Nowhere has as many pirate attacks as Southeast Asia. The region’s growing global economic clout increases the likelihood that shipping lanes already carrying one-third of the world’s trade will be ever more threatened. Governments have modernised and strengthened defence forces and improved cooperation, but the dozens of attempted and successful boardings of vessels each year underscore the need for even more stringent measures. Capturing and apprehending oceanic outlaws is only part of the solution, though; longer term, poor coastal communities have to be deterred from turning to piracy in the first place.
The initial approach has to be the same as for Somalia. Piracy had threatened international shipping off the war-torn nation, prompting in 2008 a joint effort by foreign navies that dramatically reduced the numbers of hijackings and kidnappings for ransom. The brazen assaults took the focus off piracy in Southeast Asia, where half the world’s attacks have been taking place since the 1990s.
Piracy is most rampant in the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia and off the Indonesian coast. Despite that, neither nation is among the 16 countries that have endorsed the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Countering Piracy and Armed Robbery. Malaysia objects because the operational headquarters are in rival Singapore, while for Indonesia, sovereignty is at issue. But the agreement has other shortcomings, chief among them that member nations are not allowed to seize pirate ships in other states’ territorial waters and that provisions are mostly limited to information-sharing.
To fill the gap, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have formed a regional anti-piracy grouping that uses naval and aerial patrols. Attacks in the Malacca Strait have been substantially reduced. Again, though, it does not allow for cross-border pursuit. Piracy is regularly discussed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
A number of communities in Sumatra bordering the Malacca Strait and in Indonesia and the Philippines along the Sulu and Celebes Seas rely on piracy and other illegal maritime activities for economic survival. This will continue while their institutions are weak and they are affected by poor governance, corruption and poverty. Governments have to work more closely to combat piracy, but only when root causes are addressed can the security of shipping be assured.