The governments of Southeast Asian nations are not only struggling to deal with COVID-19 in the face of a global pandemic but are also facing both recurrent and fresh threats on the maritime front. Southeast Asian states have to deal with non-traditional challenges such as the flow of illegal migrants along their porous maritime borders, and retain control over their maritime territories, raising the dangers to sailors, civilians, and shipping caused by the pandemic. Southeast Asia was the target of 41% of the pirate attacks in the world between 1995 and 2013. The western Indian Ocean, which includes Somalia, saw only 28 percent, and the West African coast saw only 18 percent of attacks. Throughout those years, 136 seafarers were killed as a result of piracy in Southeast Asian waters, which is twice the number in the Horn of Africa, and West Africa combined. Piracy drains between $7 billion and $12 billion annually from the international economy, according to a 2010 report by the One Earth Future Foundation. Over the past few months, well-armed and organized criminal gangs have focused their efforts on oil tankers, leaving the narrow straits of Malacca and Singapore and reaching the South China Sea. The territory here is vast, the resources of law enforcement are stretched, and the potential profits are enormous.
Most incidents in the region are known as ‘armed robbery at sea’ and not piracy. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) describes piracy as illegal actions committed “in a location beyond the jurisdiction of any State.” Pirate attacks occur on the high seas, while armed robberies occur within a country’s territorial waters. Modern maritime piracy frequently involves pirates attacking and boarding large, slower-moving ships in small, fast boats to rob them of cargo such as car parts, gasoline, crew valuables, and communications equipment or capture the ship and crew for ransom. Three multinational naval efforts, and industry-wide measures to make ships harder to target and easier to protect, helped minimize the threat as did local government on land, such as increased protection and improved health and education facilities. Better aerial and naval surveillance in Southeast Asia has curbed pirate threats, with the aid of enhanced cooperation among national governments that share jurisdiction over busy shipping lanes in the region.
In 2006, the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP) was launched by Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand to combat piracy. Although rivalries continue, efforts have paid off, as a decrease in incidences across Southeast Asia has been documented due to improved law enforcement. Maritime terrorism by violent non-state actors occurs mainly in the Sulu and Celebes Seas in Southeast Asia. Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is considered as the main perpetrator in the region. Pirates and armed robbers in Southeast Asia live in an environment full of natural wealth, and most of it is in the blue waters of Asia’s oceans and seas. Moreover, this region’s economic growth has left millions behind. Instead of prosperous coastal communities, they are witnessing deprivation and destruction of the environment. Approximately 85% of the world’s fishing and aquaculture population is located in Asia. However, the waters of Asia are overfished, and the persistent illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing in disputed areas such as the South China Sea damages the populations for their livelihoods depend on those waters. As resources became scarce, and competition among fishermen became intense, fisheries management and protection became an absolute necessity. Besides, unemployed and desperate fishermen are, in some cases, also recruited to attack or hijack merchant vessels or tugs by organized crime gangs. While fishermen may not have the important nautical skills needed to drive a merchant’s vessel or perform the work of trained seafarers, they still have skills such as ocean knowledge and experience in maneuvering smaller vessels that are important for such attacks.
In late 2019 and early 2020, Pirates have been making a bit of a comeback in the Southeast Asian region. An industry group reports that in recent months, the Malacca Strait and the Singapore Strait experienced a spike in maritime piracy and a relative rise in 2019. The Asian Regional Cooperation Agreement to Combat Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships organization monitors the piracy incidents and is comprised of 20 countries. The straits run along Peninsular Malaysia’s southwest coast extending beyond Singapore, is the top regional ship refueling point. In the first three months of 2020, the number of pirate attacks and attempted attacks increased by 24% over the same period in 2019.
Better aerial and naval surveillance has curbed pirate threats in Southeast Asia, with the aid of improved cooperation among national governments that share jurisdiction over busy shipping lanes in the region. Coronavirus pandemic could make piracy even more of a problem in the months and years to come. Research shows people turn to piracy when there is scarce economic opportunity elsewhere. Piracy had already trended upward in the first quarter of 2020, mostly in the traditional Malacca Strait, Bengal Bay, and the Sulu and Celebes Seas hotspots. Now, with the imminent COVID-19 economic catastrophe, ASEAN states and concerned stakeholders in the region must face the uncomfortable reality that increased crime is unavoidable in Southeast Asian seas. According to the World Bank, Southeast Asia as a whole should plunge to negative economic growth from near-constant growth in the past decade. The possibility of an outright increase in Southeast Asian piracy is further exacerbated by the oil prices. It has created an unprecedented surplus of crude, so much so that there is insufficient ground storage. Many companies will prefer to store in floating tankers as an alternative option. China has significantly increased its oil tanker demand, and some 14 million barrels of oil are expected to go into storage every day for this month. These tankers are filled with “black gold” to the brim and are seated in port without a destination. Other tankers sail to East and Southeast Asia to idle with cheaper storage costs and negligent security at ports. They present exciting targets possible for aspiring pirates. For a region at the center of the global economy, unfettered piracy and newly emboldened insurgency could prolong the global recession even after a pandemic has passed. Preventive action can help address the growing threat of piracy in Southeast Asia. Even with the early figures indicating a rise for 2020, global piracy is still not as substantial as it was during the 2009 to 2012 Somali period. Nevertheless, if economic conditions are deteriorating around the globe, and ships look like easy targets, more desperate people may turn to piracy, or scale up their current efforts to survive.
*** The author is currently pursuing Ph.D. as a Junior Research Fellow (JRF) in the Centre for Inner Asian Studies, School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi). She completed her B.A. (hons) and M.A. in Political Science, Jadavpur University (Kolkata) and her M.Phil. from Centre for Inner Asian Studies, SIS, JNU (New Delhi). ***