The Triborder Sea Area: Maritime Southeast Asia’s Ungoverned Space

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 19

Since the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, maritime security analysts in the Asia-Pacific region have focused their attention on the Strait of Malacca and the potential for a major terrorist strike in this vital artery of world trade. Preoccupation with the Strait of Malacca has meant, however, that another, perhaps equally serious, maritime black spot has been neglected, namely the Sulu and Celebes seas, a porous triborder sea area between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Decades of poor governance, economic and political marginalization, lack of state capacity, and separatist conflict have turned this area into an “ungoverned space” and hence a haven for transnational criminals, including terrorists. Addressing transnational threats in this area not only requires greater security cooperation among the three countries, but also increased assistance from external powers who have much to offer in terms of capacity building.

The focus on the Strait of Malacca during the past six years is understandable given its importance to the global economy. The 550-mile strait, located between the Indonesian island of Sumatra and peninsular Malaysia, is the shortest route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and it is estimated that 25-30% of world trade and 50% of global energy supplies pass through it each year. Post-9/11, security analysts conflated piracy and terrorism, and posited several scenarios in which transnational terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda or its Southeast Asian affiliate Jemaah Islamiya (JI) link up with pirates to perpetrate a major attack in the Strait of Malacca with the goal of disrupting the global economy.

While these concerns were almost certainly overplayed, the international pressure generated galvanized the three littoral states (Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore) into tightening sea lane security. In 2004-2005, the three countries launched the Malacca Straits Patrols (MSP), a cooperative security measure that comprises year-round coordinated naval patrols and combined air patrols. In addition, Indonesia—the locus of maritime crime in Southeast Asia—mustered the political will and resources to increase naval patrols in its territorial waters. As a result of these and other initiatives, cases of reported piratical attacks in Southeast Asia dropped 53% from 2003 to 2006.

Security Situation in Triborder Area Deteriorates

While international attention was focused on the Strait of Malacca, however, the security situation in the sea lanes linking the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia were allowed to deteriorate. This area—known as the triborder sea area—comprises two main sectors. The first is the Sulu Sea in the southwestern Philippines, a 100,000 square-mile body of water bounded to the northwest by Palawan Island, to the southeast by the Sulu Archipelago, and in the southwest by the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah. The second sector is the Celebes Sea (also known as the Sulawesi Sea), 110,000 square miles of water bordered by the Sulu Archipelago and Mindanao to the north, Sabah and the Indonesian province of Kalimantan to the west, and Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island to the south. The Celebes Sea opens southwest through the Makassar Strait, which is increasingly used by large crude oil tankers unable to use the shallower Strait of Malacca.

The Sulu Archipelago (comprising the islands of Basilan, Jolo and Tawi-Tawi), Mindanao and Sulawesi have all been neglected by the central governments in Manila and Jakarta for decades, resulting in poor governance, corruption and high levels of poverty and unemployment. In addition, Mindanao has been wracked by over three decades of insurgency and separatist conflict. As a result, the Sulu and Celebes Seas have become notorious for illegal maritime activities such as smuggling, piracy, and trafficking in illegal narcotics, guns and people; in short, it is an ungoverned space. What most concerns security analysts is the utilization of the maritime domain in this area by terrorist organizations as a base of operations.

The locus of the problem is the southern Philippines, home to the terrorist organization the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the separatist group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The ASG has been based on the islands of Basilan and Jolo since its foundation in the early 1990s, and is very familiar with the surrounding maritime area. It was from these islands that the ASG launched raids against tourist resorts in Malaysia and Palawan Island in 2000 and 2001, receiving large ransoms in return. The ASG was also responsible for the world’s deadliest act of maritime terrorism to date, the sinking of the MV Superferry 14 in February 2004 in Manila Bay, which killed 116 people and injured 300.

Both the ASG and MILF have been accused of conducting piratical attacks in the Sulu and Celebes Seas as a means of generating income for their causes. The full extent of this problem, however, remains unclear as accurate statistics are not available. Piracy in the southern Philippines has been a perennial problem—indeed a way of life—for many centuries. Ships’ masters are often unwilling or unable to report attacks to the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur because it only receives reports in English via high frequency radio or fax, and language skills and equipment are often lacking in the rich fishing grounds of the triborder sea area. As a result, the vast majority of maritime depredations in this area go unreported to the IMB. For instance, in early January 2007, the Philippine authorities rescued dozens of fishermen who had been held for ransom off Tawi-Tawi, and in March suspected MILF operatives held 20 fishermen hostage off Mindanao—neither incident was reported to the IMB. The IMB received just six reports of maritime crime in Philippine waters in 2006, a grossly inaccurate figure.

Both the ASG and MILF have established linkages with JI, and a recent RAND study noted that the Sulawesi-Mindanao arc provides the terrorist organization with a “key logistical corridor” and “theater for jihadist operations” [1]. JI members Umar Patek and Dulmatin, both suspected of planning the 2002 Bali bombings, are believed to be in the Sulu Archipelago after escaping from Indonesian authorities. JI operatives are known to undertake training in camps in the southern Philippines, and travel from Sulawesi to Mindanao via Sabah which is just a short boat ride from the Sulu Archipelago. Sulawesi itself constitutes an important base of operations for JI as the organization has grafted itself on to sectarian and communal violence in Poso over the past few years. Sabah is also important to JI and the ASG for another reason: it provides a place of sanctuary. Sabah is home to more than half a million illegal immigrants from the Philippines and Indonesia, allowing operatives from both groups to blend in and lie low.

States Lack Capacity to Handle Threat

Tackling transnational security threats in the triborder sea area is hindered by the lack of state capacity, especially in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Starved of funding for years, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is one of the weakest military forces in Southeast Asia. As the country’s primary security threats are land-based—separatist, communist insurgent and terrorist groups—the army has received priority funding. The operational effectiveness of the Philippine Navy (PN) and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has suffered accordingly, leaving the country’s sea lanes largely unprotected. In October 2006, Philippine National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales summed up the situation: “We cannot check every boat that travels between Indonesia and Mindanao. Over 26,000 trips are made by these boats [every year] and it is impossible to monitor each of them given the government’s meager resources” (The Philippine Star, October 16, 2006). The PN’s inability to effectively monitor the sea lanes in the Sulu Sea enabled ASG and JI operatives to flee from Jolo and Basilan in the wake of a major U.S.-backed AFP offensive earlier this year. In early September, for instance, Philippine authorities arrested six alleged ASG members on Palawan Island, who were believed to have escaped the dragnet around Jolo.

The Indonesian Navy faces similar problems. In the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Indonesia’s defense budget was slashed, and by 2003 it was estimated that less than 30% of the Navy’s 113 vessels were operational. Since 2004, improved economic conditions have enabled the navy to purchase new corvettes and patrol boats, but it is still significantly below strength and incapable of monitoring the country’s 34,000 miles of coastline and 4.9 million square miles of territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. The navy estimates it needs another 262 warships to adequately patrol the country’s vast maritime domain (Antara, September 18). Moreover, due to international pressure, the navy has been required to concentrate its limited resources on the Strait of Malacca. Indonesia’s participation in the MSP, and increased naval patrols in its territorial waters adjoining the strait, have put severe pressure on the navy’s aging and fuel-thirsty vessels.

Malaysia is in a better position to deal with the problem. The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) is more professional and better equipped than its Philippine or Indonesian counterparts, and after the 2001 raid on Sipidan its presence on Sabah was beefed up. In 2005, Malaysia launched its national coast guard, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), which is responsible for enforcing maritime law in both east and west Malaysia. However, both the RMN and MMEA have focused their efforts on the Strait of Malacca for the past several years to the detriment of security in the waters around Sabah.

Security cooperation among the three countries is very limited. The naval forces of Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia conduct coordinated patrols but their effectiveness is limited by infrequency and lack of available assets. Indonesia and the Philippines conduct CORPAT PHILINDO four times a year, but each patrol involves only one vessel from each country and lasts for only 10 days. Nevertheless, Manila and Jakarta have agreed to strengthen the patrols in an effort to stem arms trafficking into Poso, but resources are very limited. Malaysia and the Philippines conduct just two coordinated patrols (OPS PHIMAL) each year. In 2006, the Philippines proposed year-round coordinated naval patrols like the MSP, as well as designated sea lanes for all maritime traffic to facilitate easier monitoring and inspection by the three navies, but so far no agreement has been reached (Associated Press, March 13, 2006). The Philippines has, however, recently announced a program designed to enhance the PN’s ability to conduct surveillance and interdiction of security threats in the country’s “southern backdoor” called Coast Watch South. The concept, developed with help from Australia, envisages the establishment of 17 Coast Watch Stations from Palawan to Davao provinces, equipped with fast patrol boats and helicopters. Funding the $380 million program, however, will be a challenge.


If maritime security threats in the triborder sea area are to be effectively addressed, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia will require sustained assistance from external powers in the form of capacity building. Capacity building efforts need to focus on improving the communication, surveillance, and interdiction capabilities of regional maritime law enforcement agencies such as the navy, coast guard and marine police. So far, the focus has been on the Strait of Malacca, but this is gradually changing. The United States has agreed to supply Indonesia with 12 radar stations, some of which will be situated in North Sulawesi, as well as 30 patrol boats for the Marine Police. Australia, meanwhile, has agreed to supply the Philippines with 28 high-speed boats for Coast Watch South. This is a good start, but much more needs to be done in the coming years to undo decades of neglect and rein in this ungoverned space.


1. Angel Rabasa, “Case Study: The Sulawesi-Mindanao Arc,” in Angel Rabasa et al, Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks (Santa Monica: RAND, 2007), p. 116.