Maritime Piracy and Kidnapping in the Sulu-Celebes Sea

Maritime Piracy and Kidnapping in the Sulu-Celebes Sea

Maritime Piracy and Kidnapping in the Sulu-Celebes Sea

By Reginald Ramos from Perth USAsia Centre | 02 May 2017

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The Sulu-Celebes Sea has emerged as one of the most pirated regions in the world with Indonesian Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Panjaitan warning that the region was in danger of becoming a “new Somalia”. This is evident with the world witnessing an increase in global maritime kidnapping unparalleled in the past decade, especially spurred by the kidnappings in the Sulu-Celebes Sea.

Worldwide attention towards Southeast Asia was re-ignited when a string of kidnappings began from March 2016 in the Sulu-Celebes Sea, commonly known as the tri-border area, which has so far resulted in the kidnapping of more than 50 sailors, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia. In response to this, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have revitalised diplomatic efforts to establish an enhanced comprehensive regional framework. However, in my newly released Indo-Pacific Insight Series, Shifting Tides in the Sulu-Celebes Sea, I argue that there remains many fundamental issues that will hinder any future progress on this.

Within the tri-border area, the Philippines militants, Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) have emerged as the predominant actors operating within a highly lucrative maritime piracy and kidnapping realm. In the past year alone, the ASG have generated roughly U.S. $7.3 million dollars from kidnappings alone.

In fact, this is only a small drop in the ocean, in which the tri-border area sees roughly U.S. $40 billion dollars’ worth of cargo floating through its waters every year. Though pirates have traditionally targeted smaller vessels, there has been an increasing attempt to target ships of larger tonnage with high value cargo which signals an increasingly worrying concern for the future of maritime piracy and kidnapping in the tri-border area.

The Philippines ASG was initially established in 1991 as an Islamist terrorist organisation dedicated to the violent pursuit of self-determination for the Bangsamoro. The death of its founder, Abdurajak Janjalani in 1998 and the subsequent leadership crisis and fictionalisation, as well as the increased United States presence in the southern Philippines following September 11, 2001, resulted in the decentralisation of the ASG. Consequently, the ASG began venturing into maritime piracy and kidnapping with its armed factions operating independently of each other with its members’ motives fluctuating between political ideology and financial gain.

The Philippines has responded to the ASG primarily through counter-insurgency operations in the southern Philippines, modernising its maritime operational capabilities through the acquirement of assets and vessels for both the Philippines Navy and Philippines Coast Guard, the establishment of the Maritime Situation Awareness Centre, as well as the pursuit of regional diplomatic cooperation such as joint-sea patrols with Indonesia and Malaysia. Despite these efforts, however, there remain many fundamental challenges that need to be addressed before shifting the tide of the realities on the ground.

The current peace process in the southern Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte, remains inherently flawed due to the specific exclusion of local non-state actors deemed as terrorists – including the ASG. Without the acknowledgement of the sentiments carried by Islamist extremists in the south, the Duterte administration’s hard power response will likely see short-term gains in a relatively complicated long-term game. This will also be increasingly difficult with the deterioration of the security environment in the southern Philippines, and the potential return of foreign fighters due to the collapse of the Caliphate in the Middle East.

The limitations of the maritime operational capability of not only the Philippines, but also its littoral neighbour Indonesia, must also be taken into account in terms of future joint responses towards maritime piracy and kidnapping within the region. This will also be difficult due to sovereignty sensitivities surrounding existing border disputes, particularly between the Philippines and Malaysia over Sabah and Indonesia and Malaysia over the demarcation of the Celebes Sea. With diplomatic flashpoints remaining a possibility between the littoral neighbours, especially over territorial disputes, diplomatic progress in countering maritime piracy and kidnapping can be undermined.

The recent revitalisation of the diplomatic efforts between the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia seem promising, but it is only one step closer towards the actualisation of shifting the tides of a reality on the ground that continues to threaten the broader prosperity and security of the Indo-Pacific region.
Reginald Ramos is a Research and Program Assistant at the Perth USAsia Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr.

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