Government News Analysis

Security alliance at sea level

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte continued his theme of boosting marine security when he met Malaysian leader, Najib Razak, last week. And, as followed his discussions in Brunei and Indonesia, there was full agreement that the common seas between their countries where the criminals ply their trade are their joint responsibility. Consequently, naval and coast-guard cooperation between the Philippines and Malaysia is set to intensify.

This means that the Philippines and its three closest geographical neighbours are all on the same page; their common cause, all all-out assault on the maritime gangs – terrorists, kidnappers, thieves, illegal traffickers, people smugglers and pirates – that roam the waters between their coasts preying on fishermen, barge crews, holidaymakers and any other hapless innocents that stray into their reach.

By their respective commitments the leaders of these countries have reached a historic consensus. Water borders, the territorial demarcation lines between them are now becoming open to the navies and coast guards of each in the pursuit of the seaborne gangs. In effect, this means that each country’s defense capabilities has been expanded by the power of the other three. It’s simple maths really, but it took real political will to make it happen. And Duterte was the galvanising force.

The talks on sea security between Duterte and Najiib must have closely mirrored those between Duterte and Indonesian President, Joko Widowo, in early September. That trip delivered an agreement whereby the Indonesian Navy would be permitted to pursue pirates and terrorists into Philippine territorial waters, “blast them out of the water,” and leave them for shark food. The naval forces of both countries had agreed to work closely together “to end this problem once and for all”.

In Malaysia, the two leaders agreed to work on “combative endeavours” to tackle what has become a mounting problem in their region.  They discussed “hot-pursuit” – defined in international law as the right of law enforcement to pursue criminals under international rules of engagement. Normally, however, in the maritime sense that right ends when the fleeing vessel enters the waters of another state. In other words, what they discussed was extending that right to allow Malaysian naval craft to cross the Philippines’ water borders. We understand that agreement has been made.

This is a major concession – a country’s territorial waters are regarded as sacrosanct. But for the criminal gangs fleeing Malaysian and Indonesian naval patrols, it now means that there is no safe haven; they can be pursued right across the Sulu Sea or the Celebes Sea and directly into Philippine waters. The border has gone, and along with it immunity from pursuit.

“Our discussion focused on the need to further strengthen the Philippines-Malaysia partnership for a safe and secure and stable region,” Duterte said after the meeting. “As Asean brothers and maritime nations, we recognise that cooperation between our countries with other stakeholders is key to ensure that our sea lanes are not used for illegal purposes or criminal activities.”

Malaysia, has 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 – and the failure of the previous Philippine Government to successfully address these incidents had led to strained relations between Manila and Kuala Lumpur. This agreement has put those relations back on track.

So what Duterte has done is to build an alliance of four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that will coordinate their naval and coast-guard resources to stamp out a scourge that has disrupted trade and made these seas – some 900,000 square kilometres of water area – among the most dangerous in the world. Terror group, Abu Sayyaf, which is based in southern Mindanao and is responsible for the majority of abduction-for-ransom incidents, will be the alliance’s number one target.

Shortly after forging the agreement with Indonesia, the Philippine Navy erected barriers along sections of the southern sea line of Mindanao to prevent Islamic militants such as Abu Sayyaf 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.

While this maritime alliance is very much part of Duterte’s war on terror, it’s also part of his war on drugs; drug-smugglers and factory ships that produce methamphetamine while at sea, will now be targeted jointly by a four-country marine task force which will be sharing intelligence and working together. Given the sensitivities that surround state territories, this has been a major achievement.

Malaysia marks the Philippine president’s eighth Asian state visit since he assumed office on 30 June.  It’s likely he will make trips to Taiwan and South Korea before Christmas.

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