Southeast Asia’s Piracy Headache
Image Credit: REUTERS/Zainal Abd Halim

Southeast Asia’s Piracy Headache


It looks like 2014 may have been the most dangerous year for Asian seafarers in almost a decade. According to the Singapore-based Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), 183 actual or attempted attacks took place in Southeast Asian waters during 2014. This figure represents a marked increase from 150 in 2013 and 133 in 2012, and is the highest since 2006.

The latest figures released by the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center corroborate ReCAAP’s findings and show a similar increase in attacks in 2013 and 2014. Since a total of 245 attacks took place worldwide in 2014, Asia now accounts for up to 75 percent of all piracy and armed robbery (PAR) incidents in the world, up from 60 percent in 2013. The continent’s share in global PAR statistics is rapidly increasing as the number of attacks in other parts of the world – most notably the Gulf of Aden – continues to decline.

The surge in incidents in Southeast Asia underscores a worrying trend, one that has seen attacks steadily proliferate since 2013, following a brief decline between 2010 and 2012. Even though PAR is by no means a new phenomenon in the region – Southeast Asia has been known as a piracy hotspot for centuries – the sheer increase in the volume of attacks will perhaps nudge countries in the most affected areas to action. The shipping industry is likely to exert additional pressure on regional governments, as a sustained increase in attacks will put ships and crew at greater risk and is certain to drive up the cost of insurance premiums.

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A Closer Look

Over one third of all shipping traverses the Strait of Malacca each year, with an estimated 15.2 million barrels of crude oil transported through this strategic chokepoint every day. Although spikes in attacks had disrupted shipping through the strait in the past (famously prompting the Lloyd’s Market Association to declare it a warzone in 2005), PAR in Asian waters traditionally slipped in and out of (Western) public consciousness and rarely captured global headlines. This is despite the fact that many Westerners – particularly Europeans – would be among the first to feel the effects of major disruption to shipping in the region. The European Union relies heavily on sea-borne trade with countries in the Asia-Pacific – six of its biggest 20 trading partners are located in the region.

However, there are at least three reasons for a lack of significant international attention. First, unlike their more famous counterparts in the Gulf of Aden, pirates in Southeast Asia use violence as a tool less frequently, and there are fewer instances of boarding with firearms. Second, the majority of attacks are directed against small local ships that are easily boarded, rather than major oil tankers or cargo vessels. Third, a large proportion of all attacks consist of petty thefts and crimes of opportunity against ships in ports. Major (and violent) hijackings are a much rarer occurrence than in the Gulf of Aden or the Gulf of Guinea.

Although the share of violent incidents rose substantially in 2014 (more on this below), most PAR attacks still conformed to the three aforementioned characteristics. Still, given the breadth of Asian waters and sea lanes, some areas are bound to be more at risk than others. In order to more accurately assess the PAR threat in Southeast Asia, it is imperative to delve deeper into the numbers.

The Bad News

In Asia, maritime PAR has traditionally been concentrated in the southeast, predominantly in the Strait of Malacca. In recent years, multilateral patrols and organizations such as ReCAAP – which facilitates information sharing and capacity building among its 20 contracting parties in Europe, the Asia-Pacific and North America – have succeeded in reducing PAR in the Strait. However, as counter-piracy efforts intensified in one area, most of the attacks shifted eastward toward the Singapore Strait, the South China Sea, and particularly the waters and harbors of Indonesia.

According to the IMB’s 2014 Annual Report, the number of attacks increased across Southeast Asia, with no areas registering a noticeable decline from the year before. The vast majority (100) of all actual and attempted attacks took place in and around Indonesia, with many occurring in the narrow strip of sea separating the Indonesian island of Pulau Karimun Besar from Singapore. Over half of all attacks were carried out in just five of Indonesia’s ports and anchorages, with the most (35) taking place on the island of Pulau Bintan. Although the number of incidents was down slightly from 106 in 2013, the figure is still more than double the 40 attacks reported in 2010.

Malaysia and the adjacent portion of the South China Sea have seen the largest year-on-year increase in attacks. The IMB registered 24 incidents in 2014, almost three times as many (9) as in 2013. During the same period, ReCAAP registered 23 incidents, up from just one the year before. Most attacks took place off of the southeastern tip of the Malay Peninsula.

Bangladesh is fast becoming another notable flashpoint, with the IMB recording 21 reported incidents, up from 12 the year before. During the same year, ReCAAP registered 14 incidents, more than double the six it had logged the year before. Almost all of the attacks (18) were armed robberies that took place in Chittagong Port.

The surge in the number of PAR incidents throughout the year was accompanied by a notable rise in attacks against larger ships and the use of firearms, particularly in Indonesia. According to ReCAAP, the number of “very significant” incidents – those that result in substantial economic damage and/or are particularly violent – increased substantially, largely owing to more widespread (and lucrative) siphoning of fuel and oil. Such siphoning requires complex planning and greater operational capacity, suggesting a growing importance of organized crime groups. The most common targets of siphoning attacks are product or oil tankers under 5000 gross tons (GT).

According to the IMB, attackers were armed with guns in 34 instances; almost triple the 13 in 2012. This proliferation of small arms resulted in three deaths, most recently on December 8, 2014, when an engineer aboard a Vietnamese tanker was shot by armed attackers. Three fatalities within a year is an exceptionally high number for Southeast Asia, and may signify the beginning of a possible shift from the prevailing modus operandi whereby attackers usually flee if caught red-handed by the crew.

The Good News

Fortunately, 2014 was not all bad news. According to ReCAAP’s Assistant Director Lee Yin Hui, over half of all incidents were logged as petty thefts. This means that most pirate attacks or robberies resulted in minor economic damage and did not lead to crew injuries. Most attacks remained opportunistic in nature and predominantly targeted tug boats, barges, cargo ships, and other vessels, with the intent of stealing cash, crews’ personal effects, or scrap metal. According to Lee Yin Hui, most incidents resulted in no economic loss at all, while the attackers generally fled after being discovered. Moreover, despite the more frequent use of firearms, the vast majority of attackers still remained unarmed or carried “just” knives or machetes.

There is another potential silver lining. The numbers of attacks recorded by organizations such as the IMB and ReCAAP frequently diverge, owing to differences in geographic designations and data collection methods. However, both institutions rely on one single decisive factor when compiling their statistics: reporting.

Shipowners may be reluctant to report attacks for a number of reasons, including concerns over the company’s safety record, potential liability, or simply to avoid higher insurance premiums. As a rule, many attacks go unreported worldwide. Even though it is impossible to determine the extent of underreporting, at least a part of last year’s surge in recorded incidents may be due to more diligent shipowners. If true, this may possibly indicate an increase in awareness of the importance of reporting successful or attempted attacks.

Stemming the Tide

As 2014 drew to a close, it revealed the full extent of Southeast Asia’s piracy headache. The number of incidents soared, attacks became more deadly, and strikes against larger targets suggest an increasing presence of well-organized criminal groups. Although the majority of attacks continue to be small scale and cause little direct physical and economic damage, the potential indirect impact of the piracy surge should be enough to prompt regional countries into action. Even minor disruptions to trade routes can have global economic consequences, drive up insurance premiums, and lead to expensive rerouting and additional security costs.

Below are some suggestions that might help stem the rising tide:

  1. Devote more attention to PAR within multilateral organizations and forums. Setting piracy higher on the agenda within existing forums could be the fastest and cheapest way to more multilateral exercises, capacity building an information sharing. For example, counter-piracy could be prioritized in one or more of the ASEAN Regional Forum’s (ARF) many bodies, such as the ARF Inter-Sessional Meeting on Maritime Security or the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting- Plus.
  2. Expand and strengthen existing counter-piracy frameworks. ReCAAP has made an important contribution in fostering mutual trust and promoting information sharing between 20 countries in the Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America. However, its limited budget and capabilities may leave it ill-equipped to stem the rising tide of well-armed and organized sea raiders. The organization’s founding document gives it a broad mandate that includes the possibility of tailored bilateral and multilateral cooperation. If the political will within its 20 member countries exists, ReCAAP could serve as an effective platform for joint counter-piracy exercises or capacity building programs.
  3. Expand and strengthen existing counter-piracy patrols. As pirates shift their attention to the south and east of the Strait of Malacca, initiatives such as the highly effective Malacca Strait Patrols (MSP), conducted by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, should follow suit.
  4. Take the initiative. Southeast Asia’s counter-piracy efforts seem to lack decisive leadership. When Japan hosted the Asia Anti-Piracy Conference in Tokyo in 2000, it proved that a little bit of initiative can even lead to substantial results, such as the establishment of the world’s first intergovernmental body created solely to combat piracy. There is no reason why a country like pirate-beleaguered Indonesia, under its decisive new President Joko Widodo, could not emerge as a candidate for just such leadership.

Although “significant and worrying,” the problem is still manageable, and for the most part restricted to several geographic locales. Just the same, Southeast Asian states will need to act or risk their piracy headache spiraling out of control sooner rather than later.

Miha Hribernik is a political risk analyst based in the United Kingdom.

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