MANILA • Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines yesterday agreed to designate a transit corridor for commercial vessels in the seas between Sabah, the southern Philippines and Indonesia's Sulawesi Island.
The move is aimed at curbing a spate of hijackings by Islamist militants in the Sulu and Celebes seas.
Nearly 20 Indonesian and Malaysian tugboat crew have been kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf militants this year. Kidnappings over the last 15 years have made the Abu Sayyaf notorious, with extorted ransoms running into millions of dollars.
"The ministers have agreed in principle to explore the following measures, including a transit corridor within the maritime areas of common concern, which will serve as designated sea lanes for mariners," the defence ministers of the three nations said in a joint statement after a meeting in Manila.
The three countries also agreed to step up air and sea patrols and escorts for commercial ships in common maritime areas.
Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the leaders agreed to share the best practices evolved by Indonesia and Malaysia during a joint effort to patrol the Malacca Strait against pirates as a model for three-way cooperation with the Philippines.
It was the second meeting of officials of the three countries to tackle growing regional security challenges after their foreign ministers met in Jakarta last month.
In 2002, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines signed a pact to strengthen security against growing cross-border attacks by Abu Sayyaf militants. But they had not set up coordinated naval patrols, with navies operating in their own territorial waters.
Analysts say US$40 billion (S$54 billion) worth of cargo passes through the Sulu and Celebes seas each year.