In February 2004, the world witnessed the deadliest terrorist attack at sea when the Jihadist militant group Abu Sayyaf caused the explosion of a commercial vessel ‘Superferry 14’ carrying 899 passengers in Manila Bay. Similar incidents are a common occurrence in the waters of Southeast Asia.

While terrorism at sea is rare, piracy and sea robberies regularly take place in the region, with an armed robbery taking place in in the Singapore Strait just a month ago. This marked a total of 41 incidents in the Singapore Strait since the beginning of the year, reported Safety4Sea.

In the second half of 2022, the frequency of these incidents may experience a moderate increase due to economic problems caused by the Russia-Ukraine War, according to an ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute report.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has handled Southeast Asia’s maritime security in its broadest sense, encompassing all maritime challenges from piracy and human or drug trafficking, to maritime terrorism and international organised crime, said Vu Hai Dang, a senior research fellow at the Centre for International Law (CIL) in the National University of Singapore. He was speaking at a webinar on maritime security and commercial shipping organised by CIL on 26 September.

All Southeast Asian countries face maritime challenges with the exception of Laos, which is landlocked, John Bradford, a senior fellow in the maritime security programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, told GovInsider.

But some of them lack the capacity to address these challenges, making cooperation among the ASEAN countries crucial to the management of maritime security.

Facilitating maritime security cooperation

Traditionally, under international law, states are the primary providers of security at sea where they have absolute responsibility and control over their territorial seas up to 12 nautical miles, Bradford, a retired US Navy commander, told GovInsider.

ASEAN states are working together to deal with non-military threats at sea, but the ocean’s borders are porous, and threats rarely respect the borders, says Bradford. He adds that human threats like pirates and terrorists could use the porous borders of the sea to their advantage to try to seek refuge.

States are working on cooperation so that they can shore up the security of sea borders and build their capacities for security management, he adds.

He gives an example of the quadrilateral Malacca Strait Patrols, a set of practical co-operative measures undertaken by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. The Patrols help to ensure the security of the Strait of Malacca and the Singapore Strait, critical and strategic waterways in the global trading system.

These four states coordinate their patrols by indicating where their surface ships would be and when, with the intention of possibly moving about to patrol, he explains.

They also participate in the ‘Eyes in the Sky’ operation where each country contributes aircraft to patrol over the Malacca Strait. There is a similar arrangement in the Sulu-Celebes sea area between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, says Bradford.

Cooperation also extends to the utilisation of resources such as fishes and petroleum, he adds. For instance, Malaysia and Thailand have agreed to a joint development zone where no one claims ownership over resources and there could be a revenue-sharing arrangement.

Additionally, cooperation takes place when a state with a specific capacity or capability offers help to another state. An example of this is the hosting of an Information Fusion Centre by the Singapore Navy at the Changi Command and Control Centre, which functions as a regional maritime security centre.

“They come together weekly, share information about what is happening in their areas, and publish reports and best practices which are shared with all the member countries,” he says.

But it is much more common for Southeast Asian countries to receive help from countries outside the region, points out Bradford.

The United States, for instance, has been giving ScanEagle maritime drones to Malaysia and Indonesia to help them improve the maritime domain awareness data collection. This allows maritime law enforcement agencies in ASEAN states to monitor the maritime security landscape better and address any risks swiftly.

Japan has also been donating patrol boats and vessels to several Southeast Asian countries with the intent of enhancing their sea surveillance capacities, he adds.

Bradford says there are also several ASEAN consulting and coordinating bodies that are either chartered explicitly by ASEAN, such as the experts’ working group on maritime security, or are ASEAN-related such as the ASEAN heads of navies meeting, where naval leaders come together to discuss what could be done together.

These examples show the cooperation that currently exists between ASEAN countries,though critics question whether these existing initiatives are sufficient.

Room for improvement

There remain several gaps in ASEAN’s maritime security, such as the issue of managing maritime security for commercial shipping, highlighted Vu during the webinar.

Countless measures and initiatives of cooperation on maritime security of shipping exist to specifically address transnational crimes like piracy and cybersecurity breaches as well as terrorism incidents like the deadly 2004 bomb blast of Superferry 14 in the Philippines, added Vu.

Many of the existing maritime security measures are broad and do not specifically apply to a particular security domain such as border control or law enforcement. This makes it difficult to address security challenges, he said.

“Under a permanent mechanism, ASEAN states could meet regularly to discuss and exchange information and suggest cooperative activities to improve the maritime security of commercial shipping in the region,” he said, adding that current measures are provisional.

He also called for inter-agency communication and coordination in ASEAN to be improved, and for greater international collaboration beyond ASEAN, particularly with important shipping nations like the US, China, India and South Korea.

He urged ASEAN to be proactive in managing maritime security. “Whenever there is a maritime accident, international organisations would usually create a new treaty but this time, I hope that ASEAN would not wait until there is a disaster in the region,” said Vu.