Neither the Australian government nor the Australian media have informed us about the critical nature of the Sibutu Channel.
As mentioned in this blog some time ago. the active political and media discussion in Australia about the South China Sea has continued to ignore the fact that the most critical choke point for Australia’s huge trade with North Asia is the Sibutu Channel. This lies inside Philippines territorial waters between Sabah and the southernmost Philippines islands. Nor has our media recognised that this area has long been a hot spot for the Muslim insurgency in the Philippines and more recently the radical Abu Sayyaf. The latter have an established history of kidnapping and ransom and worse – with a number of foreigners currently in their hands.
The 12 mile wide Sibutu Channel provides deep transit for traffic entering or leaving the South China Sea further to the north. Much of our LNG and iron ore exports to China. Korea and Japan travels through it, as also does a growing number of maxi-carriers that cannot use the Malacca Straits. The Sibutu Channel is located at roughly the same distance from Darwin that Sydney is from Auckland.
Its importance to Australia has been highlighted in several Defence research papers on our sea lanes. But it is not located in the South China Sea and as such not in area contested by China. It has however been contested by Malaysia and the Philippines in their long running dispute over Sabah.
So it is puzzling why the Australian media, so often fed on these issues by leaks from Canberra, has failed to report an incident in the Sibutu Channel several weeks ago in which a South Korean cargo ship travelling from Australia to Korea was intercepted by Abu Sayyaf. The Korean captain was taken off the ship by his Abu Sayyaf kidnappers. Philippines and Korean media reported that this was the first such Abu Ayyaf attack on shipping of this size and that the fate of the captain was not known. The assumption is that Abu Sayyaf hope to gain a large ransom for him. This would boost their already significant cash flow this year from ransoms – and allow them to reinforce their terrorist activities. Not to forget the new maritime challenge they will present for our trade.
Surely the Australian government is well aware of the facts surrounding this case and has initiated action with the Philippines and Korean governments on it. But the Australian public has not been informed on an issue of such national interest! Is this purely because the Australian media is so deficient in its coverage of developments in this region and so dependent on international news feeds? Or is it another case of the government trying to suppress issues on security grounds like Sovereign Borders?
As a postscript, the mystery thickened with comments by Defence Minister Payne a few days ago that Australia and Indonesia were actively considering “coordinated activities in the South China Sea and Sulu Sea”. The area of Indonesian contested claims with China is limited to a group of islands located between Malaysia and Borneo – nowhere near the Sulu Sea which sits between the Philippines islands of Palawan and Mindanao with it’s Sulu Archipelago ending at Sibutu. There is no Indonesian claim anywhere in this area though large sea traffic to the South China Sea from Indonesia would need to pass through it! It is all very much in the Philippines claimed area.
Is this meant to cover ways by which Australia could protect traffic through the Sibutu Channel? If so one would expect that we have discussed this whole exercise fully with the Philippines and hopefully sought to engage them in it. If not we can expect a very negative Philippines response – especially from the traditionally legalistic Philippines Senate which kept the Sabah dispute lingering for so long. Better still why not let the Australian public in on the Sibutu Channel challenge?
P.S. Since Mack Williams wrote the above Malaysian Prime Minister Najib has just announced in Beijing that Malaysia and China have agreed to some joint naval operations in the South China Sea . President Duterte has said that he will be going to Malaysia next week and will be proposing joint Philippines/Malaysian security operations in their adjacent seas to combat Abu Sayyaf etc. He claims he has kept the Indonesians informed but no mention of any possible Australian participation!
Mack Williams is a former Australian Ambassador to the Philippines.