The Indo-Pacific high seas don’t immediately bring international cooperation to mind. Indeed, most of what is newsworthy along Asia’s maritime frontier has to do with impressive new submarines or disputes over where one state’s exclusive economic zone ends and another’s begins. Despite the many sources of friction in these waters, broad multilateral security cooperation does exist – surprising though that may be to some – in the form of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).
ReCAAP doesn’t often find its way into the mainstream news, but those in the commercial shipping industry know it well. Its prime mandate is to fight back against pirates, and maintain open access to Asia’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs). In its own words, it strives to "serve as a platform for information exchange,” "facilitate communications and information exchange among participating governments,” "analyse and prove accurate statistics of the piracy and armed robbery incidents to foster better understanding of the situation in Asia,” "facilitate capacity building efforts that help improve the capability of member countries in combating piracy and armed robbery,” and "cooperate with organisations and like-minded parties."
The ReCAAP Agreement was finalized in November 2004 and has 19 signatories currently, including China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia among others. Extra-regional countries are also participants in the regime, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. The organization is headquartered in Singapore. The impetus for its founding was an acute surge in maritime piracy in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, according to one researcher. Most recently, ReCAAP was lauded for decreasing the total number of pirate incidents on the Asian high seas in 2013.
ReCAAP’s primary value-add in combating non-state threats to intercontinental sea-based commerce is through its information-sharing functions. ReCAAP’s website pitches itself as an “Information Sharing Centre.” The organization also maintains a great deal of transparency in how it presents its information: it maintains an excellent resource called the “Consolidated Incident Reports” which quantifies several aspects of a pirate or criminal incident. As of this writing, the most recent incident, for example, tells us that a Thai ship, the Danai 4, carrying petroleum products, encountered pirates on Oct. 9 at 5:30PM (read more about that incident here).
ReCAAP’s response to pirate incidents is to immediately alert proximal maritime authorities. In the example of the Danai 4, ReCAAP alerted Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) to aid in recovery operations. Incidentally, Malaysia and Indonesia remain two significant states that have yet to accede to the agreement. ReCAAP de facto involves Indonesia and Malaysia to a disproportionate degree given that the Strait of Malacca is a hot flashpoint for maritime piracy in Asia. The two states have nuanced reasons for not joining ReCAAP. Malaysia feels slighted by its headquarters being in Singapore, and views it as a redundant addition to Asia’s security apparatus in light of the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre. As for Indonesia, it has refused to join on concerns for its sovereignty.
Awareness of ReCAAP and its activities is essential to understanding maritime security and broad multilateralism in Asia. ReCAAP isn’t an ambitious competitor to NATO or even the SCO – far from it. It represents a coordinated attempt by Asia’s sea-faring states to preserve freedom of navigation and maritime security for the prosperity of the region as a whole.