Maritime security in the Philippines’ southern waters has become one of the country’s most-pressing problem as unchecked piracy* over many years has emboldened freebooters in that region to expand their activities and turn the Sulu Sea into arguably the most dangerous expanse of water in the world. In 2015, a staggering 71% of global piracy was carried out there.
And last year, although global piracy fell to its lowest level in 20 years, crew-kidnappings at sea recorded a 10-year high – following a 300% increase in 2015. And much of that was can be laid at the door of the Sulu Sea gangs; they were responsible for 45.16% of all kidnappings at sea worldwide.
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre which maintains a round-the-clock watch on the world’s shipping lanes constantly highlights this region as “high risk” in its bulletins to the shipping industry.
According to IMB Director, Pottengal Mukundan: “The kidnappings in the Sulu Sea between East Malaysia and the Philippines are a particular concern” – so concerning in fact, that the IMB is advising ship owners and charterers to avoid the Sulu Sea by re-routing their vessels to shipping lanes through the Celebes (Sulewesi) Sea to the western side Kalimantan, Borneo, in Indonesian waters.
Although this will result in longer voyages for cargoes and much higher shipping costs – and coming at a time when the shipping industry is struggling to stay afloat – the IMB believes that the piracy surge in this region warrants the re-routing. In short, the pirates are putting the region’s maritime trade under serious threat. And it’s big trade – over 100,000 ships ply their way through the Sulu shipping corridors each year, transporting 55 million tons of goods and 18 million passengers.
In cash terms, each year some US$40 billion worth of cargo passes along these shipping lanes – among that US$700-800 million in Indonesian coal exports to the Philippines, vital for the country’s coal-fired power industry. Early last year, following a series of abductions of Indonesia seamen from tug boats and coal barges, Jakarta imposed a moratorium on coal shipments to its neighbour. Later this was eased but the damage it did to the Philippine economy was significant. Indonesia is the Philippines main source of coal.
A recent report by information and analysis provider, IHS Markit, claims that the seas around the Philippines are the most pirated of any on Earth, followed by Nigeria and India.
But here’s what the ships and their crews face in Philippine waters; here are the numbers. Pirates seized 62 people for ransom in 15 separate incidents in 2016; of these 28 were kidnapped from tugs, barges, fishing boats, and more recently merchant ships, in waters around the southern Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Last year, globally, IMB recorded 191 incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea.
“The kidnapping of crew from ocean going merchant vessels in the Sulu Sea and their transfer to the Southern Philippines represents a notable escalation in attacks. In the last quarter, 12 crew were kidnapped from two cargo vessels underway and an anchored fishing vessel, and in November a bulk carrier was fired upon but pirates were not able to board the vessel. Earlier in 2016, crewmembers were kidnapped in three attacks on vulnerable slow-moving tugs and barges,” states IMB’s annual report.
Behind many of the raids is the Islamic terrorist organisation, Abu Sayyaf, which is based in the Sulu Sea islands of Jolo and Basilan. For them, kidnapping-for-ransom is their biggest dollar earner. Last year it pulled in around US$7.5 million from ransom payments allowing it to invest in better weapons and faster boats and build out its terror enterprise. Currently, this group is holding more than a dozen hostages, all taken from ships passing through the Sulu and Celebes Seas.
According to Gerry Northwood, COO at Maritime Asset Security and Training “The Sulu/Celebes area is the world’s fastest growing piracy hotspot, with violent attacks on commercial vessels and their crews, and an increasingly successful kidnap and ransom business model”.
This dimension, however, makes the problem even more critical. Duterte is committed to eradicating Abu Sayyaf, a group that’s become increasingly more radical. Furthermore, the gradual entry of the Islamic State to the region opens the possibility of even greater piracy in the Sulu Sea region.
The question is, how does the Philippines deal with this mounting problem?
Well first, although many of the incidents are carried out by raiders based in the southern island of Mindanao and from other Philippine islands in the Sulu Archipelago, this is not just Manila’s problem. It affects fellow member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) – and in particular, those of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
Consequently the leaders of these three countries have instructed their defence ministries and navies to work closely and pool resources to bring as much security as they can to the Sulu and Celebes Sea region. At the end of last year, Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, along with his Foreign Affairs Secretary, Perfecto R. Yasay, and naval and security chiefs, visited these three Asean neighbours to set in place a range of maritime coordination plans geared to tackling the pirates.
Last year, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia forged the Sulu Sea Patrol Initiative to conduct joint maritime operations in the waters between their coasts. This is hoped will replicate the success of a similar scheme set up in 2004 to patrol the Malacca Strait – then a notorious pirate-infested area of ocean.
But the Sulu Sea is a vast body of water. Added to the Celebes Sea which also needs protecting – and more so if shippers alter course through its waters – it covers as area of 900,000 square kilometres. The fact is, even the combined strength of all three countries’ navies and coast guards would be spread too thin to contain the problem.
Furthermore, these are small navies. The largest is Indonesia’s but it has 54,716 kilometres of coastline to patrol – almost twice that of Australia (25,760km) – the longest in the whole of Southeast Asia. Malaysia is short of both patrol vessels and aircraft, but the Philippines has the least-resourced maritime security by some way. Thanks to gross under-investing, like so much of what Duterte inherited, his navy and coast guard are virtually running on fumes.
And that’s one reason why, two weeks ago, Duterte announced that he had asked China for help in patrolling the region’s sea lanes and confronting the pirates. He was seeking a similar deployment of vessels to the one China sent to the Gulf of Aden in 2009 to defend its shipping interests against Somali pirates.
Ever conscious of Philippine sensitivities when it comes to China in a maritime context, however, he said that he had asked for the patrols “without necessarily intruding into the territorial waters of other countries”. He added, too, that “Grey ships (possibly meaning frigates) are not really needed. I said coast guard cutters would do just to patrol”.
But if China gets involved – and there’s certainly a will; the two countries have already agreed to set up a joint coast guard committee for maritime cooperation – it will need more latitude than that. On the high seas it doesn’t need anyone’s permission to engage pirates, but if it strays inside the Philippines’ water borders it could face legal issues. It would certainly want to be indemnified against that before it acceded to President Duterte’s wishes.
But China really holds the key to solving this problem, though Japan is also likely to play a role – not just in training and supply of vessels, all of which it’s undertaken, but an active role in patrolling. The only other close-to-regional power that could bolster maritime security would be Australia, which has a large naval fleet numbering some 47 warships, ranging from frigates to patrol boats. Furthermore it knows these waters and much of its merchant shipping uses these sea corridors.
Last November, Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, revealed that joint patrols between the Royal Australian Navy and the Indonesian Navy were being worked out. Her counterpart in Jakarta, Ryamizard Ryacudu, explained: “(Indonesia and Australia) have agreed to explore options to increase maritime cooperation and of course that would include coordinated activities in the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea”.
Admittedly, the South China Sea component of that is in the context of Chinese encroachment in the region. Indonesia, like the Philippines, has disputes with China. In its case they concern offshore oil exploration and, more particularly, commercial fishing within its Economic Exclusion Zone around the Natuna Islands archipelago off Borneo’s north west coast.
In effect, Sulu Sea piracy enmeshes the major elements of Duterte’s anti-lawlessness campaign. It involves the War on Drugs – the shabu, or crystal meth, that’s been flooding into the Philippines, is often produced on factory vessels out at sea, beyond territorial reach; some suppliers of components to manufacture the drug onshore use the sea routes that lie south and west of Mindanao to bring them in.
It involves, as we’ve mentioned, the War on Terror – defeating the likes of Abu Sayyaf which largely finances itself from piracy. It involves the War on Criminality – the freelance bandits of the piracy business and the highly organised and widespread smuggling operations that use the sea routes to reach the Philippines’ porous coastline. Three very good reasons why Duterte knows he needs to galvanise a multinational force to cooperate in maritime security.
Note: *In respect of ships, broadly, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 101, 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 – whether on the high seas, against another ship, or against persons or property on board such ship.