Foreign ministers and armed forces commanders from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines will meet in Jakarta on May 3 to discuss the possibility of joint patrols in the waters of north-east Borneo island, which saw three reported kidnappings at sea in just over three weeks.
Fourteen Indonesian and four Malaysian seamen were abducted from their boats by gunmen believed to have ties with the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the past three weeks. Formed in 1991, the group is known for extortion, kidnapping, beheadings and bombings.
Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan said more needs to be done to deter piracy in the seas between southern Philippines and north Sabah before the kidnappings become a booming business like in Somalia at the end of the previous decade.
"We don't want this area to be a new Somalia," he told reporters yesterday. "We know the Philippines and Malaysia have an old (border dispute) issue about Sabah. We encourage them to calm down. Now we have a common problem."
The Somalia piracy outbreak cost the shipping industry billions of dollars, Reuters reported, when pirates paralysed shipping lanes, kidnapped hundreds of seafarers and seized vessels more than 1,600km from the Somali coast.
The seas off Borneo lie on major shipping arteries that analysts say carry US$40 billion (S$54 billion) worth of cargo each year and are taken by fully laden supertankers from the Indian Ocean that cannot use the crowded Malacca Strait waterway, Reuters said.
The kidnappings at sea represent a new tactic by the Abu Sayyaf. It previously raided tourist islands in Sabah to grab foreign tourists or locals for ransom. But the kidnappings have dwindled in the past year after Malaysia tightened security along 1,400km of the Sabah coast.
Mr Luhut said the officials from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are to meet to discuss the possibility of "joint patrols in order to secure the passage from Indonesia to the Philippines".
The Indonesian navy yesterday instructed all commercial vessels to avoid the piracy-prone waters around the southern Philippines and disclosed that it had stepped up patrols "up to the exclusive economic zone border with the Philippines and Malaysia".
In the latest abduction case on April 15, four Indonesian sailors were taken at gunpoint as their vessel was en route to North Kalimantan after unloading 8,000 tonnes of coal in the Philippine island of Cebu. Two weeks earlier, on April 1, four Malaysians were taken while they were on a barge, after delivering logs to Manila. And around March 29, 10 Indonesians were grabbed from a tugboat and a barge. The hostage-takers did not seize the tugboats or the barges.
Mr Luhut said the Indonesia-Philippines passage is important because power plants in the Philippines source 60 per cent of their thermal coal supply from Indonesia.
Last week, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Singapore and Thailand should be "observers" to the joint-patrol discussions. He also mentioned Brunei as a potential participant.
Separately yesterday, the navy chiefs of Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, and Malaysia's deputy chief of navy gathered at Changi Naval Base for the Malacca Straits Patrol's (MSP) 10th-anniversary commemorative events. The MSP helped to raise security in the Strait of Malacca and Strait of Singapore.