Despite genuine improvements in maritime security by Asian littoral states in recent years, Asia remains the global number one hotspot for piracy on the high seas, according to reports from global maritime watchdogs and shipping industry groups. According to anti-piracy group Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP), which mapped attacks from multiple industry sources including the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), and the Information Fusion Center (IFC), the region saw the highest number of incidents when all types of piracy were accounted for. In total 129 types of piratical incidents occurred in Asia during 2016; by contrast, the second most popular region for pirate activities was West Africa, which saw only 95 incidents last year.
The 2016 figures for Asia remain grim but in fact reflect a mixed picture for security analysts. Since 2015, greater efforts by Southeast Asian states like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia to decrease piracy and armed robbery incidents in Asian waters led to the creation of joint coordinated patrols and response teams to conduct counter-piracy operations. These have had some effect; there were 23 arrests in Asia for piracy in 2016, and a 35 percent fall in recorded piracy-related incidents compared with 2015. That year saw 199 such instances compared with 2016’s 129 recorded attacks. But while the fall in the number of overall incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea collected by OBP in 2016 reflects well on the improved effectiveness of regional cooperation and information sharing mechanisms, it is not the whole story.
While the number of hijackings for cargo theft incidents recorded by OBP decreased from 12 in 2015 to just three in 2016, instances of kidnapping surged in their place. A total of 185 seafarers were taken hostage, in a trend linked by observers to the increased activities of Islamist insurgents in the southern Philippines. Partially due to increased law enforcement efforts, and partially because of the surge in attempted or successful kidnapping attempts in the Sulu and Celebes Seas, 2016 also saw a surge in lethal violence affecting the region’s seafarers. There were fewer victims of piracy in Asia last year then in 2015 (just 2,283 seafarers in Asian waters experienced a pirate-related incident in 2016, compared with 3,674 seafarers the previous year) but deaths were up sharply. In 2015 no seafarers died in Asia due to pirate attacks, but with the risk of detection by law-enforcement seemingly increased, violence at sea was much deadlier in 2016. Two seafarers were killed by their kidnappers last year, and another four died because of pirate-related incidents.
It is partially thanks to the increase in deaths and kidnappings that Asia has recovered its unfortunate status as the principal threat to world shipping. That’s especially unfortunate as two-thirds of global shipping occurs within Southeast Asian waters. In a bid to halt this new trend, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines agreed last summer to allow “hot pursuits” of kidnappers and armed robbers by each other’s maritime security forces into each country’s waters. Various other measures such as coordinated patrols in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas (which just launched on June 19) and a hotline among the three countries have also been tried. This month Singapore was invited to join the agreement by Indonesia’s defense minister, who seemed confident the city-state’s government would agree to his nation’s proposal.
But how successful future regional anti-piracy attempts will be depends partially on the outcome of tackling rampant lawlessness in the southern Philippines, an area that has historically provided sanctuary for foreign militants and criminals as well as the rebellious locals. For example veteran Malaysian and Indonesian militants from the notorious al-Qaeda linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group hid out there for many years before being eliminated or arrested by Filipino security forces. These fugitives were primarily sheltered by the local jihadist group behind much of the recent maritime crime wave, the Abu Sayyaf faction of the Philippines’ fractured Islamist insurgency.
One Abu Sayyaf splinter faction has even joined with other small insurgent groups in pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group and is currently battling the Filipino government for control of the city of Marawi, on the island of Mindanao. Reports from the Philippines so far indicate that the administration of the volatile Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte is still struggling to impose its authority in the south, despite recently declaring martial law over Mindanao. This upsurge in militant violence on land is concerning to regional governments considering their maritime security because it shows that active militants have a new ambition to carve out a lawless zone in the southern Philippines from which they can securely expand their activities, which will presumably include increased attacks and kidnappings in the Sulu and Celebes Seas.
As a result of past attacks in these areas, many merchant vessels have been forced to reroute and avoid them, as the littoral states in the region have been unable to prevent attacks from pirate ships operating out of the southern Philippines. Observers have warned that the growth of pro-ISIS groups there represents a threat to ASEAN maritime security, and cited attacks in March by Abu Sayyaf that saw another abduction by the group, this time of a local captain and his chief engineer. The southern Philippine maritime economy is emerging as a gateway for new shipping routes, such as one newly opened last month between Indonesia’s North Sulawesi Province and the Filipino cities of Davao and General Santos. But while this is good news for the region, analysts worry that the area’s entrenched militants could target traffic on the new routes for ransoms to fund their activities, as they already do to shipping elsewhere in the region.
Piracy will clearly continue to trouble Asian economies even as the region rapidly modernizes in the coming decades, partially because of pre-existing issues (like local insurgencies) or the growth of global security problems (like transnational organized criminal syndicates and terrorist networks), and partially because of the increase in opportunities for theft and kidnapping as shipping traffic grows between countries in the region.
However, the picture is not all bleak; traffic transiting the Straits of Malacca and Singapore is now at lower risk than previously. This suggests that the newest outbreaks of piracy can be successfully tackled in the same ways as earlier ones, once regional governments have been pushed into catching up with the latest trends in the maritime underworld. Organized crime is a factor that can never entirely be eliminated, but it is one which can be minimized with the right combination of effort, coordination, and willpower.
Neil Thompson is a Contributing Analyst at geostrategic analysis and business consultancy Wikistrat and a blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. His work has appeared in the Diplomat, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the International Security Network, the Independent, and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and is presently based in London.