Maritime Security in Southeast Asia
Photo Credit: World Maritime News
By Tai Wei Lim

Maritime Security in Southeast Asia

Feb. 22, 2018  |     |  0 comments

One of the greatest challenges to the maritime industry in Southeast Asia is piracy, especially in the archipelagos of Indonesia/Philippines/Brunei/East Malaysia and that of Malaysia/Singapore. The Straits of Malacca is one of the world’s busiest waterways and one of the most important routes for global shipping, especially from Northeast Asia to Europe and vice versa (together with all the intermediary maritime regions in between).


Such waterways have been nicknamed the maritime “superhighways” of the world. The Straits of Malacca is also a security hotspot although its littoral countries have substantially mitigated the incidents by working together. Perhaps that is a reason why the Straits is not prominently featured like other areas where piracy is found, such as Somalia, with its backdrop and real-life incidents becoming the stuff of legend for Hollywood movies.


In the Straits of Malacca, while some pirates belong to full-fledged pirate groups, others are members of organized crime syndicates that happen to have piracy sub-components. The pirates work for the dons of these groups — also known as the “godfathers” — and their reach can go beyond illegal means into the prison and law enforcement realms. These are powerful men embedded in a complex spectrum of legal and extra-legal centers of power. Their wealth and resources make them much feared within local communities.


50 percent of the world’s shipping activities pass through the Straits of Malacca, with most of the oil shipments destined for Northeast Asia, especially for the CJK economies (China, Japan and Korea) as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan which also tap into this energy lifeline for their industrial and household energy needs. China and Japan alone (the world’s second and third largest economies) have insatiable demands for oil that will keep ships coming. Other than the shipping of crude oil, the Straits of Malacca’s littoral states also refine crude oil and make it ready for use by Northeast Asian and other end-users.


2017 saw an increase in piracy incidents in this region compared with the previous year. Robberies using armaments were also on the increase. Primitive small arms like guns, machetes, and knives were used by pirates to rob ships — their operations were neither high-tech nor sophisticated. The use of small arms and the penchant for speed reflects the pirates’ awareness of geographical features working to their advantage. Indonesia, the largest littoral state in the region, alone has 13,000 islands and consequently has a long coastline to patrol. It is tough work covering such a large island archipelago, without even taking into account other littoral states that have exposed coastlines as well.


Security personnel have a tough job preventing attacks in these large bodies of water. Command structures and jurisdictional issues are other layers of concern for the commanders of anti-piracy coastguard and naval ships in the region. The coastguard and maritime police are often armed with shallow green water vessels that cannot operate out of shorter range perimeters. This handicaps the pursuit of the criminals.


Sometimes, the pirates use highly mobile speedboats and even skiffs to skirt the water and get away, hiding in the long and mangrove-covered estuaries of the littoral states’ coastlines and other coastline features. In parts of the Straits of Malacca, the pirate boats can hide in the crowded conditions of other parked vessels without being detected. Once again, one does not have to be very high tech to operate in the Straits when it comes to piracy activities, as even with high tech equipment, the coastguard, maritime police, and navies may not be able to detect and eliminate the pirates with their low tech gear.


The problem is complicated because of the possibility of collusion between the pirates, the ships’ crews, and/or other stakeholders in the region.

Corruption is another handicap for the region, obstructing effective arrests of pirates. Pirates are able to manipulate bureaucratic ambiguity, provincial political rivalries, and the centre-periphery political disconnect to their advantage. Thus, anti-piracy measures go far beyond equipment acquisitions, effective ground-level policing, naval strength, surveillance capabilities, and other operational issues. There are also deeper issues of political integrity, mitigation of corruption, law enforcement in general, efficient communication between central and provincial government, etc.


The problem is complicated because of the possibility of collusion between the pirates, the ships’ crews, and/or other stakeholders in the region. Information coming from colluders can give away a ship’s vital information, including maritime location, nature of goods shipped, defensive armaments on board the ship, and other strategic intelligence about the ship. Collusion can also facilitate the movement of goods from the captured ships to vessels owned by the pirates. Coordination to prevent collusion is also complicated by the fact that the typical makeup of a ship’s crew members, technicians, navigators, ship-owners, and registration have different countries of origin. This opens avenues for collusion with pirates since much greater efforts are required for background checks, and to monitor and coordinate the activities of such a wide spectrum of stakeholders.


Besides the crew and staff members who collude with the pirates, the ecology also includes the customers and clients who buy the looted goods. Operations for the detection of the looted goods are further complicated by the fact that these goods are sometimes combined and mixed with non-looted products. This makes it harder to sieve out stolen goods, especially non-solid commodities and products like oil.


Some piracy acts are specific in their target clientele, for example stealing oil from ships for sale to oil-needy customers. Some of these customers are ignorant consumers who are unaware of the criminal nature of stolen goods. Other criminal activities take the form of illegal fishing. Such loot amounts to billions of dollars, a large underground economy that incentivizes and attracts criminals. These are billions of dollars extracted from the littoral economies of the region — vital assets and commodities for the regional economy.


Pirates sometimes take the ships as well, by removing the name painted on the captured ship’s body and renaming it to avoid detection. The captured ships’ navigation equipment is also another source of income for the pirates, although in some cases, this equipment is destroyed in order to paralyze the ship so that the pirates can carry out their looting operations. The intimidated crew members are sometimes compelled to hand over their possessions to the pirates. Loss of life arising from pirate attacks is not uncommon.


Fortunately, for merchant shipping, the littoral region of the Straits of Malacca has good multilateral cooperation in anti-piracy measures. The landmark year was 2004 when these states decided to combine their substantial maritime assets and resources to patrol the Straits, showing resolve and determination to tackle criminal activities in that region. Such cooperation has taken place in addition to other major powers conducting multilateral anti-piracy exercises in the region. This is an established non-traditional security activity that is often seen as a no-detriments point for states to work closer together.


The Singapore-based Information Sharing Center of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) is a major coordinating mechanism to prevent piracy. Technologically sophisticated resources are available to law enforcement such as “eyes in the sky” satellite-based systems and airborne surveillance platforms that oversee and track piracy movements. The Republic of Singapore Navy also has an Information Fusion Centre to contribute to anti-piracy activities. The Malaysian Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau also tracks maritime issues globally.


Also, fortunately, the littoral states are helped by regional and world powers. The US has donated ships to the Indonesian maritime police to combat piracy activities. The major powers are all helping out in their own ways and ASEAN is also contributing to such efforts. Kudos is due to the littoral states for managing and handling an eminently complex challenge. Piracy drives up insurance costs and such costs are transferred to consumers and end users. All stakeholders can contribute to the efforts.

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