School of International Relations, University of Indonesia ( UI )
In the wake of a series of armed piracy incidents and kidnappings by gunmen believed to have ties to the southern Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are contemplating conducting joint maritime patrols in the increasingly piracy-prone waters of northeast Kalimantan.
At the time of writing, 14 Indonesian and four Malaysian seamen remain held hostage. Joint patrols by littoral states are indeed a prospective and necessary solution to combat piracy and other transnational maritime security challenges in the sea off Kalimantan.
Southeast Asian countries have shown the merits of joint patrols in tackling piracy. The Malacca Strait Sea Patrols ( MSSP ) conducted jointly by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore since 2004 have significantly reduced the number of piracy attacks in the busy sea lane. And despite a lack of effectiveness of the aerial surveillance component of the operation, known as Eye in the Sky, the MSSP remains one of the most successful multilateral joint maritime operations ever conducted.
Notwithstanding the success of the joint patrol in the Malacca Strait as a lesson learned, a joint patrol in the sea off Kalimantan would be a challenging task with different factors to take into account.
First, bilateral disputes over territories adjacent to the area of operation could pose difficulties for the joint patrol plan. A dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia over the resource-rich area of the Ambalat block has remained unresolved. Indonesian officials indeed often use the potential conflict over Ambalat as justification for military modernization and deployment.
Meanwhile, Malaysia and the Philippines are still struggling to settle the long-standing territorial dispute over the eastern part of the state of Sabah, over which the Philippines retains a dormant claim through the heritage of the Sultanate of Sulu. There has also been concern over Abu Sayyaf working together with the Sulu Sultan family in their stronghold in the southern Philippines. Thus, Malaysia could make use of the planned joint patrol as a means to prevent a southern Philippines-based incursion on Sabah, like what happened in 2013 during the incident known as the Lahad Datu standoff, which Manilla would dislike.
Second, the ongoing geopolitical development in the South China Sea might also further complicate the plan for a joint patrol. Although the area of operation itself is not within the waters it claims, China might be anxious about the prospect of a joint operation between littoral states near its claimed territorial waters. Moreover, the very prospect of claimant states working together could be disturbing for Beijing, which has been trying to maintain a divided Southeast Asia as far as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are concerned.
Finally, the plan for a joint maritime patrol, in its development, might hit a concrete wall of non-intervention principles adhered to by ASEAN member states. In this regard, it is important to note that most of the piracy attacks recently occurred in the territorial waters of the Philippines. The call for a joint patrol, thus, could be interpreted in Manila as external parties scrutinizing its inability to secure its territory, a move considered taboo among ASEAN member states.
Challenges notwithstanding, a joint patrol by littoral states is a necessary solution to combat piracy in the sea off Kalimantan. Piracy, like other contemporary maritime security challenges, is transnational in nature. Pirates emerge not to face and defeat states but rather to disrupt the increasingly globalized trading system upon which states now rely ( Till, 2004 ).
Indeed, the waters off Kalimantan are home to a sea lane that carries US$40 billion worth of cargo each year, including 70 percent of the Philippines’ coal needs imported from Indonesia. Piracy attacks would not only damage states whose nationals are taken hostage but also other countries across the region that rely upon secured, uninterrupted sea-based shipping for their economic development.
The increasingly globalized system, coupled with the rise of transnational maritime threats like piracy, require a paradigm shift in how states develop, deploy and operate their maritime capabilities. Gone are the days of focusing on the fleet-on-fleet operations to secure sea control “for whatever purpose that will serve the interests of the power that controls it” ( Till, 2004 ). Rather, the days have come for states to focus more on a cooperative approach to secure the sea “for everyone but the enemies of the system to use” ( Till, 2004 ).
Against this background, the following recommendations should be taken into account by officials deliberating the plan to conduct joint maritime patrols in northeastern Kalimantan waters.
First and foremost, it is crucial to make clear from the beginning that the joint patrol will be conducted by coast guards rather than navies. This is particularly important as the deployment of white hulls has been generally considered less sensitive compared to grey hulls.
Moreover, officials from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines should be aware that pirates, although based on a certain country, do not consider states’ boundaries the way government officials see them. Therefore, the possibility of cross-boundary patrols, particularly in the event of hot pursuit, should be anticipated. The establishment of a hotline to communicate the movement of patrolling ships and give prior notice before chasing a vessel into other states’ territorial waters is necessary.
The different broader geostrategic interests of the participating states and the close proximity of the area of operations to the disputed South China Sea, in which rivalry between great powers is ongoing, could also be mitigated by making the joint patrol as inclusive as possible. It is important in this regard for participating states to invite external parties, particularly external major powers, to contribute to the plan by providing capability-building measures.
The development of capabilities to conduct maritime domain awareness could be one of the avenues for cooperation with external parties. The effectiveness of the joint patrol could be further enhanced by calculating the patterns of piracy attacks.
It has already been noted that piracy attacks in the sea off Kalimantan are conducted using small yet fast vessel-attacking tug boats. In order to increase the rate of success, the pirates usually conduct their business when the weather is clear and waters are calm.
Moreover, it should also be noted that unlike in the Malacca Strait, Philippine pirates have been known to be based in scattered islands in the southern part of the country. In this regard, again, maritime domain awareness and intelligence-sharing mechanisms would be particularly important.
Finally, for Indonesia, the plan to conduct joint patrols should provide momentum to enhance its coast guarding capabilities in terms of assets deployed as well as regulations. Better coordination among agencies with coast guarding mandates should be achieved in order to build a robust and effective maritime security and policing system.
Christian Guntur Lebang is an alumnus of the School of International Relations, University of Indonesia ( UI ). Muhamad Arif is a researcher at The Habibie Center’s ASEAN Studies Program and a lecturer at UI’s School of International Relations. The views expressed are their own.
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