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South East Asia - Straits of Malacca

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Complex and Challenging 

The maritime security picture in South-East Asia is a complex interplay of prolific low-level maritime crime, juxtaposed against significant regional geopolitical challenges. Until recently, South-East Asia was the global epicentre of piracy and maritime crime; a ‘title’ that has recently been claimed by West Africa thanks to a surge in incidents in the Gulf of Guinea. The overall trend throughout South-East Asia mirrors the global downturn of maritime security incidents: there has been an average 5yr fall in overall incidents of almost 80% and a yearly fall in 2019 of over 15% when compared with 2018. Despite this, there remains a high level of traditional maritime security incidents, covering the full spectrum of incident types, including hijackings and kidnap-for-ransom, down to boarding motivated by minor theft.


Incidents of kidnap and hijack have been some of the more dramatic features of the decline in maritime security incidents in South-East Asia, albeit with a slight resurgence in 2019. Between November 2016 and September 2018 there were no recorded kidnapping incidents. This lull can be partly attributed to the death of the former leader of IS in the Philippines, Isnilon Hapilon. who died during the five-month Marawi Siege in 2017. The number of kidnappings in the Sulu Sea reached a 10-year peak prior to the Marawi Siege in 2017. Hapilon’s demise, it appears, initially rendered terrorist networks in the region, including the Islamic terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, rudderless and with no obvious leadership successor. The resurgence of kidnap for ransom activities since September 2018 may indicate a desire to raise funds for future terrorist campaigns. Terrorist elements in the Sulu archipelago appear to have regrouped more recently, as evidenced by the 6 kidnappings, 4 suicide attacks, and over 30 armed clashes between militants and state security forces in the past 12 months. The re-establishment of terrorist activities in the Sulu archipelago has coincided with Hajan Sawadjaan’s rise to power as the potential leader of IS in Philippines.
Malacca Straits
Overspill from the Middle East.

As Islamic terrorism faces a significant reduction in its traditional Middle East heartland, there has been an influx in foreign fighters to the Philippines and Indonesia. In response the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and his Indonesian counterpart President, Joko Widodo, have invested heavily in regional, transnational maritime domain awareness mechanisms and on-shore counter terrorist capability. Maritime frameworks such as the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA), formalised in 2017, resulted in joint maritime and air patrols, as well as coordination between maritime command centres in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Within the Philippines, the creation of the National Coastal Watch System (NCWS) has also negatively impacted the ability of groups like Abu Sayyaf to conduct maritime terrorism. The NCWS has strengthened informed decision-making and maritime domain awareness by institutionalising intelligence-sharing mechanisms between several agencies including the Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the National Anti-Terrorism Task Force and the Philippine Ports Authority. When fully implemented, this integrated system will have 20 offshore platforms, mostly centred on the Sulu and Celebes Seas, and will be equipped with surveillance and interdiction capabilities. The PCG is expanding its maritime capacity by constructing 21 more substations and three provincial stations. Additionally, it has increased its floating assets with fast response boats procured from France and Medium Range Interdiction Vessels from Japan and has reportedly increased the deployment of its personnel to the tri-border area by 200 percent.

Why Are The Straits of Malacca So Important?

Beyond the scope of maritime terrorism, low level maritime crime remains an ongoing feature of south east Asian maritime security. Boardings for petty theft occur within the territorial waters and anchorages of most states and particularly through the key maritime choke points such as the Malacca Straits. Indeed in late 2019 there has been a sudden spike in reports of ships begin targeted in the western reaches of the Singapore Strait Traffic Separation Scheme (STS). South East Asia faces significant regional impediments to the securitisation of its maritime domain. Lingering unresolved maritime issues, such as competing claims in the South China Sea, have long posed limits to cooperation. In addition the huge mismatch in naval assets and maritime areas that various states must patrol also continues to pose resource and logistical challenges.

Rise of the South China Sea Security Issue

Competing claims over areas of the South China Sea, which is the focus of an ongoing sovereignty dispute between countries in the region, adds simmering geopolitical tensions to the maritime security context in South-East Asia. China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei have all claimed various islands, reefs atolls and banks as their own, which contain potentially abundant fishing resources, and the possibility of extracting sub-sea reserves of crude oil and natural gas. China has claimed the largest portion of territory via its controversial ‘9 dash line’ strategy, which has involved deploying naval patrols and building man-made islands in a region stretching hundreds of miles south and east from the country’s southernmost province of Hainan. While these activities have been met with international condemnation and led to numerous naval standoffs (since 2013 there have been at least 38 reported small-scale incidents between vessels under the flags of claimant states), China’s acquisitional intentions within the region show little signs of abating.

On 1st June 2019, the US Department of Defence released its first Indo-Pacific Strategy report, designed to enhance regional cooperation amongst allies and counter chinese assertiveness throughout the region. According to the report, the U.S. military currently has over 2,000 aircraft, 200 warships and submarines, and 370,000 military personnel deployed in the Indo-Pacific region. The report contained further plans to purchase 110 fourth and fifth generation fighters and 400 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles, among other defence materials suitable for maritime tactics. Additionally, it notes plans to purchase 10 destroyers, as well as ballistic missiles, between 2020 and 2024 to improve U.S. capabilities in anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare. Since 2017, the U.S. military has significantly increased the frequency, scope and intensity of its operations in the South China Sea region. Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the american military has conducted ‘Freedom of Navigation Operations’ (FONOPS) 15 times in the South China Sea. In 2019 alone, the Pentagon has dispatched destroyers to the territorial seas or the adjacent waters off China’s Xisha (Paracels), Nansha (Spratlys), and Zhongsha Islands (Scarborough Shoal) six times without the permission of Beijing. Nevertheless, an aim of China’s current military strategy is to challenge America’s long-held naval primacy in the wider Pacific region. When combined with the rapid and dramatic increase in militarisation of the South China Sea, ongoing tensions could create potentially long-term issues for security of commercial operations throughout South-East Asia.