Joint Patrol Agreement Will Not Stop Abu Sayyaf
A spate of hijackings 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 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 of140 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.
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.” The agreement included the following provisions:
- 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.
- To instruct the relevant agencies of the three countries to review the above-mentioned measures and also to formulate a 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.”
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 aninward 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 (government sources)
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...
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.