Piracy Resurges in Southeast Asia’s Crowded Sea Lanes

Slackened vigilance, complacency, poverty play a role

By: Michael Hart

An hour past midnight on April 16, the Palais, a bulk carrier traversing the eastbound lane of the Singapore Strait, was 3.2 nautical miles north of Indonesia’s Nongsa Point when the ship’s master reported sighting three suspected pirates at the stern. The intruders were able to slip away under the cover of darkness, but it was later discovered that engine parts had been stolen from the vessel.

Later that morning, several hundred kilometers to the northeast, another vessel suffered a similar robbery. The Marshall Islands-registered Arafura, a large crude oil tanker en-route to Qingdao reported padlocks to restricted spaces had been cut and engine parts stolen, while passing close to Indonesia’s Anambas Islands in the southern portion of the South China Sea.

These two incidents, while relatively minor, provide a snapshot of Southeast Asia’s re-emerging piracy problem. Enhanced regionwide cooperation and vigilance had reduced the threat in recent years, but piracy attacks and armed robberies at sea are now on the rise.

The Singapore Strait has been the epicenter of such incidents. The Information Sharing Centre (ISC) of the Regional Co-operation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), a body tasked with monitoring suspicious activity at sea, recorded 31 incidents in the strait in 2019, markedly up from just 17 in the previous three years combined. 2020 has seen this upward curve continue, with another nine incidents in the strait in the first three months of the year.

Aside from maritime robberies in the Singapore Strait, kidnappings-for-ransom remain a threat in the Sulu Sea to the east, where Abu Sayyaf militants operate in the Tawi-Tawi islands and along the coast of Malaysia’s Sabah state. In the latest incident, five Indonesian fishermen were seized on 16 January. The South China Sea, where disputed maritime boundary claims hamper cooperation between littoral states, has seen fewer cases of piracy and armed robbery, but remains an area of concern for mariners.

In a press briefing in January, ReCAAP chief Masafumi Kuroki asked Southeast Asia’s maritime nations to “enhance their surveillance and patrols,” emphasizing “cooperation among coastal states” is key to “ensure the safety of seafarers and the safe navigation of ships” in a region central to global seaborne trade. Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have pledged coordinated action in response to the rise in attacks. But what makes Southeast Asia a hotspot for pirates; and how can states mitigate the threat?

Singapore Strait chokepoint

The straits of Malacca and Singapore, crucial for the transport of oil from the Gulf nations to East Asia, constitute a major global shipping chokepoint. Only 2.7 km wide at its narrowest point, the Malacca Strait sees 120,000 ships carrying more than 16 million barrels of oil passing through each year before entering the Singapore Strait en route to the economic powerhouses of China, Japan, and South Korea. Incidents in this congested space occur within territorial waters and are thus labeled as armed robberies at sea rather than transnational piracy attacks, which take place in international waters.  

In the Singapore Strait, tankers, tugboats, and barges have all been targeted. The majority of incidents have been low-profile and haven’t resulted in violence. Of the 31 incidents recorded by ReCAAP last year, nine involved armed perpetrators while in two cases the crew were tied up and threatened with guns or knives. In one case, crew members sustained injuries as a result of a confrontation with the pirates. Theft appeared to be the primary motive, with cash, jewelry, scrap metal, and engine spares stolen. Most incidents happened at night. Ships in both the eastbound and westbound lanes were targeted.

ReCAAP officials have put the growing number of incidents down to two possible factors: complacency by crews and slack enforcement by littoral states. ReCAAP’s assistant research director Lee Yin Mui, in particular, cited the lack of arrests – which would likely act as a deterrent – as a contributory factor.

Singapore has taken the lead in responding. In February, Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen revealed he planned to restructure the multi-agency Maritime Security Task Force (MSTF) and beef up its assets. The task force, set up in 2009 and led by the Singapore Navy, conducts daily patrols and escorts ships through the strait. The Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP), consisting of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, also recently revised its operating procedures and committed to holding quarterly exercises.

The four-nation grouping will also use a new set of indicators to identify suspicious activity associated with sea robberies and has pledged to boost intelligence-sharing. According to Dr. Ng, this latter point is especially vital, as he has claimed that “all perpetrators are based and operate outside” of Singapore.

Sulu Sea kidnappings

Further east, in the Sulu Sea, pirates pose a more dangerous threat. Since the early 1990s, the notorious Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf active on the southern Philippine islands of Basilan, Jolo, and Tawi-Tawi has waged a campaign of kidnappings-at-sea to fund their armed uprising. Abu Sayyaf fighters are thought to work hand-in-hand with local criminal elements to kidnap seafarers for hefty ransoms along the porous maritime boundary with Malaysia. Ships sailing off Sabah are particularly vulnerable.

In the past, Abu Sayyaf targeted Westerners, for whom they demanded multi-million-dollar ransoms. The consequences of not paying up were brutal. In 2016, the group beheaded two Canadian citizens, Robert Hall and John Ridsdel, while in May 2019, Abu Sayyaf’s last remaining Western hostage, Dutch birdwatcher Ewold Horn, was shot dead after attempting to flee his captors amid a military offensive. More recently, most foreign boats have avoided the area and local fishermen have become the target.

From the start of 2018 until now, Abu Sayyaf has taken hostages from five fishing vessels in the area, seizing at least 10 Filipino and 13 Indonesian hostages. In that time, two more attempted kidnappings were thwarted by vigilant crew members and responding naval vessels. While these captives are from poorer communities, Abu Sayyaf still demands six-figure ransoms. The money is sometimes scraped together by the victims’ families, securing their freedom but incentivizing future kidnappings. 

The threat here had reduced since the mid-2010s, considered the peak of Abu Sayyaf’s spate of piracy attacks. ReCAAP issued an alert four years ago advising all vessels to avoid the area, leading most large shipping companies to re-route, thus reducing the number of high-value targets. Trilateral sea and air patrols, held regularly by the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia since June 2017 have also squeezed the space for pirates to operate. Malaysia has also imposed a dawn-to-dusk curfew off the east coast of Sabah. Yet with Abu Sayyaf lairs just a short speedboat ride away in Tawi-Tawi, the threat persists.

South China Sea risk

In the open expanses of the South China Sea, serious incidents of piracy are rare. But a threat lingers in its lower reaches, as ships depart north after exiting archipelagic waters. Last July, pirates equipped with a pistol and knives boarded a South Korean-flagged bulker near the Riau archipelago. Two crew members suffered minor injuries as the pirates departed the Incheon-bound ship with $13,000 in cash.

Unlike in the Singapore Strait, no multinational cooperation mechanism exists in the South China Sea. Collaborative anti-piracy efforts are complicated by the ongoing row over territory, in which disputed sea boundaries, overlapping claims, and confusion over jurisdictions could provide an opportunity for pirates to take advantage. Yet equally, coast guard activity and heightened vigilance among Southeast Asian navies, on the lookout for Chinese intrusions and illegal fishing vessels, may also ward off pirates.

Covid-19 impact on piracy

Although piracy attacks are rising in Southeast Asia, most incidents have so far been armed robberies in the Singapore Strait, with only limited financial loss. Yet there is a risk of escalation if littoral states are unable to regain control. The higher the number of incidents, the greater the chance of a botched robbery, in which an altercation between pirates and crew results in serious injury or death. Such an incident would make headlines, and may alter the perception that the region is a zone of safe transit.

The worsening Covid-19 pandemic may also create new challenges for anti-piracy efforts. Oil tankers lying stationary off major ports, as producers look to store excess capacity at sea in a time of reduced demand, may become easy targets for pirates. Oil theft may become easier to execute in the medium term. Yet rapidly falling oil prices amid the pandemic will also affect the black market, making oil theft at sea less attractive. Instead, pirates might view taking human captives as a more lucrative business.

Even before Covid-19 hit, a shift from oil theft to abductions was observed off the coast of West Africa, where armed bandits operating in the Gulf of Guinea have engaged in a spate of violent kidnappings.

In the long term, the economic impact of Covid-19 on impoverished coastal communities in Southeast Asia could also contribute to a resurgence of piracy. Those barely making ends meet, already surviving on the outskirts of the formal economy, may be drawn to piracy if their jobs and livelihoods are lost. 

Southeast Asia’s vulnerability

Despite the cooperation of the littoral states, policing Southeast Asia’s waters is a challenge. The region’s sprawling maritime geography makes it a theater of opportunity for pirates. Amid the long coastlines and archipelagic waters of island nations, launch points and hiding places are everywhere to be found.

In such a scenario, national coast guards and naval forces must prioritize. Claimant states are keen to maintain their presence in the politically-tense waters of the South China Sea, leaving inevitable gaps in capacity elsewhere. Maritime disputes to the north, leave sea lanes further south more vulnerable. 

The proximity of sea routes to areas afflicted by poverty and unrest is also a factor. This is most evident in the Sulu Sea, with the nearby Philippine region of Mindanao a hotbed of militancy for generations. A focus on economic development there, and also in coastal areas of Indonesia along the Singapore Strait and near the entrance to the South China Sea, is key to reducing the threat. The pandemic presents a major obstacle to such economic progress and may temporarily heighten the risk of piracy.

In the meantime, it is down to crew members and local authorities to co-operate and boost vigilance. While ReCAAP keeps track of the revival of piracy and issues alerts to mariners, littoral states will hope that their enhanced naval patrols and intelligence-sharing can keep the number of incidents in check.

Michael Hart (info.michaelhart@gmail.com) has researched for Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). He blogs at Asia Conflict Watch.