Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are set to sign a new framework agreement to govern trilateral patrols in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas, a July 14 statement released by the Malaysian defense ministry confirmed.
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 – has long been recognized by Southeast Asian watchers as a critical front in Asia’s maritime space (See: “Confronting Threats in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas: Opportunities and Challenges”). With its porous borders and decades of weak governance, it has become a hub for transnational organized crime and terrorist threats and is also at the center of several lingering interstate disputes.
As I have written previously, the three Southeast Asian states had agreed earlier this year to undertake trilateral patrols following a recent spate of kidnappings involving Malaysian and Indonesian nationals by the Abu Sayyaf Group, which is based in the southern Philippines. The move had once again brought the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas back in the spotlight (See: “The Other Sea That Dominated Asia’s Security Summit in 2016”).
According to a July 14 statement seen by The Diplomat, a multi-agency delegation led by the Malaysian National Security Council (NSC) is currently in Jakarta working on the “Framework on Trilateral Cooperative Agreement between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines” with their respective counterparts on the Sulu Sea Patrol Initiative (SSPI). The framework is expected to be signed following the conclusion of that working group meeting.
In addition to the framework, the statement said that the trilateral working group is also discussing the relevant standard operating procedures (SOP) to operationalize the framework. Given the various political as well as operational challenges in actually getting these patrols underway, observers will be watching closely to see how these three countries contend with them.
Following this, on July 21, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein will host his counterparts from Indonesia and the Philippines to discuss and deliberate on the operationalization of the SSPI. It will be the third such meeting between the defense ministers following the inaugural meeting in Vientiane on the sidelines of the 10th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting and the second in Manila last month.