Sulu, Philippines
Photo: AFP/Mark Navales
Sulu, Philippines Photo: AFP/Mark Navales

Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have started joint patrols against pirates terrorizing shipping in the deep water Sibutu Passage, but limited resources and legal obstacles are already rocking the boat.

The channel between the southern Philippines Sulu region and Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah, used by more than 13,000 ships a year, has replaced the Malacca Strait as Asia’s top piracy hotspot in the past six months, disrupting trade and pushing up insurance premiums.

While piracy attacks against shipping in Asia fell 24% year on year over the period spanning January – July, the Sibutu Passage has seen a steady stream of incidents, according to data from the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robberies against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), a regional government-to-government information sharing outfit.

However, bounties offered for cargo and crew abductions by splinter groups of the Philippine terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf, based on the southern Jolo and Basilan islands, have made armed gangs more brazen. Abu Sayyaf, long known as a kidnapping-for-ransom gang, recently declared its loyalty to Islamic State.

“In the earlier part of 2016 they were targeting fishing vessels and tugs, but from last November have been targeting large commercial ships such as bulkers and containerships,” said ReCAAP about the extremist group’s changing tactics.

A bulk carrier was boarded by two pirates off Indonesia’s Pulau Nipah on August 20 and a German feeder container ship was attacked near the Philippines on August 10. Diesel fuel was siphoned off a hijacked Thai oil tanker near Malaysia on June 23.

Source: ReCAAP

The most alarming trend is kidnappings for ransom by smugglers based on the Sulu Archipelago and southern Mindanao in the Philippines, many of whom have links to Abu Sayyaf. Since 2015 the Islamic terrorist group has shifted from land-based kidnappings to easier maritime targets to finance its extremist operations.

Fifty-nine crew members have been abducted and four killed in 20 attacks in the past 18 months, compared with five abductions in 2015 – all onshore. Eleven have been kidnapped so far this year, with two killed; at least 16 crew members are being held captive.

Abu Sayyaf responds harshly when ship-owners reject its ransom demands: a Vietnamese crew member was executed in Sulu in July and two other Vietnamese abducted during an attack on a Vietnamese bulk carrier in February were beheaded in Basilan.

ReCAAP has advised global shipping companies to avoid the Sulu and Celebes seas, but this would mean a longer and more costly route for vessels traveling from countries bordering the South China Sea to markets in Australia and the US Pacific coast.

“More needs to be done to strengthen regional cooperation and coordination among the littoral states in conducting coordinated patrols, enforcement and apprehension of perpetrators involved,”
ReCAAP said after issuing a second threat assessment in March.

Philippine coast guard anti-terrorism soldiers next to the newly commissioned Multi-Role Response Vessel (MRRV) BRP Malapascua during a ceremony at the coast guard headquarters in Manila on March 7, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Regional responses have mostly mirrored the strategy adopted in Malacca, which was previously fragmented and poorly managed. Attacks in the Malacca Strait have fallen sharply since 2015, but this was due more to increased onboard vigilance and low oil prices – which reduced the appeal of tanker seizures – than heightened security patrols.

As in Malacca, the Sibutu patrols will be heavily dependent on a strong commitment from the Philippines, and that is not assured.
Indonesia and Malaysia were forced to carry most of the burden in Malacca after the Philippines failed to meet its obligations due to limited resources and political inertia; expect more of the same.

Four fast patrol boats and a larger offshore vessel have been ordered as part of a modernization program for the Philippines coast guard, and surveillance planes will be leased from Japan.

Brunei and Singapore may also contribute planes and ships, and the Philippines has asked for help from the US and China, but they will probably keep their distance until the three littoral countries have come up with workable terms of engagement for patrols.

Chinese sailors stand at attention onboard a Chinese naval ship during a visit to Davao city, southern Philippines April 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lean Daval Jr

Naval vessels can only operate within national jurisdictions, as there is no agreement allowing hot pursuits across borders. There is a system for alerting neighboring security forces, but it is slow and cumbersome, often allowing pirates in fast speedboats to escape.

“Without overcoming this hurdle, the operational functioning of trilateral patrols is significantly limited and will face a similar fate to those of the Malacca Strait,” ReCAAP noted in March.

A form of transnational consent will be needed before tripartite countries can accede to demands from the shipping industry for
naval escorts through the passage, based on an Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (RTC) in the Gulf of Aden which has proved successful in containing piracy in waters off Somalia.

The Philippines has established an RTC, but it only covers an area between Moro Gulf and Basilan Strait, within its own waters.

The Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf has moved aggressively into seaborne piracy. Photo: Interpol

To secure a Sibutu RTC the three littoral countries first need to settle territorial claims and demarcate overlapping borders in the passage. The only deal now is that armed guards cannot be used in overlapping zones, which rather diminishes their effectiveness.

Then there are the difficulties of getting three sets of security forces, with their own command and communication structures, to work together and share resources after the Malacca debacle. Each country has a separate Sibutu command center – at Tawau in Malaysia, Bongao in the Philippines and Tarakan in Indonesia.

Malaysia and Indonesia doubt the effectiveness of the Philippines’ security apparatus, which is undermined by rampant corruption and turf wars between the coast guard, police and armed forces. Some analysts believe that police and military officers sometimes take a share of ransom money paid for Philippine crew members.

As in Malacca, the shipping industry will probably come up with its own solutions for beating pirates, at a fraction of the cost of mounting state-led security patrols. One of the sharpest Malacca measures: placing barbed wire on the key embarkation points of ships used by pirates to raid ships.