June 20, 2017 2:21 am JST

Trilateral sea patrols take aim at Southeast Asian terror

Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines alliance could seed regionwide collaboration

JUN SUZUKI and BOBBY NUGROHO, Nikkei staff writers

Indonesian navy special forces involved in the trilateral patrol. (Photo by Bobby Nugroho)

TARAKAN, Indonesia -- Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are launching joint patrols to counter the rising threat of terrorism in regional waters as a growing number of fishermen and seamen fall victims to kidnappings by groups inspired by the Islamic State. 

The three countries on Monday began joint patrols in waters where they share maritime borders, particularly the Sulu Sea off the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. While their forces will monitor for suspicious vessels by sea and by air, troops from each country will take charge of land patrols in their own territories in light of sovereignty concerns. The patrols will continue until terrorism has been eradicated from the three countries' environs, according to Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu.

Defense ministers and top military personnel from the three countries met in this port city in northeastern Borneo to establish a joint control center for the operations at an Indonesian naval installation, which will share information with sister facilities in the Philippines and Malaysia. Officials from Singapore and Brunei attended as observers.

Despite this initial show of force and unity, the patrols may not produce immediate results. Nor are all participants equally enthralled by the collaboration. Indonesia, which has frequently seen its people abducted by groups claiming affiliation with the IS, is hopeful the patrols will curb such attacks. But the Philippines is leery about joint patrols, given its prohibition on foreign military activity within its borders.

The trio first agreed to hold joint patrols in May 2016. But the administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, inaugurated in June of that year, was reluctant to put its full weight behind the plan, according to a diplomatic source, due in part to constitutional concerns. Manila eventually put aside questions about costs and command authority to counter the growing IS threat in the region. The fate of this cooperation, thus, could rest on how effective the patrols prove to be.

New threats

This latest patrol effort focuses on combating international terrorism, setting it apart from past efforts to rein in piracy. Members of the pro-IS Maute group are attempting to take over the city of Marawi on Mindanao and turn the area into an independent state with the help of foreign fighters. Many civilians have already been killed or wounded in clashes between the group and forces including the Philippine military.

Meanwhile, Abu Sayyaf, a violent Philippine militant group that has pledged loyalty to the IS, continues to attack vessels, including coal and oil transport ships, off the coast of Mindanao and hold crew for ransom, using the payments to support further terrorist activity.

Both Indonesia and Malaysia are geographically close to Mindanao, and fighters appear to be traveling between these countries and the Philippines. Indonesian nationals and others were apprehended Friday in Malaysia for allegedly trying to join IS militants in the Philippines. The joint efforts aim to keep Southeast Asia from becoming a new base of operations for the extremist group.

Other partners could soon join the anti-terror measures. Ryacudu said on June 4 at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore that countries such as Thailand and Singapore would be asked to sign on if the situation in Mindanao was to spread. Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen has signaled to media there that the city-state could participate in maritime patrols.

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