the initiatives proposed in the joint declaration have already been conducted, although not geographically confined to the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas. The ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting and Singapore-based Information Fusion Centre have initiated information-sharing arrangements that are premised on the use of national focal points and communication hotlines. In 2006-2008, the US also provided maritime surveillance systems to Indonesia in Sulawesi and northeastern Kalimantan, Malaysia in Sabah, and the Philippines along its southern coastlines. Unfortunately, maintenance and operational effectiveness of these systems remains suspect, while efforts to integrate the three systems into a sub-regional maritime domain awareness network are seemingly absent.

Likewise, existing sub-regional security arrangements are patchy. Indonesia and the Philippines have conducted regular coordinated naval patrols, while Malaysia and Philippines have agreed on anti-smuggling operations, but there have been no moves to make these arrangements trilateral. Although maritime boundary disputes may be a non-starter, they shouldn’t become an excuse to avoid cooperation. Pending final delimitation of exclusive economic zone, UNCLOS article 74 encourages states to 'enter into provisional arrangements of a practical nature…without prejudice to final delimitation.' Such arrangements may include airborne surveillance patrols akin to the Eyes-in-the-Sky in the Malacca Strait to detect and deter pirates. Unlike surface assets, the operational endurance of airborne assets is much more limited, and thus denies them the ability to sustain a long-term presence above the territorial waters of a foreign country.

Even with these measures in place, the implementation of the declaration won’t be smooth sailing, however. Nationalistic fervours and military sabre-rattling over disputed boundaries could stymie efforts to build a consensus. At the same time, different threat perceptions and competing national priorities may prevent effective implementation of previously agreed commitments. If the Malacca Straits Patrols experience is of any value, it’s to guard against lofty expectations.