Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Here be pirates: Why Southeast Asia needs to boost maritime cooperation

Here be pirates: Why Southeast Asia needs to boost maritime cooperation

Source: IMB data, compiled by Elliot Brennan.

On 1 April, a Malaysia-flagged tanker was attacked and hijacked by 15 to 25 armed pirates off the coast of Borneo. The crew was held hostage at gunpoint while the pirates transferred the tanker's gas cargo to their own vessel before escaping. The incident, reported in the International Maritime Bureau's report this week on Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships, is just one of a growing number of hijackings and maritime robbery incidents across Southeast Asia. 

On Wednesday, the Bureau, a division of the International Chamber of Commerce, released data for the first six months of the year. It shows a further escalation of a worrying trend in maritime piracy and armed robbery in Southeast Asia. 

According to the report, some 92 of the 134 incidents at sea in the first six months of the year occurred in Southeast Asia*. The report shows a significant increase of incidents in Southeast Asia from the same period last year, up from 66 to 92. 

Indonesia (54), Vietnam (13) and Malaysia (11) reported the most incidents of actual and attempted attacks between January and June. The report notes that 'many attacks may have gone unreported' in Indonesia. Of the ten IMB-listed ports and anchorages that recorded three or more incidents, seven were in Southeast Asia. For the region, it marks a strong and continued upward trend over the past five years. [fold]

While the majority of these attacks are opportunistic and low intensity, analysts note that hijacking incidents are increasingly characterised by greater professionalism involving a network of enablers including financiers, forgers, and phantom tankers. There is also a trend toward armed attacks and the hijacking of small coastal tankers; 11 such hijackings occurred in the first half of 2015 in Southeast Asia. 

Singapore and Malaysia were among the flag states whose vessels reported the most attacks this year, so it is not surprising that both countries have been eager to expand cooperation on maritime patrols through the Malacca Straits and around the affected areas. Joint air patrols have been established between Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand under the Eyes in the Sky Initiative and through the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (see its first quarter report here).

Yet IMB figures suggest these initiatives have not contained the problem. In June, Malaysia called for cooperation to go further, asking ASEAN states to mount more joint air and sea patrols (Euan Graham explored the prospects of expanding maritime patrols here).

Recent events such as the search for MH370 and the Rohingya boat crisis have demonstrated Southeast Asian states' inability to cooperate at sea. Southeast Asia needs to to ramp up maritime cooperation and develop with the changing security environment. 

The region's capacity to conduct maritime patrols will increase in coming years as countries respond to territorial disputes in the South China Sea by increasing spending on their navies and coast guards. Yet these disputes have actually complicated the prospects for further cooperation because Southeast Asian states are loathe to provoke China by establishing multilateral maritime cooperation.

Many worry about an increase in insurance premiums. Lessons from Somalia indicate that we should be worried about far more than just the economics. Wealth gained from such piracy in Somalia supported increased criminality and the terrorist activities of Al Shabaab. If such activities are allowed to continue unchallenged the region may face similar problems.

While states hold much of the responsibility for security in their littoral zones, shipowners and operators should also boost their capacity to deter pirates. The improved vigilance of crews, and armed guards on some vessels, worked in deterring Somali pirates and may have a similar impact on deterring Southeast Asian piracy and armed robbery. 

For centuries Southeast Asia has felt the scourge of piracy. It will remain a persistent threat but cannot be allowed to further establish itself along one of the world's most important trade routes. The region must overcome its China complex and find a way to separate territorial disputes from the threat of piracy. 

*The IMB report categorises Vietnam (and the South China Sea area) as being in the 'Far East'. This article and the figures herein include data on Vietnam (and the South China Sea) in all references to Southeast Asia.

You may also be interested in