Government News Analysis

Sea deal sealed – enjoy your breakfast

Unorthodox though it may be for a media outlet, we start the week with some good news for our Filipino followers – Philippine-Indonesia relations are getting back on track; the strains which they experienced earlier this year have been eased through constructive talks between the heads of both governments. This Monday morning you can enjoy your hot chocolate and your pandesal without getting indigestion: the region’s closest regional friendship is in tact.

It looks like The Volatilian™ called this one right – Who was on that plane and why? – that the big issue to be covered by President Rodrigo Duterte and his Indonesian counterpart, Joko Widodo, at the end of last week, during Duterte’s first state visit to Jakarta, was the security of the seas that separate their countries.

On his return to Manila he announced that he had given the Indonesian Navy his consent to pursue pirates and terrorists into Philippine territorial waters and engage them – “blast them out of the water” and deliver them to the sharks. He added that the naval forces of both countries would be working closely “to end this problem once and for all”.

That concession is something the Indonesians will have pressed hard for. The fact that it was given, shows clearly that Duterte, his Foreign Secretary, Perfecto Yasay, and his Defence Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana – all involved in this decision which was taken in Jakarta – are confident that the two states can act as an effective coalition force to defeat lawless elements that have brought terror to the seas, disrupted shipping and jeopardised bilateral trade.

This is no small deal, a country’s territorial waters – normally 12 nautical miles from the coast at low tide – are considered sacrosanct by all nations. For criminal gangs fleeing Indonesia Navy patrols and getting out of their jurisdiction by crossing the water border into Philippine sea territory, those days are over. The border has gone, and along with it their immunity from pursuit.

The Volatilian™ believes that similar concessions could now be extended to the Philippines’ other next door neighbour, Malaysia, which has also been a target of Philippine-based pirates and terror groups – both in its waters and on its land; specifically, Sabah at the northeastern side of Borneo.

Early last month the Philippines and Indonesia, along with Malaysia, signed a trilateral framework agreement on maritime-security cooperation, This cleared the way for joint sea patrols and set out operating procedures for confronting human traffickers, drug smugglers and terrorists. But what came out of the Jakarta talks – attended by both countries’ defence ministers – was confirmation of a heightened collaboration between these neighbours.

Now we understand the Philippine Navy has put up a blockade along sections of the southern sea line of Mindanao to prevent Islamic militants such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) from launching raids on Indonesian shipping in the troubled waters of the Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea. This is a very porous coastline, but it’s hoped that the increased security will seriously deter or at least hamper terrorist raiding parties from launching their attacks. Abu Sayyaf is currently holding up to nine Indonesian citizens hostage. All were seized by their marine assault teams.

Relations between Indonesia and the Philippines had become strained recently over repeated kidnappings-for-ransom of Indonesian seamen by ASG fighters. The last of these incidents – there have been four this year – which involved the abduction of seven crewmen from a coal barge en route to the Philippines, resulted in Jakarta halting coal deliveries. A full 70% of the coal needed to fuel the Philippines’ power industry is sourced from Indonesia.

The Philippines’ previous administration was heavily criticised by Indonesian officials for not doing enough to dismantle ASG or in maintaining maritime security in the region. These latest developments – along with Duterte’s stepped-up military campaign against Abu Sayyaf on land – will have gone a long way to reassuring Jakarta that its concerns are being taken very seriously and that the Philippines is once more a dependable ally.

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