Contemporary piracy conjures images of Somali pirates off the horn of Africa. Taking advantage of a region of fragility, these groups venture into international maritime trade routes well-armed in fast boats.
The issue of Somali piracy and the international response is widely covered. What is less covered is that in 2016 Southeast Asia had the second-highest incidence of piracy globally; the individual state with the highest incidence of piracy was Indonesia. This is a worrying trend as violent armed piracy grew in 2016, with 110 seafarers taken hostage and 49 held for ransom.
This piece examines the risk of piracy to Australian trade should it spread, or relocate, from Indonesia across the border to the Melanesian “arc of instability.” Australia is a country that relies on maritime trade for its economic prosperity, and subsequently, existing piracy is of grave concern.
Security in Indonesia is vital for global trade. Half of the world’s total annual seaborne trade passes through the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Straits. Combined, these straits comprise the vital linkage for Indo-Pacific trade. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for over 40 percent of global GDP and approximately one-third of the world’s merchandise exports. Arguably, the Malacca Strait is now, or is destined to be, the world’s most important strait. A disruption in the Malacca Strait would financially impact approximately 400 shipping lanes that link 700 ports worldwide.
Trans-Indian Ocean trade bypassing the Malacca Strait would need to traverse the Sunda Strait, which is too shallow for most container ships, and at an average speed of 15 knots would add 1.5 days of travel time for docking at Singapore. The Lombok Strait is farther still and would require an additional 3.5 days of travel time. These kinds of delays would have a significant economic impact on Australia in terms of imports and exports. However, there is little regional coordination planned to combat disruptive piracy.
What if piracy moves east? Fragile states are conflict prone, with limited reach of law and order into provinces. These conditions provide operational space for piracy and maritime terrorism. State fragility in Melanesia is thus of concern to Australia’s maritime security, as these states press against Australia’s exclusive economic zone.
The Torres Strait links the Arafura and Coral Seas and the Vitiaz Strait requires passage through the Coral, Solomon, and Bismarck Seas. Consequently, Australia’s eastern seaboard trade routes are severed by an “arc of instability.”
In fact, Australia and Papua New Guinea are so close that a special relationship was negotiated allowing free cross-border movement of people from 14 Australian island communities and a further 13 Papua New Guinea villages. This bilateral relationship is an admission that, when it comes to the day-to-day lived experience of the Torres Strait peoples, the dividing border is a political fiction.
If a Melanesian state failed this may facilitate local access to high-powered small-arms. This sequence of events would make it very difficult for Australia to completely control its borders and prevent piracy and maritime terrorism in this vital northern trading route.
Melanesia has a history of weapons leakage from government stockpiles and arms flow across borders. A looming threat of a breakdown in law and order in PNG or Solomon Islands may facilitate transnational criminal networks operating out of these safe havens with increased access to Australian trade routes or even the mainland.
Alternatively, effective policing in Southeast Asia could push transnational piracy operations to migrate across neighboring borders. Hence, these threats should be factored into contingency plans when considering the worth of expending Australian blood and treasure in security capacity building in Melanesia.
Prevention is always more desirable from a humanitarian perspective, and more cost effective, than remedy. Criticism of Australia’s security and stabilization interventions in Melanesia ought to remember the alternatives of a return to violence.
Australia needs to remain committed to capacity building in Melanesian states to counter the threat of piracy. A commitment to Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program, and specifically the Patrol Boat Program, is necessary for supporting the regional security architecture. Australia should assist PNG’s Maritime Security Division through financial assistance and technology, training, and knowledge exchange to enable better coordination.
Regional stability through increased security cohesion is a win-win for states involved. Australia needs to collaborate with Melanesian countries to improve regional resilience to piracy. Of its neighbors, Australia is the only state member of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).
Security in its northern neighbors secures Australia because those jurisdictions are custodians of Australia’s northern approaches. Better information sharing and security coordination presupposes that there is systematic information gathering to be shared and capable security infrastructure for Australia to coordinate with. In this, Australia should assist in capacity-building to reap long-term benefits. Anti-piracy in Melanesia will require investment, gifting, and effective diplomacy on Australia’s behalf for Australia’s benefit.
Nathan Page has a Masters of Development Studies from University of Melbourne specializing in conflict and development. Nathan is policy consultant with the Center for Armed Violence Reduction.