The Current State of Maritime Security and CWS Role in the Celebes and Sulu Seas

-The RAND Cooperation: from Non-Traditional Threats and Maritime Domain Awareness in the Tri-Border Area of Southeast Asia-

Daiju Wada,Project Research Fellow, Ocean Policy Research Foundation


The RAND Corporation in the United States published a report titled “Non-Traditional Threats and Maritime Domain Awareness in the Tri-Border Area of Southeast Asia -The Coast Watch System of the Philippines” (hereafter, the RAND report) written by its research fellows, Angel Rabasa and Peter Chalk. The Sulu-Celebes Sea (called “The Tri-Border Area: TBA” in this report), surrounded by Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, is regarded as not only a center of commerce and trade and sea lanes of communication, but also a bleeding ground for terrorism and international crime in Southeast Asia. In particular, terrorists and crime rings use the sea as a transit area for drag trafficking, arms dealing, and hostage release. The United States has provided various assistances to the coastal countries to improve the maritime security in the region. Although U.S. supports are offered to each country’s needs by its own approach, its true intention is to promote interoperability and cooperation within the Sulu-Celebes states. As the most epoch-making example of U.S. support and cooperation, this RAND report picks up the Coast Watch System (hereafter, CWS) as a newly-built organization to defend the sea areas around the Philippines.

This article will focus on the history and current situation of the security environment including terrorism and piracy in the whole of the Sulu-Celebes Sea, and analyze CWS roles, functions and problems. Please note that this is my personal view, and not on behalf of the Ocean Policy Research Foundation.

1. Characteristics of the Tri-Border Area (TBA)

The definition of TBA by the RAND report is a sea area where is outside the control of the Celebes-Sulu States’ authority. The report states the characteristics of the area as follows. First, confrontations between the Christian government and the Moro National Liberation Front (hereafter, MNLF) or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (hereafter, MILF) in areas around Mindanao, and conflicts derived from such confrontations and rooted in ethnic and religious ideologies, such as terrorist activities of Islamic extremist Abu Sayyaf, continues for prolonged periods. The framework of the state cannot deal with such a security environment. For example, within TBA, there is an ethnic group called Bajaus. They live along the coast of the state of Sabah in the eastern Malaysia, Indonesia, and the southern Philippines. Although they are from the southern Philippines, over the past 50 years they have steadily transmigrated to Sabah, Sulawesi, and Kalimantan and are currently the ethnic majority in Sabah. In addition, Samal and Bugis are originally from the southern Philippines and southwestern Sulawesi, respectively.

Many of them migrated to the Malay Peninsula and Sabah. In the aspects of maritime boundary and national jurisdiction, coastal states have confrontations over the Ambalat sea area (Sipadan and Ligitan islands) in the Celebes Sea. The International Court of Justice’s (ICJ’s) ruled that the ownership of these islands were vested in Malaysia. The Celebes Sea is significant sea lanes, e.g. a route from the Makassar Strait through the Celebes Sea to East Asia, a route from Southeast Asia through the Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea to the Pacific Ocean, etc. According to the 2008 data, the population of western Mindanao, Palawan, and the Sulu archipelago was 14,350,000 inhabitants. Sabah’s population was estimated at 2,630,000, and the estimated population of the Indonesian provinces bordering the Celebes Sea composed of Gorontalo, North Sulawesi, and East Kalimantan was 4,580,000.

2. Security Environment of the Sulu-Celebes Sea

This marine area is known as a terrorism and piracy-prone area. The RAND report focuses its discussion mainly on the history and trend of Islamic extremists and insurgent groups. Currently, the RAND Corporation thinks a great deal of the trend of study on radical Islamists centering on Al-Qaeda. The region is continued to be analyzed as the noteworthy home of the terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah (hereafter, JI) and the Abu Sayyaf (hereafter, ASG).

At first, the report states the situation in areas around Mindanao. It can be summed up as follows. Islam was introduced to Mindanao in the 14th century, and by the end of the 19th century, Islamic kingdoms such as the Sultanate of Sulu and the Sultanate of Maguindanao were born and had flourished as an Islamic sphere. With the resistance against Spanish colonial rule from the 16th century as a start, struggles for independence from the United States and the Christian government began intensified. But after the Philippine’s Independence, Manila’s national unification policy and influx of Christians from other parts of the Philippines into Mindanao became active and Muslim Moro suffered from unequal policies implemented by the Christian government. Under such backgrounds, the MNLF, the MILF and the ASG which resist to the Christian government and aim for constructing an Islamic state have emerged and the Mindanao conflict continuously remains unsettled

Considering the security environment surrounding the Celebes and Sulu Sea in recent years based on the analysis of the report above, except for the MNLF which has existed as the government of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the MILF, the ASG and the JI has been threats to peace and security for this area. In particular, the ASG and JI have a more radical tendency than the MNLF and are widely recognized as jihadist rather than insurgent group in the research on global jihadist movement.

Furthermore, the RAND report describes the detail about JI. Accordingly, JI was founded by Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir in 1993 and its root comes back to Darul Islam that was known as a radical Islamic group born in 1942. JI consists of four mantiqis (regional groups) that cover the all of Southeast Asia, as well as Australia and the one of them, which is based on Sabah, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and the southern Philippines around the Celebes Sea, is regarded as a major branch for JI. This regional branch is mainly responsible for the procurement of equipment through the Celebes Sea for terrorism attacks and forging links with Moro insurgents and terrorist groups in Mindanao. For example, Professor Rohan Gunarathna, who is the head of the management staff of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, presented his view, saying “the integration of these two structures is almost complete.”

Moreover, according to the report, the southern Philippines and the surrounding region have been strategically important spots for JI, which had regional branch responsible for the surrounding areas of the Celebes Sea, as a sanctuary outside the reach of Indonesian authorities. A Malaysian national, who had been recruited by Abdullah Sungkar to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Nasir Abas took the central role there. ? After the Soviet withdrawal, Abbas was sent to Mindanao to train the personal guard of MILF Chairman Hashim Salamat. JI also played an essential role to enhance MILF’s abilities for terrorism attacks and assaults and in return, the MILF allowed JI to establish its military training facility, Wakalah Hudaibiyah, within the grounds of the MILF’s headquarters, Camp Abubakar. Although military training was conducted there, the facility was destroyed by Philippine troops and JI seems to have relocated it to Maguindanao. At that time, it was widely thought that the MILF had provided shelters to JI members while pushing peace negotiations with the Manila government forward. According to popular apprehension, compared to the past, JI’s activities around the area have declined in the last decade because a number of incidents in which JI members were arrested around the Celebes Sea such as Saba frequently occurred. The report presents a viewpoint, saying “There have no reported arrests of JI members transiting the region for the last several years, possibly suggesting a reduction in the group’s regional activity.” With the 9.11 attacks, the situation on global terrorism dramatically changed. The international community came to further pay attention to the movement of Islamic extremists centering on Al-Qaeda. With the Bali bombing in October 2002 in Indonesia (202 dead, 209 injured) as an opportunity, terrorism attacks targeting Westerners and their interests began to be frequent, targeting an American hotel in Jakarta in August 2003, the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in September 2004, a tourist facility in Bali in October 2005, and an American hotel in Jakarta in July 2008. Therefore, an analysis regarding JI as an Al-Qaeda’s allied group became mainstream and there are few experts who provide a skeptical view against it. In practice, the report points out that the MILF downgraded its ties to JI with sensitivity to its radical belief and tactics.

Thereby, the JI separated from the MILF and became a partner with the ASG in the region of the Celebes Sea. The report introduces further details about the ASG. Once the JI leaders were believed to have taken refuge with the ASG and conversely provided assistances to the ASG such as radicalizing education, producing improvised explosive divice and supplying weapons, today JI and the ASG are organizationally and substantially undermined by sweeping operations of American and Philippine forces. Abdurajak Janjalani, a veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan, established the group in 1991 with the financial assistance from Bin Laden’s brother in-law Mohammed Jamal Khalifa. The ASG home ground is likely the Sulu archipelago, primarily the islands of Basilan and Jolo.

As the report says, Janjalani, the founder of the ASG, has a local vision to intend to attain independence from the Christian government in Mindanao, and simultaneously has a global vision to intend to join an international jihad in which al-Qaeda plays a leading role. Hence ASG activities are reflected to both stages. ASG-related international terrorism incidents include the Bojinka in 1995, a failed assassination attempt against U.S. President William J. Clinton and Pope John Paul II, and bombing U.S. embassies in Manila and Bangkok. Since Janjalani was killed in 1998, ASGs international reach has withered and the general view is now that a great part of the ASG is organizationally undermined by sweeping operations of American and Philippine forces as part of anti-terror war. According to the report, the ASG currently consists of around 100 members, and does not adopt a centralized system. The group is composed mainly of disparate bands independently operating criminal acts such as piracy, weapons? trafficking, and illegal logging. Additionally, the report refers to the number of incidents on piracy in the TBA from 2006 to 2010. Most of them occurred in the Celebes Sea, along the east coast of Kalimantan. 19 attacks were reported in this region during 2010.

3. The CWS Status

The CWS was established on September 6, 2011, after Philippine President Aquino III signed Executive Order 57 (EO57) to set up the CWS. The CWS is intended to be a core interagency that has a function to coordinate maritime issues and maritime security operations, and it is composed of the cabinet chief secretary of the president’s office as chairman and each director-general of the government ministries and agencies such as Department of National Defense, Department of Finance, Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Interior and Local Government, Department of Justice, Department of Energy, and Department of Environment and Natural Resources, etc. Among others, the CWS is intrinsically expected to improve maritime domain awareness (MDA) in the Sulu and Celebes Sea, but currently covers the entire Philippine Archipelago.

As described earlier, the CWS was organized to maintain maritime security in the Philippine Sea Area, and is an interagency network which a number of administrative organizations join, including the Philippine Navy (PN), Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), and the National Anti-Terrorism Task Force. Its prime goal is to build a functional surveillance in the maritime domain of the Philippines and strengthen ties with Malaysia and Indonesia to establish organizations for regional cooperation, such as the Information Fusion Center in Singapore. In a functional aspect, collecting all required data and instantly providing facilities in need with required information is important. Thus, it is pointed that the CWS is expected to counter threat groups such as the New People’s Army (NPA), the ASG, the MILF, pirates, and criminal trafficking organizations.

The following is the summary of what the RAND report discusses about the CWS. Presently, four regional hubs, CWS West (based in West Palawan), CWS North (based in Luzon), CWS South (based in western Mindanao), and CWS East (based in Davao City), play important roles within the Philippines. The sites take guardian roles by being equipped with radars, an Automated Information System (AIS), UHF-band radios, high-powered binoculars, and infrared and color cameras. The Maritime Research Information Center (MRIC) plays a pivotal role in the mission, and has a staff of 18. The MRIC uniquely compiles strategic threat assessments of terrorism and pirates in the maritime environment of the Philippines and provides needed information. At the present times, 12 points are fully operational throughout the entire area of the Philippines. Another two are in the final stages of development, and three other remain works in progress. The CWS will eventually consist of 20 offshore platforms.

As Figure below shows, many of CWS stations were concentrated in the Southern Philippine, especially, the islands of Basilan and Jolo around the Sulu Sea. The deployment is premised on that the United States considers the ASG as a threat to its homeland security, and the U.S.-Philippine joint army is conducting counter-ASG operations. For the future, more CWS stations is planned to be set up around the southern Mindanao. Although this political background is uncertain, while threats of Islamic extremists in TBA decline compared to the past, and several problems still remain such as territorial disputes and a lack of ruling power. Therefore, given that this terrorism threat has a transnational nature, the Philippine government still prioritizes to monitor the situation of its southern parts. In the reality that the territorial dispute over the South China Sea between China and the Philippines is highly likely to intensify, it is probable that the Philippines could preferentially place CWS stations in the western part.

The United States paid for four CWS stations (Pangutaran, Pilas, Pandami, and Tongkil), with the support funded by the Department of Defense. As mentioned above, it is carried out as part of U.S. “Operation Enduring Freedom” in the Philippines to pursue the eradication of the ASG. Besides, the CWS is highly anticipated within the Philippines and presently receiving a significant proportion of this money under the president’s initiative. Presently, the CWS owns a number of light patrol gunboats and fixed-wing Islander aircraft. There are plans to obtain the planes with flares from the United States to enhance their ability to operate at night. Moreover, according to the report, the CWS considers introduction of rigid-hull inflatable boats that have a top speed of 30 knots from the Philippine navy and are capable of transporting four or more crews, logistics support vessels that are deployed in Cavite and Zamboanga, multipurpose attack craft that can run up to speeds of 40 knots, frigates and Corvettes, three of which were acquired from the United Kingdom, etc.

As the CWS has a lot of great help from the country, the United States and Australia, currently it can surveille a large expanse of maritime territory at a relatively lower cost. For example, “Between December 2010 and July 2011, over 55,368 vessels were monitored, including more than 34,000 foreign craft. It would be impossible for the PN, much less the PCG,” says the RAND report. According to the report, currently CWS functionality is highly appreciated, and other forces such as the Marine and Navy are strongly stimulated by the CWS. The promotion of interagency cooperation and support from foreign countries are thought to be strengthened further. The CWS is expected to operate as the basis of an integrated system of maritime security. In the aftermath, it is expected to promote confidence-building between countries and be useful in the prevention of sovereignty and lingering disputes over maritime boundaries in TBA.

On the other side of coin, the CWS faces a host of challenges. According to the report, there are some challenges as follows.

Firstly, there is an issue of the independence and the structure of the CWS. Despite the fact that the CWS is praised both at home and abroad, vessels used for CWS concrete activities belong to the PN. As long as the CWS is an interagency organization, the present situation, where the CWS strongly depends on the Navy in many respects, is undesirable. In this regard, if its dependence on the Navy increases, there will be advantage to respond promptly but a concern in the functionality of CWS. In this sense, it needs further support from not only the Philippines and the United States, but also Malaysia and Indonesia.

Secondly, there is shortfall in human resources. Many of CWS strongholds are currently set up around southern Mindanao and the Sulu Islands, and its activities cover a widespread area. According to officials with the MRIC, at least eight personnel are needed for each of these platforms, but in practice these sites are managed by a staff of only two to three.

Thirdly, there is a need to create a legally binding protocol. The Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which compose TBA, concluded international agreements on maritime security, for example, Joint Maritime Patrol Agreement, and Memorandum of Understanding for the mutual forward deployment of customs and immigration officials at designated border crossings, but they have yet to sign a crucial treaty with legally binding power. The territorial disputes remain unsettled therefore it is significant for the regional stability to establish a legal framework.

Fourthly, in the terms of defense budget, the PN has so much restriction on maintaining its vessels and introducing state-of-the-art weapons. The same is mirrored in other areas of the Filipino defense and security community such as the Philippine Air Force. The CWS wants to avoid such a situation by any means.

Finally, a network with residents in each region is required. As the range of CWS activities expands throughout the Philippines, efforts toward confidence-building are important to maintain the functionality. Above all, for the case of activities around Mindanao where regional conflicts continue, it is really useful to form an extensive network by access to critical information from community residents to enhance the functionality, in order to promptly and adequately conduct CWS activities.


A number of ethnic groups, traditions and cultures meet with each other in TBA beyond national boundaries, where lacks national jurisdiction due to the territorial disputes. As a result, TBA has provided terrorist groups, pirates and international criminal groups with a convenient shield to hide behind. However, the counter-terrorism operations of Pilipino and Indonesian authorities considerably undermine JI and the ASG. In addition, the MILF in Mindanao keep a distance to the ASG, which has radical ideas and carries out violent activities, and the threat of global jihad is less likely in TBA. Now the ASG occasionally carries out acts of piracy such as kidnappings for ransom around the Sulu islands, but there is no immediate threat in TBA. Meanwhile, the CWS is established to monitor and maintain maritime security around the Philippines. Its operations received a certain appreciation under the supports from the Manila government, the United States, and Australia. The CWS faces many challenges such as the staffing shortage, its lack of independence, and dependence on the Navy alone for equipment. It is really important that the Philippines come to compromise on the territorial disputes with Indonesia and Malaysia that are coastal states as well and cooperate to create a new legal framework, in order to enhance its significance of existence and functionality in TBA.

Unlike the issues of Malacca pirates and territorial disputes over the Spratly and Paracel island chains in the waters around Southeast Asia, the movement of Islamic extremists has gathered more attention in TBA. But the TBA is also significant sea lane for vessels. As China’s activities are assertively prominent in the Spratly and Paracel island chains, it is conceivable that maritime safety in TBA deteriorates if the situation of Islamic extremists would become unstable. To prevent it, a framework like the CWS is very useful and it is strategically significant to functionally develop it under international cooperation, given the stability of TBA. Reinforcing the maritime security in this area where is also significant sea lane for Japan is an issue that cannot pass over.

From “Intelligence Analysis (June 2012)”