Piracy and sea robberies (PSR) are likely to rise in Southeast Asia in the second half of this year due to economic issues from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to a recent report by a Singapore government-affiliated think tank.
The Singapore Strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, remains the most serious PSR black spots, with the number of attacks there having increased significantly since late 2019, according to report author Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
There were 36 incidents in Southeast Asia in the first six months of 2022, compared to 35 attacks during the same period in 2021 and 47 in 2020, according to piracy information group ReCAAP-ISC.
The 100km Singapore Strait, where more than 100,000 vessels carrying billions of United States dollars in commodities and goods pass through every year, saw 27 incidents in the first six months of this year, all in Indonesian waters. This was up from 20 in the same period last year.
Between 2019 and 2021, most incidents occurred in the eastern sector of the Traffic Separation Scheme, in Indonesian waters in the Riau Islands including Bintan and Batam, showed ReCAAP-ISC data.
The attacks, most of which were non-violent low-level robberies, were conducted against larger ships – bulk carriers, oil tankers and general cargo ships – by gangs of three to five men, mostly armed with knives.
Data from ReCAAP, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, also showed 49 Singapore Strait incidents in 2021, which accounted for 60 per cent of all attacks in Asia. This increased from 34 incidents in the Singapore Strait in 2020.
Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia are responsible for security in their respective territorial waters that make up the strait.
Several reasons may account for the surge in attacks in the Singapore Strait over the past several years. The economic problems caused by the pandemic are probably one reason, though not in 2019, noted Storey.
The Singapore-based Information Fusion Centre suggested that unfavourable weather that prevented fishermen from going out to sea may have accounted for the large number of incidents in the fourth quarter of 2021, 23 out of the 49 that year, wrote Storey.
He also pointed to the approach of year-end festivities, which could have prompted locals to turn to petty crime to supplement their incomes.
Growing tensions between Indonesia and China in the South China Sea also accounted for the higher number of attacks in the strait.
China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea are represented by its “nine-dash line”, a territorial claim that overlaps with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the resource-rich Natuna Islands.
A 2016 ruling by a Hague tribunal had dealt a blow to Beijing’s territorial claims to the South China Sea, concluding that Beijing’s case lacked legal basis and was in contravention to an international maritime convention.
To enforce its claims, Beijing sharply raised the number of China-flagged fishing boats into the area in late 2019 and early 2020.
“The Indonesian government responded by rejecting China’s unlawful claims and increasing its military presence around the Natunas by redeploying warships from other parts of the archipelago including the Singapore Strait.
“The IMB-PRC has noted that PSR incidents ceased off the Natunas in 2021,” Storey said.
- Southeast Asia’s anti-piracy efforts -
Sea robberies have accounted for the vast majority of PSR incidents in Southeast Asia. These include actual or attempted attacks that occur within the 12 nautical mile territorial sea limit of coastal states.
Regional coastguards and other law enforcement agencies have strengthened security in their ports and anchorages, to counter this issue. This has significantly reduced acts of sea robbery across some of Southeast Asia’s major ports.
According to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, incidents declined from 43 attacks in 2017 to 25 in 2019, 26 in 2020 and nine in 2021.
The number of incidents in Malaysian and Vietnamese ports also fell between 2020 and 2021.
Indonesia has been particularly successful in reducing sea robberies. Under its 2014 Safe Anchorage programme, the Indonesian marine police increased patrols in 10 ports. “The programme has contributed to a major decline in incidents in Indonesian waters outside the Singapore Strait,” wrote Storey.
But attacks in Manila increased during the pandemic given the large number of ships anchored in the port awaiting crew changes, with nine sea robberies in 2021. The Philippine Coast Guard has since stepped up patrols in the harbour and made some arrests.