Trilateral Co-operation by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines: Temper Expectations
Trilateral Co-operation by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines:
these efforts focused on counter-terrorism have yet to be fully operationalized.
The steps toward trilateral co-operation involving the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have been hailed by some as a way forward in combating terrorism in the region. But these efforts have yet to be fully operationalized, and potential external partners would be wise to keep their expectations modest.
In addition, writes Raymund
Jose G. Quilop, it is important to recall that the impetus for this cooperation came from a desire to battle kidnapping and piracy — not international extremism. the Increasing trilateral co-operation among the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia has sparked great interest. the launch of a trilateral maritime patrol in tarakan, Indonesia, in June 2017 and the launch of joint air patrols in subang, Malaysia, in October 2017 seem to hold great promise. adding to the momentum are the inauguration of military co-ordination centers (MCCS), with two more slated for tawau, Malaysia, and Bongao, Philippines.
this co-operation is widely seen as a concerted effort by the three countries to address violent extremism and terrorism in the sub-region, particularly given the bloody battle between Islamic extremists and government forces last year in Marawi City in the southern Philippines. Other countries have been quick to express support and even interest in contributing to the trilateral efforts. Contributions, however, must be seen in the light of the three countries’ intent to operationalize trilateral co-operation first before allowing others to jump in.
this co-operation also needs to be placed in its proper context in order to temper expectations. Meanwhile, the three partners must demonstrate that despite challenges and constraints, the initiative is moving forward, lest it become more of a media event than substantive air and sea co-operation.
roots in fighting Kidnapping
Contrary to the widely held perception that the trilateral co-operation was meant to prevent the spread of violent extremism, particularly the movement of extremists and terrorists across the three countries’ porous borders, trilateral cooperation has its roots in addressing the threat of kidnapping and piracy in the “tri-border” area.
there are, however, even reservations in the use of the term “tri-border,” especially from the Philippine side, because the three neighbors have yet to fully delineate their respective borders in the area, making it difficult to even talk about common borders. the sulu sea is also often used to refer to the area where trilateral co-operation is supposed to take place, but a more accurate geographic area would the Celebes sea. Interestingly, given the current practical and political difficulties in identifying shared borders, the countries’ defense and military planners arrived at a mutually acceptable term: “maritime areas of common concern.”
Before the Marawi troubles, the first few months of 2016 saw a spate of kidnapping involving 14 Indonesian and four Malaysian sailors, with the abu sayyaf Group in the Philippines being tagged as the perpetrators.1 this prompted the foreign ministers and defense-force chiefs of the three countries to issue a joint declaration on maritime security.
Of course, the declaration did not happen overnight. the Joint Declaration on Immediate Measures to address security Issues in the Maritime areas of Common Concern, released on May 5, 2016, by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, followed weeks of deliberations. In fact, the initial intention was to agree on a memorandum of understanding on the issues, but given differing legal systems and the urgent need to act, it was deemed more practical to issue a joint declaration first in order to signal political intent and jumpstart co-operation. Four measures were initially identified in the declaration: “Conducting patrols; rendering immediate assistance for people and ships in distress; establishing a national focal point; and a communication hotline.”
2 this declaration, issued by the countries’ three foreign ministers, was reinforced by their respective defense ministers when they met on the sidelines of the asean Defense Ministers Meeting in laos on May 26, 2016. the three agreed to instruct their respective defense forces to expedite trilateral co-operation. It must be noted that the joint declaration was issued by the foreign ministers and witnessed by their chiefs of armed forces but without their defense ministers.
less than a month after that first meeting, the defense ministers met in Manila (June 20, 2016).3 Malaysian Defense Minister hishammuddin hussein at the time told Philippine secretary of national Defense Voltaire Gazmin and Indonesian Minister of Defense Ryamizard Ryacudu that having a trilateral meeting one month after they last met in laos demonstrated their shared commitment to bring the co-operation to fruition.
It would seem that the commitment of the three defense ministers indeed pushed their military personnel to expedite the necessary agreements at the operational level. a framework of arrangement among the three military forces was signed on July 14, 2016. the elements contained in the framework are the same as those found in the joint declaration issued by the foreign ministers.
the three defense ministers held their third trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the usasean Defense Dialogue in hawaii in september 2016, this time with new Philippine secretary of national Defense Delfin lorenzana attending. standard operating procedures for maritime patrols, rendering assistance to nationals in distress and intelligence sharing were supposed to be crafted under the framework arrangement.
however, only the information-sharing protocol was ready by that time. the other protocols were still being discussed at the working level. nonetheless, the three ministers agreed to start exploring joint air patrols.4
Indonesia hosted the fourth trilateral defense ministerial in October 2016. at this time, their respective military forces had already identified a specific geographic area of co-operation, known as the transit corridor. In this meeting, the idea of conducting joint exercises and establishing a joint military command post were discussed.5 Given the difficulties of putting joint military command posts in each country’s territory, military co-ordination centers were instead launched in June 2017, along with the launching of maritime patrols.
While this trilateral framework offers good prospects for co-operation, several inherent challenges must be addressed if it is to go beyond policy pronouncements into actual implementation.
Foremost is the need to synergize efforts among various government agencies in each of the three countries involved, such as foreign affairs, defense and military, national security agencies and police forces. While these agencies are not precluded from pursuing trilateral co-operation with their respective counterparts (i.e. among various ministries and police forces), trilateral cooperation must be among the three national governments, not just agencies. this would lead to a more co-ordinated effort and avoid duplication of initiatives. as an example of such duplication, trilateral co-operation requires action plans and specific items to be agreed upon by the foreign ministries — going beyond common foreign-policy pronouncements. these action plans may be better left to the defense and military sectors to thrash out and define specific courses of actions to be agreed by their respective defense ministries. Currently, the three countries’ foreign ministries have crafted trilateral actions, although some are specific to other agencies and need inputs from these agencies. In another example, officials at defense ministry level, beyond crafting defenselevel actions, are also deeply involved in crafting military action plans.
In specifying military action plans, the exact role to be played by police and national security agency officials should likewise be spelled out. One constraint in curbing the rising challenge posed by violent extremism is that each of the three countries has different agencies in the lead on this issue: for the Philippines, it is the national police, as terrorism is still considered a law enforcement problem, the case of Marawi being an exception; for Indonesia, it is both a police and a military issue; for Malaysia, its national security Council, which is directly under the Office of the Prime Minister, takes the lead. Given these differences, much time has been spent to ensure interagency collaboration at the trilateral level when in fact interagency co-ordination should have been fleshed out at their respective national levels.
as it is often said, the devil is in the details, and working out the details of trilateral co-operation has taken much time, because the so-called Joint Working Group has had to convene several times. Interestingly, the complete operational details of trilateral co-operation remain under discussion even after joint maritime and air patrols have been launched. Interestingly too, the military coordination centers are not yet fully operational in each of the three countries, notwithstanding the symbolic launching of these MCCS in mid-2017.
While the three countries are fellow asean members, what could not be ignored is the seeming competition among the three countries, especially in the context of various bilateral issues
Indonesia and Malaysia and between the Philippines and Malaysia. at times, these issues play out even in what might be considered the simple matter of the venue for a trilateral maritime patrol. Of course, when the contentious issue of territory is at stake, the seemingly simple matter of a venue for a launching ceremony becomes complicated, given its possible political implications. this prompted the transfer of venue for the launching of the trilateral maritime patrol from subang, Malaysia, to tarakan, Indonesia, causing a further two-month delay from the initially proposed april launch.
If the trilateral maritime patrol — including the co-ordination centers — were launched in June 2017 on a largely symbolic basis, why did another symbolic undertaking, the launching of the trilateral air patrol, need to wait another four months before it could be launched? Why not have the three aspects of trilateral co-operation launched at the same time? Why should an air patrol be launched when the maritime patrol is not yet fully operational? Could it be possible that since the launching of the maritime patrol was held in Indonesia, another component had to be launched in Malaysia, which after all was the original venue for launching the trilateral maritime patrol?
It is also puzzling that one of the three parties had to propose at the last minute that merely a joint declaration be released, instead of the signed memorandum of understanding previously envisaged, only for this same party to propose a framework of arrangement containing almost the same elements as the Mou, which was issued in a meeting in its capital but a few months later. the non-issuance of an Mou and in its stead a joint declaration and then the subsequent craftbetween
The devil is in the details, and working out the details of trilateral co-operation has taken much time, because the so-called Joint Working Group has had to convene several times. Interestingly, the complete operational details of trilateral co-operation remain under discussion even after joint maritime and air patrols have been launched.
ing of a framework of arrangement caused a few more months delay. the various standard operating procedures were only negotiated after the conclusion of the framework of arrangement.
Reservations between any two of the three partners makes intelligence- and informationsharing more a matter of an intention than reality. Of course, linking the various military co-ordination centers and having seamless and real-time information-sharing is difficult for both political and technical reasons. Besides, linking the centers presupposes the existence of fully functional and interoperable centers, something which may be more for the future than the present. Given the difficulty of technically linking these centers currently, the most that could be done is for each of the two other partners to detail liaison officers in the other partner’s center.
Putting trilateral co-operation into actual operation also could be constrained by limitations in the number of available maritime and air assets to be deployed for this purpose. this is an acute factor in light of other pressing concerns, such as internal security operations in the Philippines. While it is a laudable concept to have ships passing through the so-called transit corridor send a distress signal when attacked by pirates or kidnappers, thus triggering a response from the naval ships of the three countries, this presupposes that each of the three countries have naval ships on standby near the transit corridor ready to respond on short notice. this is a luxury that not all three partners may enjoy. similarly, the intent of having regular air patrols using an aircraft of one of the partners with airmen from the two other partners aboard is laudable but the operational reality may mean that “occasional” is more plausible than “regular.”
Finally, amid the growing interest by external partners to contribute to this budding trilateral co-operation, the partners intend to operationalize their co-operative efforts first before allowing other partners to be involved. these external partners must now work bilaterally with each of the three countries. While it could be assumed that this might eventually contribute to the trilateral way of doing things, it is de facto undermining the trilateral framework. If trilateral co-operation were to be fully strengthened, an external partner should work with the three partners collectively and not individually.
expectations about this trilateral co-operation, therefore, should be tempered. the challenges and constraints outlined above ought to be addressed if trilateral co-operation is to be fully functional. and while this trilateral co-operation is now being marketed as a way to curb the spread of violent extremism in the three countries, its original raison d’être — to address growing kidnapping and piracy within the so-called areas of common concern — should not be relegated to the sidelines. While it is imperative for any mechanism to evolve, the original and foremost reason for its creation should remain the primary objective. raymund jose g. quilop is an assistant professor of political science at de la salle university, Manila, and was formerly the assistant secretary for assessments and international affairs, department of National defense, philippines. the views expressed are solely those of the author.