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Indonesia/Philippines/Malaysia: Agreement on Patrolling Shared Maritime Border

(June 30, 2017) In June 2017, it was announced that authorities from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia had formally launched an arrangement whereby naval military personnel from these countries will coordinate efforts in order to give chase to Islamic militants who navigate the seas of these nations. (Genalyn Kabiling, PH, Indonesia, Malaysia Open Borders in Pursuit of Criminals, MANILA BULLETIN (June 20, 2017).) The Trilateral Maritime Patrol arrangement, while mostly a maritime-based operation, is reportedly likely also to involve air and land military assets in order to secure the Sulu Sea, located to the northeast of Borneo and southwest of the Philippines. (Francis Chan & Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines Launch Joint Operations in Sulu Sea to Tackle Terrorism, Transnational Crimes, STRAITS TIMES (June 19, 2017).)

According to the head of Indonesia’s military forces, Gatot Nurmantyo, “[t]he series of piracy attacks accompanied by kidnappings that occurred frequently in the Sulu (Sea) waters have had a huge security impact on surrounding coastal countries … and have pushed us to conduct a coordinated patrol among three countries.” (Kabiling, supra.) The arrangement provides that naval personnel from any of the three nations may enter the maritime waters of the others in pursuit of suspected militants and criminals responsible for illegal activities such as piracy, terrorism and kidnappings.  Command centers in the three countries will coordinate operations so that the nearest ship from any of these nations responds to distress calls, allowing them to pursue criminals in a more effective manner. (Id.)

The arrangement will facilitate responding to recent developments in Marawi City, Philippines, where the military has been battling Islamic State militants who can escape to Indonesia, posing as refugees. (Id.) 

Background

The three states had reached an agreement over a year ago, in May 2016, on conducting joint patrols and sharing intelligence, in the aftermath of a series of kidnappings for ransom of foreigners by the Abu Sayyaf Islamist group. Abu Sayyaf, which has a base in the southernmost Philippine islands, had beheaded some victims when ransoms were not paid. (Id.; Ryan Healy, Indonesia, Philippines, and Malaysia Agree to Anti-Piracy Patrols, Center for Security Policy website (May 6, 2016).)

The defense leaders of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia signed a Trilateral Cooperation Arrangement in Jakarta on July 14, 2016, agreeing “to encourage the operationalization of the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for Maritime Patrol and Rendering Immediate Assistance; Operating Guidelines on Information and Intelligence Sharing; and Combined Communication Plan. (Defense Ministers Affirm Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement, Philippine Information Agency website (Aug. 08, 2016).) In working out the arrangement in June 2016, defense officials from the three countries agreed to deploy a combined force of sea marshals to deter the kidnappings and also other cross-border crimes such as piracy. (Jaime Laude & Marvin Sy, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia Work to Secure Sea Borders, PHIL STAR GLOBAL (June 30, 2016).)

Former Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin noted at that time that he and the defense minister of Indonesia had agreed on June 25, 2016, to rely on a Philippines-Indonesian 1975 cross-border agreement as the basis for the arrangement, as that agreement “allows Indonesian and Philippine security forces to conduct pursuit operations against the bandits within each other’s maritime zones,” but he stressed that all of the new operations “should be coordinated between the countries involved.” (Id.; Revised Agreement on Border Crossing Between the Republic of the Philippines and the Republic of Indonesia (Mar. 11, 1975).) While foreign forces may not operate inland, Gazmin had stated, “under extraordinary circumstances” the foreign troops, “provided they are unarmed – can be allowed to work together with Filipino troops to serve as interpreters or to provide needed information.” (Laude & Sy, supra.)

Philippine and Indonesian defense officials had agreed even earlier, during a May 2015 conference, that there was a need to review both the Agreement on Border Crossing and the Agreement on Border Patrol, which also dates from 1975. (Philippines, Indonesia Agree to Review Pacts on Border Crossing, Patrol, GLOBAL TIMES (May 11, 2015).)