In the face of ASEAN inaction, minilaterals respond to growing threats to regional security
The Indomalphi (Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines) implemented their first joint maritime patrol in June 2017, after almost a year since the signing of the framework in 2016. The recent attack of the Maute group in Marawi reaffirmed the need and urgency of cooperation. With growing common threats, how can trilateral or minilateral arrangements such as Indomalphi contribute to ASEAN security? What are the implications for ASEAN security cooperation?
Photo by Bobby Nugroho, Nikkei Asian Review*
On the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in Laos last year, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines agreed to pursue trilateral patrols in Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea. Over the years, despite the increase in crimes committed in waters such as kidnapping, piracy and smuggling, the agreement did not seem to get enough ground for immediate launching until the Marawi siege on 23 May. Not surprisingly, the consultations on crafting the standard operating procedures (SOP) had taken time because of some sovereignty issues.
The customized SOP allows military personnel of the contracting parties to enter the other’s waters in times of emergency (i.e. during hot pursuit), but with prior knowledge of the state being entered. This is also applicable only at sea and not once the chase reaches the land.
Aside from patrols and communication hotlines, the three countries will establish military command centers in Tarakan in North Kalimantan, Tawau in Sabah, and Bongao in Tawi-tawi as focal points for sharing of intelligence. They further agreed to establish transit corridors for commercial activities. In July, Indonesia and the Philippines created new shipping routes connecting the cities of Davao, General Santos, and North Sulawesi Province.
Security cooperation such as joint maritime patrols and exchange of information is not new for these littoral states. Previous cooperation was however done on a bilateral basis, and was achieved despite territorial disputes and overlapping exclusive economic zones.
The Philippines and Indonesia, who signed a pact on boundary delimitation only in 2014, have been patrolling the Celebes Sea jointly since 1986. The two navies traditionally carried out drills in communications, replenishment of logistics at sea, medical missions by military personnel, joint search and rescue operations, among others. The CORPAT PHILINDO, which aims to enhance interoperability, recently conducted its patrol in the context of the trilateral cooperation. On the other hand, the Malaysian and Philippine navies conduct OPS PHIMAL coordinated patrol twice every year. To name other relevant cooperation, Kuala Lumpur has been working together with Manila on anti-smuggling since 1967, and with Jakarta on avoiding incidents at sea since 2010.
However, bilateral arrangements are no longer enough to address the convergence of challenges. First, the environment in this part of the region is characterized by porous borders and governance difficulties, which allows pro-ISIS extremists to easily coordinate and transact with contacts around the area—creating networks and strengthening terrorist groups’ foothold in Southeast Asia. The three states are confronting terrorism-related problems that clearly are transnational in nature, and thus require wider and deeper coordination among them.
Secondly, the growing threat raises questions regarding the capabilities of regional navies and coast guards, their resources, and the effectivity of existing bilateral cooperation in maritime law enforcement. While it has been argued that the tri-maritime patrol is asymmetric in terms of the needs, capabilities, political will and priorities of each state, the inadequacies of each party can be positively seen as an opportunity for cooperation which can help states develop their own capabilities.
Considering the success of Malacca Strait Patrol (MSP) in deterring piracy since 2004 and this newly launched Indomalphi, minilateral arrangements seem to have become a promising model for maritime cooperation in recent years, as compared to ASEAN-wide cooperation proposals. The approach is specific to states that are directly involved in the problem, making it fast, flexible, and feasible.
Not to deprecate bilateral arrangements, the MSP originally developed through the network of bilateral patrols among Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. Similarly, Indomalphi is still in the phase of advancing from existing bilateral agreements towards a trilateral arrangement.
This arrangement is not necessarily exclusive to littoral states. Thailand became a party to MSP in 2006, while Vietnam and Myanmar are observers. Meanwhile Singapore, Brunei and Thailand are invited to be observers to Indomalphi. On one hand, with the littoral states taking the lead and other neighbors being invited to observe or participate later, minilateralism advances ASEAN security by testing the waters and preparing states for regional cooperation—the bottom-up approach, as how some call it. Due to its urgency as highlighted by the Marawi crisis, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines needed to step up and initiate counter measures.
On the other hand, minilateralism challenges ASEAN to address the issue collectively. It tests how ASEAN will manage to make this kind of arrangement beneficial for the entire region. For instance, the region has several bodies of water shared among its member-states, including the complex South China Sea. Indomalphi demonstrates that cooperation can be done even with territorial disputes, political differences, and reservations on sovereignty issues. Customized SOPs can be negotiated to secure the region against a common threat.
Aside from engaging in bilaterals and trilaterals to address transnational challenges in the region, there are existing multilaterals as well with external players like Australia, Japan, and the United States. In June last year, the Malaysian and Philippine navies conducted a coordinated multilateral training with the United States in the Sulu Sea. Another well-known training and exercise that had regularly been held was the Cooperation Afloat Readiness And Training (CARAT), which continues to be held jointly despite newly elected President Trump’s unclear interest and policy in Southeast Asia. US interests in this region primarily lie in freedom of navigation and championing the war against terrorism. US sees these challenges as areas where it could pursue multilateral cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, particularly by bridging the security deficiencies in the three countries. However, while some navies are accommodating the US, some still show apparent reluctance in pursuing multilateral arrangements with the superpower, as shown by Indonesia’s stand on sovereignty and neutrality in the MSP.
If ASEAN wishes to live up to its centrality and leadership in the region, it must recognize that the threats to security of its member-states are ever evolving. If minilateralism demonstrates that it can work effectively, then the Association should use it to push forward broader regional security cooperation mechanisms.
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