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Forget Trump and China, piracy in the Sulu Sea is a fresh threat to Asia trade

Southeast Asia is grappling with rampant maritime piracy that, if left unchecked, could threaten trade and bolster terror networks in the region.

This year has seen a growing number of hijackings in the Sulu Sea, located between the Philippines and the island of Borneo. Around $40 billion worth of cargo passes through the area annually, with around $700-800 million in Indonesian coal exports going to the Philippines.

Philippine marines keep a look out for pirates in the Sulu Sea.
H. Christoph / ullstein bild / Getty Images
Philippine marines keep a look out for pirates in the Sulu Sea.

Two German citizens were attacked—one was abducted and the other killed—earlier this month while sailing their yacht near Sabah, a Malaysian state in Borneo. And over the weekend, two Indonesian fishermen were abducted in two separate incidents off Sabah. In October, a South Korean ship was seized, with its captain and Philippine crewmember also taken hostage.

Militant group Abu Sayyaf is believed to be responsible for the violence, according to the Philippine military.

Based in the southern Philippine province of Mindanao, Abu Sayyaf has increasingly taken to maritime kidnappings for ransom payments, which brought in nearly $7.3 million so far this year, the Associated Press reported last month, citing a Philippine government report. One of Abu Sayyaf's goals is to establish an independent state based on Shariah law in Mindanao and preserve its ethnic Moro community.

The onslaughts are a mixture of opportunistic and calculated crime, explained Zachary Abuza, a professor specializing in Southeast Asian security issues at the National War College. Abu Sayyaf can score a quick payoff through kidnappings and use the funds to finance broader terror operations, he said.

That modus operandi is symbolic of the wider trends in global piracy. A report by IHS Markit earlier this month found that while the number of piracy attacks around the world have generally decreased, kidnapping had become more common. The seas around the Philippines were the most pirated, followed by Nigeria and India, the report said.

Groups such as Abu Sayyaf are targeting small vessels, such as fishing trawlers or tugboats pulling coal barges that lack security forces, Abuza said, noting that October's hijacking of the large Korean vessel was a rarity.

Earlier this year, Indonesia enforced a moratorium on coal shipments to the Philippines but the resulting economic damage saw Jakarta reverse course. Tugboats and barges remain banned from entering Philippine waters, but larger cargo ships holding capacity of over 500 tonnes are allowed to resume trade since smaller ships were more at risk, the Transportation Ministry said on October 30.

"This (piracy) poses a real problem for regional trade. As the Chinese economy slows down, intra-regional trade becomes all the more urgent ... It also opens a can of legal worms that hasn't been previously been wrestled with in Southeast Asia," Abuza noted.

Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Manila vowed to cooperate to fight the epidemic through measures such as joint maritime and air patrol at the 10th ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in Laos this past weekend, with Malaysia warning that the Sulu Sea should not become the "new Somalia."

However, none of the three nations are strong at maritime policing or naval capability, Abuza flagged. "The Philippines is by far weakest link in these three and the security situation in Mindanao is deteriorating, not improving."

Moreover, the situation looked set to exacerbate given current politics in the U.S. and Philippines, he added.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and President Rodrigo Duterte are both looking to reduce America's military presence in the Philippines, with Duterte even looking to eject the roughly 100 U.S. special operative forces in Mindanao.

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