The tri-border area (TBA) in Southeast Asia is comprised of the maritime zones of three states – the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia – in the Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea. Numerous shipping arteries traverse the TBA, presenting an alternative to the overcrowded Straits of Malacca (SOM) and carrying roughly $40 billion worth of cargo each year.
Despite the area’s commercial significance, the TBA has been largely overlooked by policymakers and security strategists from all three littoral states, possibly due to a desire to avoid sensitive questions on sovereignty and jurisdiction. However, the recent high-profile abductions of Indonesian and Malaysian sailors by alleged members of the Abu Sayyaf, a militant group from the Philippines, highlight the urgent need to remedy this maritime security gap.
According to reports, the bulk of the piracy and armed robbery at sea incidents in Southeast Asia occur in and around the SOM. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, reported only 11 attacks in the TBA in 2015, mostly involving armed robbery against ships in port. The only confirmed incident of ship hijacking involved a tanker that was boarded in the vicinity of Lembeh Island in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. No one was harmed during the attack and the tanker’s crew was set adrift in a life raft.
The attacks took on a dramatically different turn in the first quarter of 2016. Three out of the four incidents tracked by the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Center and the IMB show that the modus shifted from taking ships/cargo to ransoming sailors for exorbitant amounts. Furthermore, it can be seen from the table below that all three incidents appear linked in terms of the identity of alleged perpetrators, type of targets, area of operations, and modus operandi.
No. of Perpetrators
Types of Weapons Used
Treatment of Crew
Brahma 12 and Anand 12 (Indonesian)
|*Attacked on March 26, 2016 while underway from Kalimantan, Indonesia to Batangas, Philippines*Boarded by armed perpetrators from a speedboat and a wooden-type motorized pump boat|| |
17 (alleged to be members of the Abu Sayyaf militant group)
Firearms (type not determined)
|All 10 Indonesian crew members were abducted but were released on May 1, 2016 following the purported payment of ransom money by Patria Maritime Lines, the sailors’ private employer||*Anand 12 and its cargo of around 7,000 metric tons of coal were hijacked and are believed to be in the custody of the perpetrators*Although the tugboat was abandoned, the navigational system (including the GPS and radar apparatus), radio communication system, and fire fighting equipment of Brahma 12 were removed and taken by the perpetrators*Owner of Brahma 12 reportedly paid ransom of PhP 50 million (around $1 million) for the release of the crew|
MV Massive 6 (Malaysian)
|*Attacked on April 1, 2016 while underway from Manila, Philippines to Tawau in Sabah, Malaysia*Boarded by armed perpetrators from a speedboat at approx. 27 nm southeast of Semporna in Sabah, Malaysia|| |
8 (alleged to be members of the Abu Sayyaf militant group)
|Firearms (type not determined)||4 Malaysian crew members were abducted, leaving behind 5 other crewmen from Indonesia and Myanmar||*Mobile phones and laptops belonging to crew members were taken|
TB Henry (Indonesian)
|*Attacked on April 15, 2016 while underway from Cebu, Philippines to Tarakan, Indonesia*Boarded by armed perpetrators from a speedboat at approx. 25 nm off Sitangkai Island in Tawi-Tawi, Philippines|| |
Unknown (alleged to be members of the Abu Sayyaf militant group)
|Firearms (type not determined)||Of 10 Indonesian crew members, 1 was injured while 4 others were abducted||*No objects were reported to have been taken from the vessel|
The main responses to these kidnap-for-ransom piracy incidents in the TBA have so far been largely domestic. Both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have both imposed temporary bans on maritime trade between their countries and southern Philippine ports, even instructing ships to avoid the TBA and instead find alternate routes. Indonesian ships already holding permits to sail may only do so if accompanied by a military escort. On the other hand, the Philippine government is actively investigating the incidents and is also deploying its armed forces to address the Abu Sayyaf threat on the ground. All three countries have also vowed to step up maritime security patrols in the area.
However, these abductions are multi-jurisdictional problems, requiring multi-state responses.
The foreign ministers of the TBA countries have agreed to meet in Jakarta on May 5 to discuss possible areas of cooperation in addressing these incidents and preventing repeats. While this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, a number of issues should be considered in order to be able to mount more effective countermeasures.
First, the exact nature and limits of cooperative actions should be determined. Initial media reports reveal something of a disconnect between the cooperation positions of the Philippines and Indonesia. It appears that the Philippines wants to establish separate but coordinated patrols to identify corridors where ships can safely travel. On the other hand, Indonesia seems set on having joint patrols that would involve navy ships from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines patrolling together and having free access into each other’s territorial waters. This issue is one that requires careful discussion, given that it is part of a larger context involving unresolved territorial issues, sensitivities pertaining to the limits of sovereignty, different levels of maritime domain awareness, and unequal maritime monitoring and law enforcement capacities.
In this regard, it may be useful to consider, as a starting point, the forms and limits of coordination outlined in the Code of Conduct Concerning the Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery Against Ships, and Illicit Maritime Activity in West and Central Africa (Yaoundé Code of Conduct), and the Code of Conduct Concerning the Repression of Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden (Djibouti Code of Conduct). These non-binding Codes have been effective in limiting the number of piracy and armed robbery at sea incidents off the Gulf of Guinea and the Coast of Somalia, while still adhering to the principles of sovereign equality and territorial integrity of States, and the non-intervention of the domestic affairs of other States.
Second, all three littoral states should collaborate in order to achieve enhanced maritime domain awareness (MDA) – defined by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as “the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment” – in the TBA. The poor MDA level in the TBA is directly linked to the area’s maritime security governance gap and indicates a low-level of prioritization for the area. This situation in turn facilitates the conduct of maritime crime and contributes to the impunity of perpetrators.
One possible course of action is for the three countries to earmark funds from their allocations under the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI), a regional capacity building effort meant to help some ASEAN member states (including Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines) and Taiwan to establish a shared MDA architecture, specifically for the TBA. Doing so may help re-focus attention on the TBA and channel the resources needed to detect potential threats, facilitate information sharing, and engage in collaborative security measures. Moreover, utilizing the MSI to establish a comprehensive understanding of MDA factors such as coastal geography, regular area-based activities, established presence of criminal elements, available security infrastructure, and sub-regional socio-cultural characteristics, will certainly influence the type of priority littoral states will give to the TBA. This is an important first step in countering the maritime security governance gap.
Third, the need for Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to be part of a formal information sharing and capacity building network should be considered. More than helping to facilitate information exchange among the three littoral states, this may help improve incident response. The only network applicable to the TBA is the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), which entered into force on September 4, 2006 and which currently has 20 signatories: Australia, China, Denmark, India, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, the United States, Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Notably, Indonesia and Malaysia are not parties to the ReCAAP. Indonesia refused to join over concerns that the agreement would compromise its sovereignty. On the other hand, Malaysia objected to the fact that the ReCAAP Information Sharing Center (ISC), the facility through which the agreement would be operationalized, would be located in Singapore. It felt that doing so would undermine the IMB Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur. Given the possible increase in piracy and armed robbery at sea incidences in the TBA, it may be time for these two countries to revisit their reasons and weigh them against the possible strategic benefits of participation.
Southeast Asian waters are rife with security issues and challenges, often dividing the attention of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines and straining allotted resources to capacity. Compared to more controversial areas such as the South China Sea and the SOM, the relatively benign TBA has been put on the back-burner by its littoral states. As a result of this neglect, the maritime security infrastructure in the area remains underdeveloped and incapable of addressing incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea, which of late have been increasing in both frequency and violence. The recent spate of abductions at sea – a radical departure from previously documented modus operandi – indicate that criminal elements like the Abu Sayyaf are becoming more and more emboldened by the obvious maritime security gap. Unless this gap is immediately addressed, these and other transnational crimes will likely continue.
Jacqueline Espenilla is a Non-Resident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies. She is also a UN-Nippon Foundation Fellow at the Division of Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea at the United Nations in New York. She received an LL.M. from Harvard Law School, and a J.D. and B.A. from the University of the Philippines.