The launching of Indomalphi Trilateral Maritime Patrol (TMP) in July 2017 was a celebrated milestone on security cooperation among the three neighbors Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Patterned from the Malacca Strait Patrol (MSP) such that it has also three components, the maritime patrol was followed shortly by introduction of air patrol and intelligence sharing. Since then, meetings and patrols have periodically convened, with each party rotationally taking turns in hosting the operations.

 File photo: Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, and Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana at the launch of the three-state air patrol in Malaysia in October 2017 |

A sustained and institutionalized Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement (TCA) can become one of Southeast Asia’s security regimes.

International relations scholar Robert Keohane defines regimes as “institutions with explicit rules agreed upon by the governments that pertain to particular sets of issues in international relations”. In this case, Indomalphi addresses overlapping transnational crimes including kidnapping, piracy, smuggling, and terrorism. In order to be effective, regime policies and practices need to be incorporated into state-level institutions and strategies.

A year ago, I argued on how such a bottom-up minilateral approach advances ASEAN security. More recently, we are seeing not only the improvement and seriousness of tri-border cooperation but also how individual state-member have begun to incorporate relevant practices into national efforts.

On the other hand, we cannot ignore ASEAN’s role. How can existing ASEAN mechanisms contribute to “security minilateralism” when these mechanisms themselves are challenged by the lack of institutionalization, legalization, harmonization, and coordination? Who will learn from whom? With its member-states’ diversity in geography, priorities, and goals, can ASEAN itself develop into a maritime security regime? 

Year One

During the Trilateral Intelligence Exchange (Intelex) meeting in Manila in August 2017, the group collectively agreed to designate a point of contact from each state’s combination of military and police personnel to facilitate the intelligence-sharing. A newly rehabilitated border post on Balut Island in Sarangani Province was to function as an inter-agency monitoring station on the Celebes Sea; while Malaysia and Indonesia were to establish five command posts along the Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan borders. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte even looked into the possibility of creating a task force, which Asian security observer Prashanth Parameswaran argued “would represent quite a dramatic acceleration in sub-regional cooperation”, as this would entail more coordination among government agencies.

The launching of the air space surveillance component followed in October 2017. All three air forces committed on deployment schedule of air assets adopting a monthly rotation. For instance, Malaysia led the joint air patrol in November 2017, which involved the aerial monitoring of 17,000 nautical miles and eight transit corridors, covering the waters of the three countries.

In November 2017, the first port visit was held in Tawi-tawi, Philippines. The second followed in April 2018, with joint warship exercises in the waters off Tarakan, Indonesia. 

During the third maritime patrol in early September 2018 in Sandakan, the Royal Malaysian Navy identified ‘rat-routes’ in the Sulu and Sulawesi seas where criminals enter Sabah illegally and undetected. Such information was based on the intelligence shared among the three countries preceding the exercise at sea. According to Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, there was a plan to build a land patrol training component aside from the maritime command centers and intelligence-sharing. Moreover, a cultural exchange program was held to promote better understanding and to build trust among the neighbors.

Discussions remain vague regarding such expansion and whether there should be a role for major powers, or how to go about TCA’s cooperation with any regional partner.

On 12 to 23 March 2018, the Philippines’ Western Mindanao Command (WesMinCom) hosted air patrols with Malaysia as part of the TCA over the common area of maritime interest. In a separate cooperation between the Philippines and Australia, the Naval Forces of WesMinCom and the Royal Australian Naval Forces conducted the second Maritime Security Engagement from 13 March to 2 April in the waters of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. This displays two separate patrols that may potentially collaborate in the absence of formal arrangements for regional partnership. Collaboration could also save time and resources.

However, to recall, one of the catalysts of the TCA was when Duterte invited China to patrol the Sulu-Celebes Seas, prompting Indonesia and Malaysia to expedite launching as they oppose direct participation by external powers.

In sync with national efforts

File photo from Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Western Mindanao

Such multinational efforts should complement and be in sync with maritime security strategies and practices at home. For example, the Philippine Coast Guard deployed sea marshals to accompany cargo vessels from Cebu and passenger ships from Manila to Zamboanga and Moro Gulf, as requested by shipping lines. A new coast guard ship sailed to critical sea lanes: the Sibutu Passage, Basilan Strait, and Moro Gulf. During the first quarter of 2018, the Philippines finalized plans to construct a new naval station in Barangay Bual, Luuk, a town in Sulu. The current administration is taking this seriously since the attacks in Marawi challenged this entire region. Maritime piracy exacts high human cost especially for a seafarer-exporting country like the Philippines. Of the 1,150 total seafarers who were exposed to piracy and armed robbery incidents in 2017, nationalities of the 661 were verified and 43% were Filipinos.

Despite such efforts and the fact that the numbers of transnational crimes are decreasing, criminals are still at large and there is still much to do. A kidnapping incident took place in January 2018, with the three Indonesian hostages rescued in Sulu on 15 September. There were also attacks in Surabaya, Indonesia in May 2018.

Evolving into a maritime security regime

At the level of ASEAN, there are several mechanisms against maritime and transnational crimes. For example, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus and ASEAN Regional Forum can facilitate military exercises and may provide financial assistance for security cooperation respectively. However, these mechanisms are also being criticized for the lack of institutionalization, harmonization, and coordination.

ASEAN never runs out of ideas and approaches in cooperation, but implementation is a complicated story. Despite having a comprehensive plan of action for counter-terrorism—which includes assimilation of academic research into policy, economic initiatives, religious dialogue, public participation, engagement of rural communities—the regional block lacks a unified ASEAN position on national counter-terrorism strategies

Ideally, the TCA can fill in gaps on institutionalization and coordination of ASEAN. It is however still too early to proclaim success like the MSP, but the TCA deserves credit for a productive first year. On the other hand, the TCA may not be as comprehensive as ASEAN mechanisms and action plans, thus ASEAN’s role is still relevant especially in stressing the sociocultural aspect in addressing security. Second, ASEAN mechanisms provide platforms for external partners when the TCA has still no definite plans for expansion. Through subregional maritime cooperation, ASEAN can develop into a security regime by making use of these grounded cooperation as well as retaining efficient and inclusive measures at the regional level. The block must positively contribute rather than be another cause of challenges for the TCA.

Moreover, the stability in this side of the region will elevate the chance of prosperity in the economic front such as economic zones and corridors in southern Mindanao and the BIMP-EAGA.

Grace Guiang


Grace Guiang is Research Analyst of Manila-based foreign policy think tank Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation Inc (APPFI). She earned her masters degree in International Studies from the University of the Philippines (UP). She was a delegate to the 2018 Visiting Program for Young Sinologists in Guangzhou..