Sulu Sea Security

Beyond the South China Sea, conversations at the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue also centered on the Sulu Sea.

The Other Sea That Dominated the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue

By Prashanth Parameswaran

A quick glance at the headlines from this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue – Asia’s premier defense summit – would suggest that the proceedings were overwhelmingly dominated by the South China Sea. But to those who attended the meeting, another body of water also featured prominently in the proceedings. Speech after speech, officials highlighted the importance of the Sulu Sea as a key front in confronting Asia’s manifold maritime challenges.

The Sulu Sea – or, more specifically, the one million square kilometer tri-border area in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas between the southern Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia – has long been a hub for transnational organized crime and terrorist threats, with its porous borders and weak governance. Following the September 11 attacks, concerns surfaced about Jemaah Islamiyah militants either coalescing around or transiting through the area – concerns that linger with the rise of the Islamic State today. And in 2013, the invasion of Sabah by Filipino militants claiming to be linked to the Sulu sultanate exposed an irritant in Malaysia-Philippine relations and revealed the lingering inter-state tensions that still persist in the area (See: “Malaysia Warns Philippines’ Duterte Against ‘Reigniting’ Sabah Dispute”).

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