Confronting Threats in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas: Opportunities and Challenges

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Confronting Threats in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas: Opportunities and Challenges

Tackling the manifold problems in the tri-border area will require some heavy lifting by concerned states.

Confronting Threats in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas: Opportunities and Challenges

U.S. and Malaysian ships in the Sulu Sea as part of CARAT 2015.

Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

Too often, headlines about maritime security in the Indo-Pacific tend to focus primarily the South China Sea or the Indian Ocean, mostly because they involve elements of major power competition. And to the extent that other challenges like piracy and trafficking get any attention, the Straits of Malacca is often the focus, given its strategic importance as the world’s most important trade route. The Sulu-Sulawesi Seas, by contrast, received comparatively little scrutiny as a front in Asia’s maritime space until a recent announcement by the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia about trilateral patrols in the area.


That is unfortunate. Even from a security perspective alone, the Sulu Sea – or, more specifically, the one million square kilometer tri-border area in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas between the southern Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia – is significant. Indeed, arguably no area better captures both the complexity of the region’s manifold maritime security challenges as well as the potential opportunities for greater multilateral cooperation among the states that rely on it.

On the one hand, the Sulu-Sulawesi seas are important to neighboring states and outside stakeholders because they facilitate the cross-border movement of millions of people as well as international navigation. According to one recent estimate by the Indonesian foreign ministry, every year more than 100,000 ships pass through the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas carrying 55 million metric tons of cargo and 18 million passengers.

But the area also presents challenges for the region. The tri-border area, with its porous borders and decades of weak governance, has been ridden with conflict, crime, and poverty, making it a hub for transnational organized crime and terrorist threats. For instance, in the case of the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) main base of operations is in Jolo and Basilan in the Sulu Archipelago, while the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group’s headquarters is in Mindanao. The area is also at the center of several lingering interstate disputes, be it the Sabah issue between the Philippines and Malaysia or the Ambalat dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Converging Trends

Now, headlines have temporarily thrust the Sulu Sea back in the global limelight. The immediate impetus for cooperation is the recent spate of kidnappings by the ASG involving Malaysian and Indonesian nationals. Though that is far from an uncommon event, the reaction from concerned states appears to have reached a new inflection point this time – at least for now. In particular, the decision by Kuala Lumpur, Manila, and Jakarta to pursue trilateral patrols in the Sulu Sea on the sidelines of the 10th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) in Laos reflects a serious commitment if followed through (See: “Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines Agree on New Joint Patrols Amid Kidnappings”). And to those present at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the outsized attention the issue received also clearly testified to its rising significance

Yet for close observers of Southeast Asian security issues, the context in which this is occurring is in fact much broader and the product of the confluence of several trends. First, individual countries have become more determined about securing their maritime sovereignty and borders as their capacities grow. As I have emphasized before, concerns about lingering interstate disputes and transnational challenges in the maritime domain still inform the ongoing military modernization of the three countries directly involved in the Sulu Sea. Malaysia’s efforts to reinforce the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) in Sabah and Indonesia’s capability upgrades as well as intensified patrolling and monitoring near the Ambalat sea block in the Sulawesi Sea off the east coast of Borneo are just two cases in point (See: “What Does Malaysia’s New Defense Budget for 2016 Mean?”).

Second, threats in that domain have also grown more serious in the past year or two. Though kidnappings have been commonplace, the recent series of incidents in April prompted a rather alarmist response, with Indonesian officials saying that the piracy surge could turn the Sulu Sea into the “new Somalia.” With respect to terrorism, fears of the growing reach of the Islamic State into Southeast Asia – made clear by the Jakarta attacks earlier this year – have also drawn attention once again to the porous borders and ungoverned spaces in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas, much like they did following the September 11 attacks and the rise of Jemaah Islamiyah. Indeed, some have even speculated that ISIS could look to the southern Philippines as a base or territorial foothold in Southeast Asia this year or next. Interstate disputes have also served as irritants from time to time, such as the invasion of Sabah by Philippine militants in 2013, known as the Lahad Datu Incident.

Third and lastly, opportunities have been expanding for greater subregional and extraregional cooperation. Subregionally, even defense ministers from countries surrounding the Sulu Sea now admit that the Malacca Straits Patrols (MSP), which commemorate their tenth year in 2016, serve as a good example for what could be possible in the Sulu Sea. Beyond that, the growing interest of external powers in the region could also offer other avenues for cooperation. For instance, in the midst of the Shangri-La Dialogue and in between the bilateral phases of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises that Washington does with the Malaysian and Philippine militaries, the U.S., Philippine, and Malaysian navies conducted a coordinated multilateral training activity in the Sulu Sea on June 4. As I have indicated previously, the move reflects the U.S. view that the Sulu Sea is one promising avenue through which Washington can pursue multilateralization with its Southeast Asian partners (See: “The Other Sea That Dominated Asia’s Security Summit in 2016”)


Addressing the challenges in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas requires a multi-pronged and multilateral effort. On the security side, the initiative that has dominated the headlines in recent months is the proposal for trilateral patrols between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In May, the foreign ministers and armed forces chiefs of the three countries met in Indonesia and issued a joint declaration that included a list of measures to begin operationalizing these patrols – which would be either coordinated or joint – including establishing a national focal point and hotline of communication facilitate coordination and intelligence-sharing (See: “Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines Agree on New Joint Patrols Amid Kidnappings”). The idea is to emulate the successful Malacca Straits Patrols (MSP), which reduced incidents of piracy and sea robbery in those waters.

While this is promising, such initiatives must be complemented by stringent efforts at the national level. Without the Philippines decimating the top leadership of the ASG in the southern Philippines or Malaysia cracking down more effectively on corruption within its security services, such illicit activities are likely to persist. After all, the strength of any sort of collective mechanism – be it coordinated patrols or intelligence-sharing – rests on the effectiveness of the individual participants.

And though security initiatives like patrols or armed operations can mitigate the challenges in the area, eradicating them entirely will require political and economic measures that get at their root causes. That means addressing the conflict, crime, and poverty within the tri-border area that either opens up space or drives support for illicit activities. In the southern Philippines, for instance, it would help if the incoming Duterte government could make progress on implementing a historic agreement with the MILF, inked under President Benigno Aquino III’s tenure, to end a decades-long insurgency, thereby providing an opportunity to facilitate stability and boost the local economy.

Economic initiatives can also help alleviate inequalities and address underdevelopment, which can fuel narratives of injustice and lead disaffected individuals to turn to nefarious activities. Apart from efforts taken by individual states, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Manila should also look to bolster inter-state collaboration to assist each other where possible. While new measures could be considered, countries can also utilize existing subregional and regional mechanisms as well such as the Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Philippines – East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA). The Philippines has an opportunity to shape such multilateral endeavors as both the chair of BIMP-EAGA beginning September 2016 and the chair of ASEAN starting January 2017.


Seasoned observers know that realizing all of this this will not be easy. On the military front, Philippine officials repeatedly stress the difficulty of rooting out the ASG due to serious problems ranging from the terrain to a lack of capabilities and manpower. Getting at root causes is also a heavy lift, and it is unclear if there is sufficient political will in various capitals to undertake efforts that will be controversial among either certain government bureaucracies or some segments of the population.

Once initiatives become bilateral or multilateral, additional complexities present themselves. Take the example of the proposed trilateral patrols. For one, remaining disputes between the countries could complicate cooperation. From Indonesia’s public concern about Malaysian incursions in the Ambalat block to incoming Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s suggestion that he could pursue Manila’s claim to Sabah, these issues do not seem to be going away anytime soon. Politics aside, there are also the operational challenges of getting these patrols underway, which these countries recognize. Getting to effective trilateral patrols requires resolving nettlesome questions around the nature of these patrols (whether joint or coordinated); the standard operating procedures that will govern them; and the necessary supporting infrastructure (in the case of the MSP, they were buttressed by other mechanisms, including air patrols and a formal intelligence sharing platform).

All this does not mean that one should pour cold water over the recent uptick in subregional and extraregional cooperation in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas, which has long been needed. But it does suggest that given the multitude of threats that exist and the challenges inherent in tackling them individually and jointly, managing this tri-border area is likely to remain a problem for the foreseeable future.