KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines will commence joint patrols in the Sulu Sea in April, potentially putting an end to decades of lawlessness in the resource-rich waters.
Speaking to Channel NewsAsia in an exclusive interview on Tuesday (Mar 14), Malaysia's navy chief, Admiral Ahmad Kamarulzaman, said the cooperation is unprecedented and reflects the level of trust and confidence among the three nations.
"We first discussed it a year ago and now, we are looking at launching our first joint operation from Sandakan sometime next month," said Admiral Ahmad. "The three navies of Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines will be working together.
"This is unique in the sense that not very often can you achieve this level of consensus, showing that all sides are serious in mitigating the challenges at sea especially due to kidnap for ransom and other cross-border crime."
The initiative in the Sulu Sea will involve not just maritime patrols, but also air patrols of the waters and coastline, said Admiral Ahmad. It is modelled after the current multilateral patrols in the Strait of Malacca that have successfully lowered the number of piracy cases reported to "almost zero", the navy chief stated.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has also given Malaysia and Indonesia the green light for the "hot pursuit" of militant boats in Philippine waters.
"Everybody is comfortable with what needs to be done, as well as what we can and cannot do," said Admiral Ahmad. "More importantly, (there is) clear and sincere acceptance."
He said that if authorities in Malaysia identify militant vessels, they can chase them even into Philippine waters.
"This requires a high level of trust, obviously," he said. "We do it together and we are in constant communication. As and when they are able to take on (the case) and pursue action, we hand over to them."
Australia has shown interest in the measures being taken to combat piracy in the troubled waters as well, said Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, after his meeting with Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Tuesday.
END OF AN ERA OF TROUBLE?
Bounded by Sabah and the southern Philippines, the Sulu Sea has long been branded the "wild, wild east" by security experts. Groups like the Abu Sayyaf - which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group - have been terrorising coastal communities.
Abu Sayyaf is notorious for its kidnap-for-ransom activities and is reportedly holding more than 30 foreigners and locals hostage. In February, it beheaded a German man after a ransom deadline lapsed.
While lawmakers in Sabah welcome the long-overdue joint initiative, some said patrolling the Sulu Sea will be a challenge, given the Malaysian navy's current assets and capabilities.
Mr Marcus Mojigoh, Member of Parliament for Putatan in Sabah, said it is "high time" the Malaysian government beefed up its assets.
"We can't rely on what we have now," he said. "We should add more sophisticated instruments ... We should go for more drones."
After the spate of kidnappings last year off the Sabah coast, authorities imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew to protect those using the territorial waters. Now that trilateral patrols are about to begin, such measures could soon be a thing of a past.