When we think of piracy, Somalia and the 2013 Hollywood movie Captain Phillips comes to mind. It’s the story about the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama in 2009 and the capture of its American Captain. What many fail to know is that the West Indian Ocean is not the world’s most dangerous seas. In 2014, the United Nations declared Southeast Asia seas as perilous. Piracy has always been endemic in Southeast Asia and it is showing no sign of abating.
Southeast Asia is home to vital shipping lanes such as the South China Sea and the Malacca Straits and in fact approximately one third of the global trade passes through one of the world’s “most important and strategic choke point”. With its complex coastlines, it is one of the world’s busiest trade routes. The waterways between Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have long been prone to piracy and piracy is now in the ascendant in Southeast Asia.
Whilst global piracy incidents have decreased from 445 pirate attacks in 2010 to 245 in 2014, the seas of Southeast Asia has emerged as a new spot for pirate attacks. According to One Earth Future Foundation study in 2010, it was estimated that piracy drains up to USD 7 billion to USD 12 billion from the international economy each year. Piracy is responsible not only for the rising economic and financial damage to countries and the international shipping industry. Fraud, stolen cargoes, delayed trips and increase insurance premiums are consequences of piracy.
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has adopted a broad definition of piracy.
“Piracy is an act of boarding any vessel with the intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act”.
The IMB which collects and collates information on piracy attacks around the world, reported that small tanker hijacks by armed gangs were escalating in the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. IMB reported that Asia accounted for 75 percent of the world maritime piracy and robbery in 2014.
Majority of maritime crime in Southeast Asia continues to occur at anchorage against crew members and ships. Southeast Asia waters are now deemed to be the most pirate infested waters in the world. In fact in the first nine months of 2014, the worst affected area was the Indonesian Island of Bintan. Southeast Asia was the location for 41 percent of the world’s pirate attacks between 1995 and 2013. With increased traffic outside port limits along the Straits, this has resulted in the worrying rise in piracy in Southeast Asia. Regional Cooperation Agreement on Anti-Piracy (ReCAAP) reported 38 incidents of piracy or armed robbery in Southeast Asian waters in the first quarter of 2015, up from 29 in the same quarter last year.
Pirates active in the Southeast Asian region can be divided into two categories: (1) opportunistic sea robbers who are involved in small scale attacks and (2) sophisticated organised pirate gangs, responsible for hijackings and other major pirate attacks. With the increase in sea borne trade and shipbuilding tonnage worldwide, the amount of commercial traffic traversing the region’s waterways has increased substantially and resulted in the piracy in the region.
According to the ReCAAP, over half of the incidents lodged were petty thefts and resulted only in minor economic damage and did not lead to any crew injuries. These were purely opportunistic attacks with the intent of stealing cash, scrap metal, crew’s personal effects and were targeted at tug boats, barges, cargo ships and other vessels. More serious attacks involve illegal syphoning of fuel in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea and occur at night outside Singapore’s port limits in less-policed waters.
ReCAAP is the first regional government to agree to promote and enhance cooperation against piracy and armed robbery in Asia. It facilitates communication and information exchanges between member countries and was launched in 2006. Singapore, Japan, Laos and Cambodia were the first four states to formally adhere to ReCAAP.
To date 20 countries have become contracting parties to ReCAAP, with the United States of America (USA) joining Southeast Asia’s war on piracy in September 2014. USA’s membership in ReCAAP will enable them to support multilateral cooperation in addressing the common threat of piracy and robbery against ships in Southeast Asia. With multinational naval patrol efforts launched off East Africa and improved on-boardsecurity, USA and its allies have been successful in their fight against piracy in the Horn of Africa. IMB reported that waters off Somalia saw just 3 incidents in 2014, down from 160 in 2011. USA brings wealth of knowledge and expertise to fight piracy in Southeast Asia. What is surprising however is that Indonesia and Malaysia are not members of ReCAAP despite their geographic proximity to these attacks. However according to First Admiral Dato Zulkifli bin Abu Bakar, Director of the Maritime Criminal Investigations department of the Malaysian Enforcement Agency, Malaysia is approaching Indonesia and Singapore to enhance the network between law enforcement authorities in the 3 countries.
It is likely that piracy in Southeast Asia will continue for years to come and will likely remain a security concern for the shipping industry and governments. To combat piracy in Southeast Asia, steps in the right direction must be taken and it requires more cooperation between countries. The plan for Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore to launch more joint investigations on piracy crimes in the region is a step in the right direction. Intelligence sharing mechanisms should be implemented and users of the region’s waterways must take on a greater responsibility for enhancing maritime security. Southeast Asian countries should work together and contribute to improve safety and security. Another point of consideration is that ReCAAP should be signed by regional states in Southeast Asia that have not yet done so.