“The vastness (of the ocean) and the resultant challenges make it mandatory for each nation to work in close collaboration to ensure security in the maritime domain. Therefore, we need to work on broadly shared objectives.” So said Rear Admiral DMB Waththewa of the Sri Lankan Navy, speaking to representatives from 34 countries several weeks ago, at the fifth annual Defense Seminar hosted in Colombo. Throughout his presentation – in which he shared his thoughts on how traditional and emerging maritime threats ought to be confronted – Waththewa emphasized the need for naval cooperation between states in the region. Analysts would do well to keep his words in mind when they study the Asia-Pacific, which is overwhelmingly reliant on stable seas for its economic prosperity and security.
Piracy was once dismissed in most circles as a relic of the past, a threat that was of no real concern in the modern age. This attitude has seen a dramatic reversal in recent years, largely as a result of the Somali piracy that wreaked havoc in the Gulf of Aden and disrupted vital trade routes, making the phenomenon an issue of public interest once again. It is estimated that dealing with piracy along the Somali coast in 2011 alone, cost nearly $7 billion. A coordinated regional effort has now managed to bring the situation under control, but the trend has led to a resurgence of piracy in other parts of the world, most notably in Asia, which has become the dominant arena for such activities. The region accounted for an overwhelming number of all piracy attacks in 2014, with 183 out of 245 such incidents worldwide.
While there have been concerted efforts by key nations to boost their maritime security, a grand naval strategy that could effectively eliminate this threat on a pan-Asian level is yet to materialize. This is hardly surprising, given the geopolitical web of rivalries that permeate the region. China has been active in combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden, but most of its efforts have been unilateral operations, rather than a campaign in conjunction with international efforts. In the South China Sea, regional tensions between the Asian giant and emerging economies like Vietnam and Indonesia prevent a naval alliance of any sort. As a matter of fact, an equally important security concern for Indonesia, Asia’s biggest victim of piracy, is securing the resource-rich Natuna islands from alleged Chinese naval ambitions, ruling out the possibility of an overarching military partnership.
One might think of India as a natural candidate to lead this effort, but the world’s largest democracy faces problems in this area as well. Although aware of the need for cooperation, India has largely been unable to secure its own maritime backyard – the International Maritime Boundary Line with Sri Lanka – where it has been incapable of preventing poachers and smugglers originating in Indian waters from entering Sri Lankan territory. As a country that has consistently been the victim of proxy wars through non-state actors, India must red-flag piracy as a potential danger and be prepared to deal with it effectively. Foreign-funded pirates can be just as destabilizing as their insurgent counterparts, perhaps more so given the impact on trade and supply routes. With the way things stand, it is uncertain whether India could sustain the regional naval support required to protect its interests, were piracy to become a significant threat in the Bay of Bengal or Arabian Sea.
Southeast Asian states like Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore have acknowledged the need to fight piracy in the Malacca Strait together, but have been unable to stem the rising tide, mostly due to the lack of large-scale joint patrols in the ASEAN region. The South China Sea is filled with competing claims over territory by various nations, and commentators have pointed out that vital requirements like intelligence sharing may be perceived by some states as possibly working against their national interest. There are additional concerns over whether inviting foreign navies to patrol one’s waters would lead to complications in terms of legal jurisdiction.
Japan has been a consistently productive participant, with its efforts to bring in other regional players going back to 2000, when it hosted the Anti-Piracy conference in Tokyo that established the first transnational attempt to fight piracy in the modern era. More recently, Japan has also been active in securing U.S. ties for maritime defense. But again, while having such a powerful partner would certainly bolster its might, the presence of the United States is likely to complicate the dynamic as China and several ASEAN nations grapple over questions of territory.
Why is a pan-Asian strategy necessary? States and analysts alike seem to be under the impression that securing their immediate maritime neighborhood will protect commercial interests. Thus, the perception appears to be that Southeast Asian and South Asian nations must focus on eliminating the threat in their vicinities, with no real need for a grand strategy. However, such an approach is unlikely to yield a long-term solution to the piracy problem and would be nothing more than a wasted opportunity. Our threat-assessment paradigms are often cluttered because of the discourse on terrorism, and it must not be forgotten that piracy is an entirely different species.
For one, while terrorism has morphed into an asymmetric threat that has made conventional military capacity redundant in many areas, piracy can still be defeated with overwhelming firepower and numbers – a tactical advantage states must exploit to their benefit before it disappears and pirates begin to adapt, much like insurgents did. It is also a threat that could be used as a great point of origin for larger naval cooperation, since piracy is a multi-country problem by its very nature, and will inevitably require states to work in tandem with each other if they are to get rid of the scourge. A positive counter-piracy campaign could go a long way in establishing a sustained maritime security partnership between nations to help deal with other problems like poaching and trafficking, which is critical for Asia if it is to compete with rival continents in economic stability.
Unlike terrorism, which is usually driven by ideology, the effect of piracy is largely economic in nature. Asia is already an inter-connected economy, with trade flourishing between different nations on an unprecedented scale. Its impact will thus have very far-reaching consequences. For example, while an insurgent movement in a South Asian country may not be of much concern to an East Asian one, rampant piracy in the South China Sea could lead to economic catastrophes even in countries that do not necessarily consider it to be in their vicinity, since trade interests could still be affected.
Finally, piracy should be considered a very serious threat by all littoral states in Asia because it is slowly but steadily becoming more violent. Despite the large number of incidents of piracy and robbery at sea, one small compensation to date is that it has been significantly less brutal than that which the world has seen in the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden. That is slowly changing now, with three deaths reported last year at the hands of armed pirates. If this is an indication that piracy in Asia is slowly morphing into a more violent form that resembles its African counterpart, it bodes very ill for every nation involved.
A continent-wide grand naval strategy is thus required if the region is to effectively tackle this alarming phenomenon. Hopes that such an initiative could actually take off the ground, however, still seem rooted more in fantasy than reality. A united effort might materialize when piracy does become a crippling force, but by then it might be too late for Asia to solve the problem unscathed.
Nilanthan Niruthan is a security analyst and researcher currently involved with the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, Colombo. He is the co-editor of two upcoming publications on counterinsurgency and security in South Asia.