By Phillip Orchard

Cooperation among Southeast Asian states has never come easy, but the surge of Islamist militancy in the region is encouraging Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to give it another try.

This week, the three countries formally launched trilateral patrols in the Sulu and Celebes seas — a vast expanse that has become a hub of piracy, militancy and smuggling. They have discussed the possibility since 2016, when the Abu Sayyaf, a jihadist group aligned with the Islamic State, conducted a string of kidnappings in the Sulu Archipelago. Whatever differences that may have impeded the patrols, however, were put aside during the siege of Marawi city, a provincial capital in the restive Philippine region of Mindanao.

Of course, the patrols alone will not rid the Philippines or its neighbors of jihadists. The same issues that have routinely hindered collective action throughout Southeast Asia will limit the scope of the program, if not undermine its effectiveness altogether. But the initiative does amount to a step toward regional integration, even as it proves the indispensability of the United States and its allies in Southeast Asia — playing directly into U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific.

A Divided Region

The slow start to the patrols in the Sulu and Celebes seas shows just how elusive integration has been in Southeast Asia. Historically, mountains and island chains, not to mention starkly divided ethnic communities, have tended to produce inward-looking countries too preoccupied by instability and too suspicious of foreign meddling to bother to assimilate. (Singapore is a notable exception.) Today, the region is insufficiently connected by infrastructure but riven by territorial disputes and by unaddressed insurgencies in its farthest reaches. Though the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations has tried to solve these problems, it has held tight to its founding principle of non-interference in members’ internal affairs, opting instead to avoid the joint pursuit of economic and security agendas.

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The Malacca Strait Patrols are an important exception. Launched by Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in 2006 (Thailand joined in 2008), the joint air and sea patrols have reduced the threat of piracy in one of the world’s most important shipping lanes. The trilateral patrols in the Sulu and Celebes seas, officially at least, will be based on the model established in the Malacca Strait.

But key differences between the two initiatives show why familiar geopolitical constraints on cooperation in Southeast Asia will be more of a problem for the new initiative. In the Malacca Strait, territorial disputes were resolved long ago. Singapore’s willingness and ability to commit the lion’s share of resources — and host an intelligence fusion center at Changi naval base — gave the initiative clear leadership, ensured effective information-sharing, and helped to offset the underdeveloped capabilities of the three (original) participants.

The sailing won’t be as smooth in the Sulu and Celebes seas, where Malaysia has unresolved border issues with both Indonesia and the Philippines. (Particularly problematic is the Philippines’ claim to Malaysia’s Sabah state.) Though the countries have tentatively agreed to grant each other “hot pursuit” rights – which allow countries to follow enemies across borders – they may not be as agreeable in practice. Most pirate attacks, for example, take place close to the shores of islands within Philippine territory, so the responsibility to let in foreign militaries would fall mostly on the government in Manila, which has been the most reluctant to commit to the patrols. It doesn’t want to allow its counterparts to follow militants onshore, where the battle will ultimately be won or lost.

Sovereignty isn’t the only impediment. The three countries may have the military capability to establish relatively secure transit corridors along key shipping lanes. But without effective intelligence coordination or the resources to expand patrols beyond narrow corridors, the program will struggle to stop cross-border flows of militants and weaponry. As it stands, the Sulu-Celebes operation would require separate command centers for each country rather than a single hub for intelligence coordination. (Singapore, which was present at the launch as an observer, has offered to help establish a similar fusion center.) And it’s unclear whether participants have the resources needed to sustain operations in an area that is so much bigger than the Malacca Strait, let alone one with multidirectional shipping lanes.

Thai and Malaysian naval forces pursue a pirate ship in 2007. TENGKU BAHAR/AFP/Getty Images

The initiative will therefore struggle to expand beyond narrowly focused, loosely coordinated operations. Success against the jihadists, as has already been the case, will come down to discrete efforts of each country – both at sea and on land. Indonesia and the Philippines, in particular, both lack the naval capabilities to go at it alone.

Subtle and Steadfast

Despite all these constraints, we expect joint patrols to be modestly successful in their mission. But the initiative is useful in other ways. If the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia can resolve disputes or put aside their mutual suspicions, the patrols would be a template for cooperation on other issues – an important consequence for a region historically beset by disunity.

Its disunity also shaped the way foreign powers engaged the region, and in this regard the patrols will be similarly useful. The U.S., for example, has been gradually boosting security assistance and cooperation in the region for years through such programs as the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative. U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific like Australia and Japan have followed suit. But these efforts have generally been confined to bilateral arrangements. China prefers it this way; Beijing sees bilateral engagement as a way to maximize economic leverage with individual states and to keep ASEAN from unifying against it. The United States has no illusions about ASEAN’s ability to develop into a broad defense alliance. But on issues that require multilateral cooperation, Washington is keen to encourage regional states to stand up to threats as one, supported as they are by its naval fleets.

To be effective, the Sulu-Celebes patrols will need to be multilateral. They will need to expand beyond the trilateral format, first by being willing to let Singapore and neighbors like Brunei and Thailand share the resource burden. (Malaysia’s defense minister said he expects as many as five more countries to join.) They would also need to allow outside powers to contribute where native capabilities are lacking. After all, the Malacca Strait Patrols have relied heavily on U.S. intelligence support and have grown to now include countries such as India.

There is no shortage of candidates in these crowded waters. Japan has expressed interest in contributing to the Sulu-Celebes initiative too, and its newest warship has become a regular visitor to Southeast Asian ports in recent months. And though Indonesia continues to harbor long-standing suspicions about Australia’s strategic ambitions, Jakarta has signaled that it could tolerate an Australian presence in the Sulu-Celebes seas. China is also keen to demonstrate that it can provide the security benefits to Southeast Asian states traditionally provided by the Americans – and thus relieve them of their need for U.S. alliances. But ultimately, only the U.S., with its unmatched navy and the rotational access it secured to eight Philippine military bases through the 2015 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, is singularly positioned to contribute. In fact, it is already helping Manila address the onshore side of the fight. (The U.S. also stations five littoral combat ships in Singapore and launches surveillance flights from Malaysia.)

Foreign powers won’t participate in the patrols anytime soon. Chinese ships would cause particular unease, but most Southeast Asian states remain wary of outside involvement on principle. The launch of the Malacca Strait Patrols, for example, was motivated as much by concerns that the spike in piracy would invite U.S. intervention as it was by the problem of piracy itself. The U.S. has largely contributed from behind the scenes ever since – and likely will again. But subtle and steadfast is how the U.S. prefers its power be perceived in Southeast Asia.

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.