2020 was a challenging year for maritime security actors in Southeast Asia. As COVID-19 pushed Southeast Asian countries into further economic desperation, the number of piracy and armed robbery at sea cases in the Singapore Strait hit its highest mark in half a decade – with its 34 incidents forming the bulk of cases in Asia’s waters in the year.
As highlighted by ReCAAP ISC Executive Director Masafumi Kuroki at the 12th Nautical Forum on 15 January 2021, there was a significant increase in ‘actual incidents’ of piracy last year (+17% compared to 2019). The most worrysome aspect of this development is that incidents have increased in a variety of locations, such as Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, Viet Nam, the South China Sea and the Singapore Strait. The broad range of these locations is emblematic of the regional scope of the problem.
COVID-19 continues to illustrate the array of ways in which a global health crisis is capable of disrupting social and economic frameworks; Southeast Asia’s maritime environment is no exception. The pandemic-induced economic crisis that Southeast Asian countries are currently facing has birthed optimal conditions for piracy and sea robbery to surge. Economic contraction is leading to high levels of unemployment, thus forcing people in coastal communities to turn to crime as a means to provide for themselves and their families. Further, as state budgets are adjusted to compensate for the health crisis, non-state actors are escalating violence on land which is spilling over into the maritime domain.
Aside from these drivers of increased criminal activity, there was a parallel surge in piracy enabling factors. Regional governments are being forced to spend vast amounts of money to tackle COVID-19, as funds that were already allocated to different sectors have been redirected to support distressed economies. Consequently, government law enforcement agencies such as navies and coast guards are operating on reduced funding, making it very difficult for them to undertake routine patrols of their ports and territorial waters, where most attacks occur. Moreover, large numbers of docked vessels, anchoraged due to decreasing demand for shipping, are inviting and easy prey for maritime criminals. These ships continue to grow more vulnerable as shipping companies cut down on crew numbers and reduce security measures; prolonged crew working hours on board ships, due to the current obstacles to crew rotation, causes fatigue and may reduce vigilance.
The pandemic has reinforced the importance of shipping for global trade, and the surge in piracy and armed robbery at sea cases last year is a stark reminder that more needs be done to enhance the safety of maritime transport. The Indian Ocean, South China Sea and East China Sea are vital transit routes in the world’s economic architecture. Eight out of ten of the world’s busiest container ports are located in South and Southeast Asia; two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments travel across the Indian Ocean on their way to the Pacific; and almost 30% of global maritime trade goes across the South China Sea. As for Europe, the value of trade between the EU and Asia in 2018 reached 1.4 trillion EUR, with 50% of this volume transiting through the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia.
The increasing interest of Europe in the region has encouraged the European Union to seek more active involvement in activities ensuring smooth trade and securitisation of the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). Indeed, also the current EU-ASEAN Plan of Action reaffirms the importance of strengthened cooperation on maritime security issues, such as in combatting sea piracy, armed robbery against ships, as well as encouraging cooperation to comprehensively address maritime-related issues.
Promoting information exchange and cooperation among and between the different maritime actors remains more necessary than ever to guarantee security and freedom of shipping overseas. The Singapore Strait – the area hit hardest by increased piracy in 2020 – is an area composed of the territorial waters of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. This corridor is a potent example of the need to establish efficient international coordination mechanisms to combat transnational maritime security threats.
One of the key components of the CRIMARIO II project is the improvement of interagency cooperation, both at national and international level. As such, CRIMARIO II is now expanding into Southeast Asia in the hopes of increasing cooperation and contributing to maritime stability in the region.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the European Union or its members.
Picture from: The Online Citizen