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Sulu Sea Trilateral Patrols in the Spotlight at 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue

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Asia Defense

Sulu Sea Trilateral Patrols in the Spotlight at 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue

The initiative’s progress was under scrutiny at Asia’s premier security dialogue.

Sulu Sea Trilateral Patrols in the Spotlight at 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue
Credit: US Navy Photo

SINGAPORE – Last year, I wrote that while most of the headlines coming out of the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) were related to the South China Sea, as an attendee it seemed that another sea – the Sulu Sea – had also gotten a significant share of the attention as well given trilateral patrols that were being mulled between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines (See: “The Other Sea That Dominated the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue”).

As I wrote then, 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 a hub for transnational organized crime and terrorist threats (See: “Confronting Threats in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas: Opportunities and Challenges”). The subsequent agreement by the three Southeast Asian states to undertake trilateral patrols in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas following a recent spate of kidnappings, reached following a meeting in Bali last August, had offered some promise about them taking off.

Yet almost a year on, though the three sides have made some advances in trying to operationalize the patrols, they technically have not officially begun, with several postponements occurring. The causes of the delays have varied, with some of them related to the very threats that the patrols are aiming to mitigate, while others concerning more mundane rationales like the logistics of getting the ministers together and specifics of the launching process itself (See: “Trilateral Patrols in the Sulu Sea: Still Coming Soon?”).

At this year’s SLD, the trilateral patrols were at the center of attention again, arguably even more so than they were last year. Part of this was due to the fact that the South China Sea, which had dominated SLD 2016 ahead of the July arbitral ruling on the Philippine case against China, was not as much of a focus this year amid a softening of Manila’s position following the election of President Rodrigo Duterte (See: “The Truth About Duterte’s ASEAN South China Sea Blow”).

But it was also because of the reality in the region that the threat from terrorism has increased significantly. After a chorus of warnings by the region’s defense officials for most of this year, in the week leading up to this year’s SLD, we had seen terror attacks in both Indonesia and the Philippines. Indeed, the fallout from the Marawi attack in the southern Philippines was cited as the reason why Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was unable to join his Malaysian and Indonesian counterparts at the dialogue.

With the patrols still not being launched thus far, observers have been curious about both the timeline of their implementation as well as their future prospects. And though some of these questions began to be addressed at SLD 2017, the path forward is still not quite that clear.

For instance, with respect to the timeline, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, to his credit, was fairly specific when he said in response to a question that patrols would be launched on June 19. If they indeed do kick off later this month, they would still be not too far off from the rough timeline that defense officials had been giving of sometime in April or May.

Yet the important thing to keep in mind is that while many are fixating on a specific date for the initial launch, the more critical question is how long it will take for the broader operationalization of these patrols to occur and how that process will unfold. For example, in his comments back in March, Lorenzana indicated that the countries would start with more basic tasks – like joint patrol of a specific area to protect commercial vessels – before attempting to scale up to more robust operations.

Regarding the exact scope and shape of the patrols, that still looks very much in the air. Though the trilateral patrols were initially narrowly portrayed as being designed to combat piracy, officials had in fact kept open the possibility that they could be broadened to address other challenges – particularly given the links between the various crimes that occur along these waters – and that other countries could participate in some form too in the future.

Yet a lot of this is wait and see at this point. Both the Indonesian and Philippine representatives suggested at SLD 2017 that trilateral cooperation could be expanded, with Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu mentioning that the patrols had already been broadened to include not just combating piracy, but terrorism, and Lorenzana noting in his remarks (delivered by Philippine Undersecretary for Defense Policy Ricardo A David Jr) that the ex-defense ministers of the three countries had met in Cebu back in 2012 to informally discuss cooperative activities in the South China Sea.

But when I asked David how the patrols might be expanded to include the South China Sea as well in the future, he was understandably cautious, merely clarifying that the patrols did not currently cover the South China Sea (even though that was not the question). As I suggested in the query, such an expansion would not be easy given how tense the South China Sea can get as well as how internationalized the situation has become.

Things are also more complicated than they may initially seem with respect to involving other actors, especially because of the diversity of candidates. For instance, though there will be some sensitivities, within Southeast Asia, Singapore would be one of the more logical and easier candidates to integrate both because of its membership in the successful Malacca Straits Patrols (MSP) in the 2000s as well as its Information Fusion Center in Changi Naval Base.

The involvement of outside powers, however, may be a tougher challenge to manage. To be sure, there is no shortage of interest, whether it be the coordinated multilateral training activity the United States conducted with the Philippine and Malaysian militaries last June amid the SLD or Duterte’s suggestion that China could play a role in the Sulu Sea as well, one that Beijing has taken seriously (See: “Can China Patrols Help Duterte in the Philippines’ Terror War?”).

But as I have written previously, Southeast Asian states have traditionally dealt with challenges in their surrounding waters largely individually or among themselves rather than with extraregional actors due to various reasons including sensitivities around lingering interstate disputes as well as suspicion about meddling by outside powers. The involvement of extraregional actors can also complicate things by overly politicizing a practical, indigenous initiative domestically or generating a zero-sum thinking that could impede progress.

This is not to pour cold water over the potential expansion of the trilateral patrols. But it is to suggest that for all the hype surrounding them, it is worth remembering that it is still early days.