Economics and finance, Government and governance, International relations | Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia

11 December 2019

Despite ongoing incidents of piracy in Asia, international co-operation efforts are having genuine success at containing the issue. Various policy initiatives are showing promise for the security of the region’s sea lanes, now and into the future, Sam Bateman writes.

Since I wrote on the subject of piracy in Asia for Policy Forum in 2016, the situation has shown marked improvement. According to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), there were 76 incidents in Asia in 2018 as compared with 203 in 2015. In the first nine months of 2019, 54 incidents occurred in the region as compared with 64 in the same period of 2018, a significant drop by any measure.

This improved situation is due to several factors, including better security in regional ports and anchorages, and enhanced coordination to deal with the threat between agencies involved in countering piracy at both the national and regional levels.

A particular feature of that improvement has been the decreased number of attacks on ships at anchor in Bangladesh and Indonesia. In Bangladesh, no incident was reported in ports and anchorages during the first nine months of 2019, compared to 11 over the same period in 2018. In Indonesia over this period, the number of incidents fell from 26 in 2018 to 17 in 2019.

More on this: Can coast guards tame the ‘wild west’ of the Indian Ocean?

Despite this, similar attacks do continue to occur. These tend to happen in specific target areas, and often over a limited period of time. For example, there have been several incidents recently involving ships in the eastbound lane of Singapore Strait.

Three incidents occurred in close proximity to each other within a period of 20 days – on 30 September, 18 October, and 19 October. These all involved large vessels, probably proceeding at slow speed at night. This provided the opportunity for the perpetrators to scramble on board unnoticed.

The latest incident on 19 October was of particular concern because the perpetrators were armed with a gun and knives. They threatened a crew member, tied his hands, and escaped with ship engine spares.

Outbreaks of attacks on vessels in the eastbound lane of Singapore Strait have occurred in the past. For example in, August 2015, there were six attacks in this area in only two days. Usually, though, they have been brought under control fairly quickly by a coordinated response, and by increased policing onshore, especially by Indonesia.

This part of the Strait lies entirely within Indonesian territorial waters and in places passes close by Indonesian islands. Pirates often operate from bases onshore, usually in small fishing communities. It’s not unreasonable to assume that most of the community know what’s going on, and this includes local police and naval personnel, who may be complicit in the illegal activity. Low salaries for law enforcement personnel encourage such complicity.

More on this: Smooth sailing ahead?

Occasional incidents also still occur in the waters between the Philippines and the Malaysian state of Sabah. Extremist groups, including the Abu Sayyaf Group, are active in the area. These groups attack small vessels, in particular, to kidnap crew members for ransom. Two incidents of this nature have occurred so far in 2019 – one involving a Malaysian fishing vessel and the other a Malaysian tug towing a barge.

A Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA) has been established by Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to provide greater maritime security in this area, but it evidently has its shortcomings.

It involves enhanced cooperative maritime and air patrols and the establishment of operational hubs in each country.

On a positive note, a significant appetite now exists in Asia for operational coordination and information-sharing to deal with piracy and sea robbery. Relevant activities in addition to the TCA include the Malacca Straits Patrol network, involving Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore, which provides all three states with oversight of the air and sea patrols of the straits, enabling the exchange of information and intelligence.

An Information Sharing Centre has also been set up in Singapore by ReCAAP along with an Information Fusion Centre at Changi Naval Base, which covers much of Southeast and South Asia, and an Indonesia-Singapore Coordinated Patrol arrangement coordinates patrols in Singapore Strait.

Despite progress, piracy and sea robbery are unlikely to be totally eradicated in Asia. Poverty, unemployment, and the decline of traditional fishing in the face of over-fishing are major economic causes of piracy. Many pirates are displaced fishermen no longer able to earn a living from traditional fishing. Piracy and sea robbery are attractive alternative vocations and ships are vulnerable if they don’t adopt appropriate security measures.

It’s a fundamental principle that the fight against piracy begins on land, and the improved situation in Asia in recent years can be attributed to two main factors. Firstly, there is the high level of cooperation between countries across the region to counter piracy, and secondly, there is better policing onshore to identify offenders.

In all, progress on piracy in Asia is showing promise. While it is unlikely to ever totally go away, continued commitment to co-operation on this issue can transform it from a serious threat to a minor nuisance, and ongoing commitment to policies that work is crucial to that process.

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