Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines will start jointly monitoring the Celebes Sea in response to a spate of recent attacks by Islamic extremists and pirates, securing a key sea lane that could provide an alternative to the South China Sea in an emergency.
Foreign ministers and military chiefs of the three countries met May 5 in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta to discuss the growing security threat in the Celebes. They issued a joint statement including plans to patrol the waters and to share information about extremists and pirates operating there, as well as to establish a trilateral emergency hotline.
The agreement sent a message to the world that the three countries will jointly secure the economically important Celebes Sea, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said after the meeting. She said she will make every effort to ensure the safety of the sea lane, citing a successful anti-piracy campaign by Indonesia and its neighbors in the Strait of Malacca.
The Celebes Sea is a significant economic asset to the three nations surrounding it. It boasts rich fishing grounds while also serving as a key lane for container ships and coal carriers sailing through Southeast Asia, such as coal shipments from Indonesia to the Philippines. The waters will only play a larger role as Southeast Asian economies grow.
The Philippines and Indonesia face a shortage of necessary aircraft and ships for maritime patrols, and are bolstering their military capabilities in response to Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. The Philippines boosted military spending by 25% in 2015 and Indonesia by 16%, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The average increase across Southeast Asia was 8.8%.
The Celebes Sea is seen as a potential alternative to the shipping lanes in the South China Sea should any conflict erupt in the latter. About $40 billion worth of cargo passes through the Celebes a year, according to Reuters. It could be a key link for resource shipments from the Middle East and Australia to such countries as Japan and South Korea.
A Philippine extremist group kidnapped the crew of Indonesian ships for ransom at the end of March. Cracking down on the surge in piracy has been a challenge, because the waters fall under three separate jurisdictions.
Some of these pirates have claimed ties to the Islamic State militant group. They are likely using ransom to fund terrorist attacks, feeding concerns that the Celebes could become an international terror hot spot like Somalia.