Manila: Indonesia and the Philippines have formally agreed to intensify maritime cooperation, as part of efforts to clamp down against piracy plaguing the Sulu Sea area.

Following meetings with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, at the Istana Merdeka in Indonesia, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said in a press statement the two leaders had signed a Joint Declaration on Maritime Security and Law Enforcement on Friday, September 9.

“We discussed ways of strengthening existing bilateral cooperation and identified new areas of partnership, including maritime security and law enforcement. We agreed to step up joint measures to address the issue of piracy and lawlessness in the waters in our region,” Duterte said.

Their meetings comes hot on the heels of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit, which was held in Vientiane, Laos.

Over the past several months, there has been a resurgence in piracy as well as kidnap-for-ransom incidents in the Sulu Sea, particularly the area between Indonesia and the Philippines.

While the attacks were largely carried out on tugboats and barges carrying coal from Indonesia to the Philippines, as well as on a number of private individuals in resorts in Malaysia’s Sabah, the perpetrators have generally been identified as members of the Sulu and Basilan-based Abu Sayyaf militant group.

The attacks, aimed at raising funds for the militants through ransoms, have been so frequent that Indonesia’s Transport Director Tonny Budiono, in June ordered port officials in Indonesia not to grant clearance to ships sailing to the Philippines.

Also in June, defence chiefs of Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia agreed to conduct joint patrols in common sea areas to address the growing security challenges in the region.

However, during that time, there were still no clear-cut guidelines on how to go about the joint sea patrols.

But Duterte said the Philippines and Indonesia have come up with a common stand on the issue.

“We agreed to encourage the earliest and effective implementation of cooperative frameworks to address security issues in maritime areas of common concern. We expressed commitment to take all necessary measures to ensure security in the Sulu Sea and maritime areas of common concern,” he said.

Both leaders expressed “grave concern” on maritime security particularly in the Sulu Sea.

The pirates, operating out of maritime areas in the three countries have been engaging in the lucrative kidnap for ransom activities.

Recently, the Abu Sayyaf beheaded two of their Canadian victims, John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, after the families of the victims failed to pay ransom.

A third victim, Marites Flor, was freed while a Norwegian, Kjartan Sekkingstad, remains in captivity nearly a year after being abducted by the Abu Sayyaf at a resort in Samal Island in Davao del Norte.

After their abduction in Samal, the victims were taken to Sulu.