ASEAN Joint Patrols in the South China Sea?

Singapore’s navy chief suggests that the idea could be realized soon.

ASEAN Joint Patrols in the South China Sea?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On May 11, Singapore media outlets reported that Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia are in discussions to extend joint patrols to the lower reaches of the South China Sea to tackle piracy.

According to Singapore Chief of Navy Rear-Admiral Lai Chung Han, the states were hoping to start the patrols “sooner rather than later,” and Singapore is “more than ready to move on this.”

The idea of joint patrols by Southeast Asian states in the South China Sea has been floated both privately and publicly in the past. As I have written previously, the proposal made headlines earlier this year when Vice Admiral Robert Thomas said at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition following the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in Malaysia that ASEAN countries could streamline cooperation on maritime security while respecting sovereignty and coastal space, as was the case with counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden.

As I suggested then and as Lai outlined, such patrols by Southeast Asian states in the South China Sea would be an extension of the Malacca Strait Patrols (MSP) undertaken by Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand. The MSP, which began in 2004, is a set of cooperative measures that includes air and sea patrols between these countries to tackle piracy.

Extending those patrols to the South China Sea would seem to make sense. Piracy is a rampant problem around Southeast Asian waters, which carry about half of world trade and a third of its oil supply. By some accounts, the problem may be getting worse. As I reported earlier, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), Southeast Asia saw 141 piracy incidents in 2014, up from 126 in 2013. And for the first quarter of 2015, the IMB found that the region alone accounted for over half of the world’s piracy and armed robbery attacks, equivalent to a small coastal tanker being hijacked by pirates every two weeks.

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The trouble, as I mentioned in my earlier piece, is that conflicting territorial claims between states in the South China Sea could present a problem. Lai himself acknowledged that this was a lingering concern.

“There is concern with the proximity to the contested claims of South China Sea, and we certainly don’t want those issues to be conflated. We are very focused on dealing with the piracy situation and none of us really benefit from letting this situation fester.”