The Philippines is looking to tap the capabilities and personnel of a maritime security information-sharing centre in Singapore to support its joint operations with Indonesia and Malaysia around the Sulu Sea.
"We could transfer some of them (capabilities and personnel) to the Sulu Sea and we would be aware of what is happening, and it will make intelligence-sharing among the three countries work better," Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters yesterday.
Mr Lorenzana, who was speaking on board an Indonesian warship in the waters off Tarakan, North Kalimantan, was referring to the Information Fusion Centre (IFC), which collects and analyses information on vessels at sea around the world before sharing it with international maritime partners.
His comments came shortly after the three countries officially launched joint maritime patrols to combat terrorism and transnational crimes in the Sulu Sea, particularly at their shared boundaries.
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They also came as clashes in the southern Philippine city of Marawi between Philippine troops and Muslim militants from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf terrorist groups entered their fourth week.
The trilateral operation was inaugurated at a ceremony attended by Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, his Malaysian counterpart Hishammuddin Hussein and Mr Lorenzana at Tarakan Naval Base yesterday morning.
By witnessing this launch, we expect Brunei and Singapore, as well as other Asean countries, to conduct counter operations in their respective territories to prevent increased transnational crime and the introduction of radical or terrorist groups into the region.
INDONESIAN DEFENCE MINISTER RYAMIZARD RYACUDU
Also present were Singapore's Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman and Brunei's Deputy Defence Minister Abdul Aziz Haji Mohammad Tamit.
While the joint patrols are conducted by the three countries, the sub-regional cooperation still belongs to Asean, and is in accordance with the spirit, solidity and centrality of the group, said Mr Ryamizard.
"By witnessing this launch, we expect Brunei and Singapore, as well as other Asean countries, to conduct counter operations in their respective territories to prevent increased transnational crime and the introduction of radical or terrorist groups into the region," he added.
Mr Ryamizard said that although the patrols are a largely maritime- based operation, air and land military assets will be involved in securing the Sulu Sea, which is located to the north-east of Borneo Island and south-west of the Philippines.
Maritime command centres to share information and coordinate the operations have also been set up in Tarakan; Tawau in Sabah, Malaysia; and Bongao, the capital of Tawi-Tawi in the Philippines.
Aside from providing the support of the IFC, Singapore has offered to join the patrols, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in a Facebook post yesterday.
"Opened in April 2009, the IFC can provide valuable information and currently hosts about 16 international liaison officers from countries such as the US, China, Australia, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia," he said.
"It is in our interests to prevent extremists from entrenching themselves in our region."
Maute and Abu Sayyaf terrorists in Mindanao have often kidnapped tourists, fishermen and sailors in the Sulu archipelago, which includes the Sulu Sea and the northern limit of the Celebes Sea.
The rising threat from regional extremist groups loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has added impetus for a more coordinated response from South-east Asian countries.
That Indonesians, Malaysians and other foreigners are fighting alongside Maute militants in Marawi also reinforces the appeal of the southern Philippines to ISIS, which is eyeing territory for expansion beyond the Middle East.
Datuk Seri Hishammuddin said: "We want to convey a very clear message that if they want to set foot here, they don't face only one country, but at least three countries that have agreed to fight as hard as they can."
Indonesian armed forces chief Gatot Nurmantyo told reporters on the sidelines of the launch that his country is also on the lookout for militants who may be hiding among refugees from Marawi.
"Out of 500 to 600 terrorists there, 257 have been killed, but the remainder, according to information we received, have been leaving the conflict areas with the refugees," said the army general.
But he gave the assurance that Indonesia is committed to the security of the Sulu Sea, having deployed Sukhoi fighter jets, Boeing spy planes for aerial surveillance, and warships and submarines to prevent incursions by militants being flushed out from Marawi.