London – Militants, pirates, drug traffickers, gun runners – the waters between Borneo and the southern Philippines have them all. However, as an ISIS faction burst on the scene in recent weeks, this corner of Southeast Asia plumbed new levels of insecurity, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Next week, the three countries, with Singapore’s assistance, will begin joint air surveillance over the Sulu Sea, using reconnaissance planes and drones, and enhance joint naval patrols.
Their navies planned joint patrols last year after a spate of kidnappings by Abu Sayyaf, a well established militant group that has declared support ISIS. But there are plenty of gaps to fill.
“We don’t have communications via radio at this point. We conduct patrols in our own territory. We have not discussed exchanging personnel,” said First Admiral Ferial Fachroni, commander of Indonesia’s Tarakan naval base in North Kalimantan.
He told Reuters joint operations would begin this month. Situated on Borneo’s northeast coast, Tarakan is the nearest Indonesian naval base to kidnappers’ hunting grounds in the Celebes and Sulu Seas.
Keeping tabs on hundreds of merchant ships, fishing boats and ferries plying routes between the islands, deciding when and who to stop and search will be a tall order even for three navies working together.
The archipelagos’ heavily forested coves and inlets provide excellent cover for any fast vessel looking to escape closer scrutiny.
“The Sulu Sea area has always had sporadic incidents like kidnappings of tourists before, but starting last year and this year, it has really gone up,” Noel Chung, the Kuala Lumpur-based Asia head of the International Maritime Bureau, said.
Despite the long history of militancy and banditry in the area, it has taken the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia a long time to pool resources.
Largely dormant territorial disputes, mutual mistrust, and limited capabilities have all played a part retarding closer cooperation.
But seeing the black flags of ISIS raised in Mindanao could have shocked the region’s governments into moving from cooperation to actual collaboration.
Beyond enhancing air and sea patrols, the countries’ security agencies need to coordinate better and act faster on shared intelligence.
A Malaysian government official said that while information was shared on militant suspects, there was some frustration over a perceived lack of follow up in the Philippines.
Describing the Philippines as a “weak link”, regional terrorism expert Sidney Jones criticised a lack of cooperation between its police, military and intelligence agency.