Ships in the anchorage of Singapore port, August 6, 2010. (Photo: kfcatles, Flickr)

Will Covid-19 Trigger a Tsunami of Maritime Crime in Southeast Asia?

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The incidents of maritime violence in Asia has risen sharply in the first half of 2020. These incidents are likely to rise in the second half of this year. But the high number of attacks of the late 1990s and early 2000s may not be repeated, given greater political stability in Southeast Asia and increased regional cooperation.

When the two main piracy reporting centres released statistics last month showing the number of piracy and sea robbery attacks in Asia had risen sharply in the first half of 2020, the media was quick to draw a link with the socio-economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the commercial Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB-PRC), in the first six months of 2020 the number of reported incidents of maritime violence around the world was 98 compared to 78 during the same period in 2019. Of those attacks, 35 took place in Southeast Asia. Two black spots stood out. In Indonesia, the number of incidents doubled, from five in the first quarter to 10 in the second. In the Singapore Straits, there were 11 attacks between January and June, compared to no attacks at all in the corresponding periods in 2018 and 2019. Similarly, the inter-governmental Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia’s (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre (ISC) in Singapore reported a nearly two-fold increase in attacks in Asian waters: 51 between January and June, up from 28 during the first six months of 2019.

That media commentators and maritime analysts quickly drew a link between the coronavirus pandemic and the uptick in acts of maritime violence is understandable. Over the past 25 years, major economic shocks and dislocations have led to upsurges in piracy and sea robbery in Asia.

Following the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis, and the collapse of the Indonesian economy and the New Order regime, incidents of maritime crime in Indonesian waters remained stubbornly high for a decade afterwards. Unemployed fishermen sought to make ends meet and maritime agencies could not afford fuel to patrol the country’s vast archipelagic waters. Unsurprisingly, such incidents rose from 47 in 1997 to a high of 121 in 2003.

The 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis led to another wave of maritime crime: according to the ISC, the number of attacks in Asia climbed from 96 in 2008 to 167 in 2010.

The pandemic-induced economic crisis that Southeast Asian countries now face will almost certainly create the conditions for piracy and sea robbery to thrive. Economic contraction will lead to high levels of unemployment, this forcing some young men in coastal communities to turn to crime.

When oil prices fell through the floor in 2014, the shipping industry sought to take advantage of low oil prices by stockpiling crude on older, slower and more vulnerable ships. As a result, attacks on vessels in Asian waters jumped from 150 in 2013 to 203 in 2015.

The pandemic-induced economic crisis that Southeast Asian countries now face will almost certainly create the conditions for piracy and sea robbery to thrive. Economic contraction will lead to high levels of unemployment, thus forcing some young men in coastal communities to turn to crime. Large numbers of vessels riding at anchor in ports due to falling demand for shipping provide a target-rich environment for maritime criminals. These ships are rendered vulnerable as shipping companies cut down on crew numbers and reduce security measures. Meanwhile, regional governments are being forced to spend vast amounts of money to tackle Covid-19 and prop up their distressed economies. This results in less funding for navies and coast guards to patrol their ports and territorial waters where most attacks occur.

It is important, however, to keep the 2020 statistics in perspective. The ISC figures for the second quarter may show a steep rise from the same period last year but they are only slightly higher than the number of attacks in 2016-18 and far fewer than 2011 (87 attacks) and 2015 (114 attacks).

Traditional hot spots of maritime crime continue to show improvement. Thanks to regular coordinated naval patrols conducted by Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, the IMB-PRC has not received a single report of piracy in the Straits of Malacca since 2015. In the Sulu and Celebes Seas – where the criminal-terrorist Abu Sayaaf Group (ASG) conducted a series of violent kidnapping-for-ransom attacks in 2016-17 – Philippine-Indonesia-Malaysia coordinated naval patrols, together with a sustained crackdown against the ASG by the Philippine armed forces, has led to a considerable improvement in maritime security. In the first half of 2020 only one kidnapping-for-ransom attack took place in the triborder sea area compared with two in 2019, two in 2018 and 15 in 2016-17.

Despite the rise in attacks in Indonesian waters, the IMB-PRC has praised the efforts of the Indonesian marine police to improve security at ten designated ports. The rising number of attacks in the Singapore Straits remains a cause for concern, but the upward trend began in late 2019 and has more to do with Indonesian navy ships being deployed to the Natuna Islands due to rising tensions with China than Covid-19.

Nevertheless, for the reasons cited above, incidents of maritime crime in Southeast Asia are likely to rise in the second half of this year. But the high number of attacks of the late 1990s and early 2000s may not be repeated. Today, Southeast Asian governments are not only more stable politically but understand the importance of regional cooperation among navies and coast guards. Port security across the region has also been significantly upgraded.

Paradoxically, rising tensions in the South China Sea may also help prevent a tsunami of maritime crime. For as long as China continues its assertive behaviour, the US and Japan will continue to provide the coastal states of Southeast Asia with the radars and patrol boats they need to monitor their maritime domains. As a result, better maritime domain awareness will put a dampener on crime at sea.

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