CHINA’S TERRITORIAL expansion in the South China sea, illegal poaching by Chinese and other foreign fishers in Philippine internal waters, and piracy in southeast Asian waters are driving the Philippine government to focus more on the security of Philippine internal and territorial waters.
The policy turn comes as the Armed Forces of the Philippines shifts from internal security and anti-insurgency against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the National People’s Army to the defense of the national territory against non traditional external and transnational security threats.
The move, supported and framed by the Internal Peace and Security Plan 2011, outlines the strategic movement to external defense. The Philippine Defense Transformation White Paper of the Department of National Defense defines the scope of external defense as territorial defense, maritime security and international stability.
It identifies two main objectives in accordance with the National Security Policy 2011- 2016: “To promote internal socio-political stability and enable the Philippines to exercise full sovereignty over its territory and provide protection to its maritime interests.” In protecting maritime interests, the White Paper recognizes the existence of an “uncertain” environment characterized by overlapping claims in the West Philippine Seas, violations of Philippine maritime laws, and extremism.
China’s territorial incursions have been seen as a major threat to Philippine maritime interests. While China’s naval expansion figures in the security calculations of the Philippine government, the probability of a military invasion by China is low. This is in contrast to the real threat posed by non-military sources: piracy, petty theft at sea, illegal fishing, and kidnap-for-ransom activities. As opposed to the state-oriented threat that emerges from the nine-dash line and air defense zone policies of China, the criminal activities in Philippine waters are perpetuated by non-state actors whose non-military means of coercion are characterized by boarding vessels, looting and armed robbery.
In September last year, Alden Monzon reported 14 such “hit and run robberies” that occurred against small maritime vessels in Philippine waters. Particularly threatened areas are the waters on the maritime trading route of Sulu Sea to Surigao Strait between the islands of Leyte and Mindanao. This route is part of the strategic maritime routes on the Makassar Strait between the Indonesian islands of Sulawesi and Borneo.
Identified by National Defense Research Institute writers Angel Mabasa and Peter Chalk as the “triborder” area of southeast Asia, the “porous” and ungoverned “rear” territorial boundaries and territorial waters of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have provided a maritime repository for the conduct of various forms of criminality.
Nikki Philline C. de la Rosa, author of “Porous Peace in Mindanao’s Free Trade Area,” provided an insight to the illegal trade in the region, where the penetrable boundaries between Sabah and Sulu in the states of Malaysia and the Philippines have been cultivated as trading hubs for all sorts of goods, including drugs and small arms.
These waters have also been porous to illegal poachers. Jean Magdaraog Cordero reported on the arrest of Chinese fishers illegally poaching endangered sea turtles.
These waterways have also opened access to the high criminal activities of the Al Qaeda-connected Abu Sayyaf and the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah. The ABu Sayyaf’s kidnap-for-ransom activities on the maritime waters of Sulu and Tawi Tawi have made the news in recent years with the group’s kidnapping of a Filipino and a Chinese tourist in the Malaysian reef resort of Singamata in Sempora, Sabah, in April 2014. Earlier in February 2012, two foreign birdwatching tourists were kidnapped in Tawi-Tawi.
Abu Sayyaf bandits reportedly intercepted the tourist-carrying vessel on its way back to the mainland. The most recent of the seaborne kidnap-for-ransom activity was initiated by the Abu Sayyaf in the waters between Palawan and Sabah where German tourists were held in April 26 last year. To date, the media have not disclosed the ransom paid for the victims’ release.
To respond to these challenges, the Philippine government has currently pursued the development of maritime domain awareness and surveillance capabilities of the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard through the National Coast Watch System. The system is designed to provide data-based identification, location, interdiction, appre-hension and prosecution of maritime offenders.
Current challenges to the system is the cost of maintaining radar stations for the surveillance of the entire Philippine archipelago and the required effective coordination of the local government units with the Coast Guard, the police and the judiciary in upholding the law against criminals.
Regional arrangements such as the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) that promotes information sharing on incidents of piracy and armed robbery also support the national government’s efforts.
Alma Maria O. Salvador, PhD, former chair of the Ateneo de Manila University Department of Political Science, is an assistant professor of Political Science and convener of the Working Group for Security Sector Reform.