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The Other Deep-Water Battleground

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This article originally featured on Reuters and was republished with the author’s permission. Read it in its original form here

By Peter Marino 

A floating dock of the Indian navy is pictured at the naval base at Port Blair in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India, July 1, 2015. REUTERS/Sanjeev Miglani

The Indian Ocean may be the only ocean named for a country, but it’ s still heavily contested territory. Both China and India, who have major strategic interests there, are suspicious of each other. Their struggle for leadership in the “emerging world” will play out for decades and all around the globe, but today the Indian Ocean is Ground Zero.

The South China Sea is home to overlapping claims by China, the Philippines, and other countries in the region. And the Arctic Ocean, increasingly, has seen a build-up of U.S. and Russian troops, lured by the possibility of billions of barrels of untapped oil. The Indian Ocean is significant because of its strategically important sea lanes — particularly for India and China, two of the world’s largest importers.

China imports most of its oil by sea, and 80 percent of it crosses the Indian Ocean before it passes through the Straits of Malacca, on its way to the Chinese market. Beijing is very concerned about its dependency on a waterway it does not control, and is using diplomacy, both carrots and sticks, to ensure that it can continue to access the sea lanes. As part of this effort, Xi Jinping’s “maritime silk road” program will offer cheap Chinese financing to cash-strapped governments for trade and industrial infrastructure along such routes.

China is using hard power as well. Through China’s longstanding alliance with the Pakistani government, it has funded improvements at the deepwater port of Gwadar, Pakistan, where a state-owned Chinese company now has a 40-year management contract. That agreement allowed the port to host ships owned by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, giving the Chinese a permanent, or at least semi-permanent, presence in the region.

China’s participation, since 2012, in the international anti-piracy coalition that mans the Gulf of Aden has also allowed it to operate in the Western Indian Ocean, where it is reported to be conducting studies of the sea depth, presumably to aid future submarine patrol missions.

Delhi has been paying close attention, and is mobilizing its own diplomatic and hard-power tools to shore up its influence in its home region. Indian foreign aid, while not yet on the scale of Chinese state investment, is being spread liberally to countries near the Indian Ocean, especially to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. India’s proximity and cultural similarities give it some advantages over the Chinese efforts. Nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been notably active in this area, making the first trip by an Indian PM to Sri Lanka in 28 years as part of the push to improve bilateral relations.

Moreover, Delhi is aware of the gap between the strength of its own forces, and that of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, which has been modernizing for 20 years. India is opening up its checkbook for better equipment, including a multi-billion-euro deal for advanced Rafale fighter jets from France to replace its aging Russian Sukhois. And it is becoming less shy about the idea that it is countering China at sea. When U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visited Delhi in June this year, he signed early paperwork establishing a collaboration to develop India’s next generation of aircraft carriers. Because China had recently launched its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and was constructing two more, the motivation behind this proposed Indo-U.S. partnership was unmistakable.

Despite these conflicting interests, China and India could still have room to collaborate on several major global issues. As two of the world’s biggest importers of agricultural goods, minerals and energy, they share an interest in working with exporters to help smooth out price volatility in commodity cycles. And as countries that will be “great powers” while still relatively poor, they should work with each other to push through reforms at the United Nations, World Bank and other international groups that were set up by the rich world. Their shared interest in a peaceful and stable Southeast Asia should contribute to their joint participation in peaceful diplomacy there, too.

But for the moment, Delhi and Beijing are mostly in a mode of competition in the Indian Ocean, and the tendrils of their struggle extend even further, across the steppes of Central Asia, to the Western part of Africa, and into the Persian Gulf, as well. The Indian Ocean is the one major ocean not bounded by one of the existing great powers, which makes it the perfect locale in which the struggle for primacy in the “emerging world” can play out. What we are seeing now is only the beginning.

Peter Marino holds an MSc in Global Politics from The London School of Economics and is a graduate of Norwich University. He lived in Shanghai from 2003 to 2008 and served as head of China development for London-based Aurigon, Ltd. He founded and sold Quaternion, a political risk startup, and is currently establishing a new Think Tank for International Affairs aimed at promoting engagement with the “Millennial Generation.” He also produces Globalogues, a video blog with commentary on global politics and economics. The views expressed in this article are his own.

An ASEAN Maritime Alliance?

The year 2014 brought new tensions to the South China Sea, particularly as Chinese authorities sought to establish a series of island-like structures in the midst of the disputed Spratly Islands. Such provocative actions, however, are unlikely to generate sufficient political will among the other countries of the region to establish a Political-Security Community under the auspices of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) by the 2015 deadline. But were this collection of ten countries to pool their resources into a security community or even a security alliance, it would be an impressive force and a potential deterrent to aggression in the South China Sea.

In particular, it is worthwhile noting the relative strength of ASEAN coastal defence forces. Some member states, such as Indonesia, possess respectable ‘blue water’ navies, that is to say, they have larger vessels capable of operating in deep waters and engaging in long-range standing battles. Other ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines, have considerable ‘brown water’ navies,  forces consisting of small patrol boats which can cruise inland waterways and the shallow waters that weave between tight-knit island chains. But the varied nature of the waters disputed in the South China Sea particularly requires the flexibility offered by corvettes.

Generally, corvettes fall between the Royal Canadian Navy’s Halifax-class frigates and Kingston-class coastal defence vessels in size. But there is much debate as to what constitutes a contemporary corvette. For example, the Royal Omani Navy calls its Khareef-class vessels ‘corvettes’ even though the displacement of each vessel in the class is approximately 2,660 tons. Recent advancements in shipbuilding have also allowed the US Navy to introduce new vessels with substantial displacement but with shallower drafts, meaning the new USS Liberty can approach closer to coastlines than the similarly sized but older Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates.

For the purposes of this analysis, only those vessels with a displacement greater than 100 tons but less than 1,700 tons will be considered corvettes. China’s maritime forces, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN),  has a substantial number of vessels in this range deployed to Hong Kong and a network of naval bases off the South China Sea. 12 Jiangdao-class corvettes (1,440 tons) are the workhorses of this maritime presence in the region and China may possibly add 3 more vessels of this class by the end of 2015. Beyond the Jiangdao-class corvettes, PLAN’s southern presence includes six Houjian-class missile boats (520 tons) and approximately 80 other missile boats and gunboats of various classes and ranging in displacement from 200 to 480 tons each. This vastly exceeds the quantity and quality of vessels any individual Southeast Asian country could bring to bear in a conflict. But ASEAN’s combined maritime forces could meet the challenge presented by a limited PLAN offensive.

Brunei in particular has emerged as a promising new maritime actor in the region, even actively participating in the 2014 edition of the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC). The Royal Brunei Navy acquired four specially built Darussalam-class offshore patrol ships (1,625 tonnes) from the German shipbuilder Luerssen-Werft, which replaced Brunei’s previous coastal defence workhorse, the Waspada-class fast attack craft (200 tonnes). The Waspada-class vessels have since been decommissioned and donated to Indonesia to be used for training purposes. The introduction of the Darussalam-class greatly upgrades Brunei’s defence capabilities and it will be of interest for Southeast Asian observers to see how Brunei further pursues the modernization of its forces.

The Republic of Singapore Navy has much in the way of heavier frigates and submarines to defend its unique position by the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most significant shipping routes. Its corvette-like vessels are also impressive, six Victory-class corvettes (600 tonnes) and 12 Fearless-class offshore patrol ships (500 tonnes), but they are certainly not as new as some of the vessels boasted by Singapore’s neighbours. The Victory-class was acquired in 1990-1991 while the Fearless-class was introduced between 1996 and 1998. Therefore, it will also be of interest to see whether Singapore seeks to obtain any newer vessels which can serve as a bridge in capabilities between the Victory-class corvettes and the heavier Formidable-class frigates.

dsc_5220It is Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia that boast the largest complements of corvettes in the region, however. The Royal Thai Navy’s coastal defence is led by two Tapi-class corvettes (1,200 tons) and two Pattani-class offshore patrol ships (1,460 tons), which are joined by two Ratanakosin-class corvettes (960 tons), three Khamrosin-class corvettes (630 tons), three Hua Hin-class patrol boats (600 tons), six PSMM Mark 5-class patrol boats (300 tons), and 18 smaller patrol boats and fast attack boats of varying capabilities but all rather aged. The Philippines and Indonesia both have vast island chains within their respective territories, requiring corvettes and smaller patrol vessels just as much for counter-trafficking and counter-piracy operations as for countering conventional maritime forces. The Philippine Navy possesses one Pohang-class corvette (1,200 tons), two Rizal-class corvettes (1,250 tons), nine Miguel Malvar-class corvettes (900 tons), and three Emilio Jacinto-class corvettes (700 tons). Indonesia tops out ASEAN’s array of corvettes with three Fatahillah-class corvettes (1,450 tons), 16 Kapitan Patimura-class corvettes (950 tons), and 65 other missile boats and gunboats with a displacement of approximately 100-250 tons.

Yet it is unclear how much of their forces Indonesia or the Philippines would be able to deploy in the midst of a South China Sea conflict. As mentioned previously, many of these vessels have been used practically as inland patrol vessels. There are also some potential weak links in the chain should ASEAN establish some form of formalized maritime alliance. The Royal Malaysian Navy only offers four Laksamana-class corvettes (675 tons) and an array of 16 smaller missile boats and gun boats that could generally only be used to harass Chinese forces. Burma certainly has an impressive force in its own right – consisting of three domestically produced Anawratha-class corvettes (1,100 tons), six Houxin-class missile boats (500 tons), 10 5 Series-class missile boats (500 tons), and 15 Hainan-class gunboats (450 tons), but the military junta has already demonstrated that it will remain aloof from territorial disputes in the South China Sea and generally supports China’s policy toward Southeast Asia.

The Royal Cambodian Navy is in shambles, consisting solely of five outdated Turya-class torpedo boats (250 tons), five Stenka-class patrol boats (250 tons), and a lone Shershen-class fast attack boat (175 tons). But Cambodian authorities would be just as disinclined to engage in defence sharing as their Burmese counterparts. During Cambodia’s 2012 ASEAN chairmanship, Cambodian officials consistently interfered in efforts by other ASEAN member states to reach a common position on the South China Sea’s territorial disputes. Given the understanding on security issues shared between Cambodian and Chinese officials, as well as China’s status as Cambodia’s largest source of foreign investment and aid, it is apparent that Cambodia has relatively no need for the security guarantees ASEAN could provide as a regional counter-balance to China.

Vietnam is the unpredictable factor in the region. The Vietnam People’s Navy has a few corvettes of its own, including a Pauk-class corvette (580 tons), eight Tarantul-class corvettes (540 tons), and 23 patrol ships with displacements ranging from 200 to 375 tons. The Vietnamese government has also ordered two more TT-400TP gunboats (450 tons) from domestic shipbuilders with delivery expected in late 2015 or early 2016. This leaves Vietnam with a force perhaps not as sizable as that of Indonesia or the Philippines but with greater capacity to intervene should China seek to settle territorial disputes with Vietnam by force.

As Malaysia will hold the 2015 Chairmanship of ASEAN, the prospects for a maritime force in support of the bloc’s proposed Political-Security Community will depend to some degree on whether Malaysian officials will be willing to show leadership. If Malaysia looks to acquire new vessels and insists on placing maritime security on the agenda of upcoming ASEAN meetings, some arrangement could be struck by the end of the year. But this will require artful diplomacy, especially in the face of Burmese and Cambodian opposition. With Malaysian officials speaking predominantly about the need for a single market in the region and promoting a conclusion to negotiations regarding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, such a drive for maritime security may not be forthcoming.

Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. His research interests are diverse and include maritime security, NATO affairs, and African regional integration.

This article can be found in its original form at the  
NATO Council of Canada and was republished by permission.

It’s the Economy: Exploring Indonesia’s Piracy Problem

International efforts to solve piracy often focus on displays of force. Whether it is the United States-led Task Force 151 in the Gulf of Aden or international operations in the Strait of Malacca, states most often revert to military or law enforcement to end piracy.

Force is not the ultimate answer. While states should certainly keep up efforts to apprehend pirates, security threats from piracy are just a symptom. The cause is inherently an economic problem.

The current peak of piracy and maritime armed robbery off Indonesia (the former outside territorial waters, the latter within) is a prime example of the economic problems at hand. Between January and September of 2014, Indonesia experienced 72 attempted and actual incidents of piracy and armed robbery, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau. [1] This figure is, far and away, the highest in the world, accounting for 40% of such incidents.

Indonesia sits at a maritime crossroads of the world, affording it considerable resources of which to take advantage. Indonesia is situated along the Strait of Malacca, a critical maritime trade route also bordered by Singapore and Malaysia. 30 percent of global maritime trade passes through the Strait, heading west into the Indian Ocean and east into the South China Sea. The Strait is critical due to the speed it provides to shippers, cutting two to three days off the next fastest route. [2]

Despite these advantages, Indonesia remains firmly among the world’s developing countries. Indonesia’s total GDP of $1.285 trillion ranks 16th in the world, but due to its population size of 254 million, that per capita purchasing power is significantly reduced at $5,200, placing it at 158th among all nations.

No matter where it takes place, piracy and armed robbery is most often undertaken by those who have not reached a post-material existence, instead taking action, regardless of legality, to obtain basic needs. For the 60 percent of Indonesians who live along the coastline, that makes piracy an attractive option in the face of limited economic opportunities.

The poor state of coastal communities leaves few major industries in which Indonesians can partake, the most prevalent being fishing. Indonesian fisheries represent a USD $4.4 billion dollar industry. However, due to weak government enforcement, the industry loses USD $8 million each year to illegal fishing. Such crimes are perpetrated both by Indonesians as a means of subsistence in a poor economic environment, as well as international fishers taking advantage of Indonesia’s poorly protected resources. The additional lost revenue for legitimate fishers adds economic distress. In tandem with poor or corrupt law enforcement, piracy and armed robbery quickly becomes an attractive option for those seeking a lifeboat.

Further, Indonesian maritime development lags, in part, due to its strategic positioning. Littoral states along well-trafficked sea lanes incur high costs for maintaining and protecting these sea lanes often without receiving reciprocal economic benefits. High costs and low benefits are especially prevalent in Indonesia, which has not been able to develop effective port infrastructure to aid its coastal development. Terminals at Indonesia’s main port in Jakarta, for instance, can only move approximately 30 containers an hour at the high cost of USD $130, putting it well below most every other major Asian port in terms of its productivity/cost-efficiency ratio. Low efficiency makes Indonesia an unattractive place for shippers to do business and hinders Indonesians from getting imports at low prices.

Accentuating the geographic predisposition towards piracy and maritime armed robbery is state weakness. Indonesia is a state defined by ethnic and linguistic divisions which, until the turn of the century, was held together by the ruthlessly autocratic rule of Suharto. In recent years, however, the state has seen a definitive move towards democracy from authoritarianism with the help of military intervention. [3] The military has also proven effective in quelling separatist movements, like the Free Aceh movement.

However, while the military has been able to accomplish much towards state stability, it has not been able to effectively patrol its own waters for piracy. Indonesia covers an area of 93,000 square kilometers of water and has a coastline of 54,176 kilometers. Despite having the largest navy of its Strait neighbors (in addition to a coast guard and a marine police) and the new administration’s promises of increased defense spending, the military simply does not have the capability to patrol the entirety of its sovereign borders. The state currently spends less than 1 percent of its GDP on security, which is insufficient for developing the rule of law and a monopoly of violence within Indonesian territory, leaving it susceptible to crime like piracy. Additionally, naval spending might be poorly directed. Many of Indonesia’s current platforms are inappropriate for successfully navigating the geographic hazards of the country’s small islands and networks of mangroves.

Indonesia’s many islands both create hot spots for piracy and make it difficult for the Indonesian military to patrol.

Economic and security weaknesses lead to a unique brand of Indonesian maritime terrorism, dissimilar to other more notorious forms across the globe. Indonesian ‘pirates’ tend to commit relatively low-grade thefts in port at night, taking personal belongings or siphoning liquid gas cargo off tankers. The latter is especially rife as 50 percent of the world’s oil supplies flow through the Strait of Malacca. Regardless of the relative petty nature of these attacks, ship owners still incur high “war-risk” insurance premiums akin to those found in true conflict zones. High costs incurred on avoidable security risks sap economic resources that could otherwise be funneled to Indonesian economic development, but instead go to international insurers like Lloyds of London.

Indonesia has seen fluctuations in the levels of piracy it has experienced over the last decade. In the late ‘00s, Indonesia saw a 75 percent drop-off in piracy from earlier in the decade. However, that rate began rising again, jumping from 15 incidents in 2009 to 106 in 2013. [5] The reasoning behind the drop-off was largely due to an increased show of force in the Strait, brought about by increased international presence and cooperation. Indonesia has warmed to regional cooperation while continuing to reject western involvement in security matters, even more so recently under newly elected president, Joko Widodo. Widodo has welcomed the assistance of, among others, China, which has been eager to work with Indonesia as a way of strengthening the Maritime Silk Road, a part of China’s larger “string of pearls” maritime strategy. Such conversations with foreign powers indicate an increasing openness to foreign assistance.

Openness is critical for Indonesia, as they continue to lack the resources to effectively quell security issues within their sovereign borders. Instead, the state relies on other nations who also have stakes in the free passage of the Strait. Japan, China, and Singapore especially have much at stake due to the economic importance of the Strait as a trade route, and have financially backed the better part of Indonesia’s anti-piracy efforts. In addition to international patrols through the Strait, one of the most effective joint efforts is Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (creating the somewhat tortured acronym ReCAAP), an international effort that shares maritime surveillance data collected by interested nations with the Strait states (Indonesia and Malaysia are notably absent from ReCAAP but receive the data).

However, ending Indonesian piracy and armed robbery still requires Indonesian capability and effort. Such action is difficult when the major impetuses of piracy in Indonesia only continue to increase. The Strait of Malacca saw a 32 percent increase in vessel traffic between the years 2000 and 2010. [6] On the heels of a continued global recession, increasing ease of access to targets for piracy will only encourage those seeking an illicit economic option in Indonesia.

While piracy itself is a harm to Indonesia, its effects are wide-reaching to all areas of society. The capital foreign powers feel the need to invest in Indonesian security could otherwise be invested in infrastructure or other forms of economic development were it not for piracy. Thus, piracy’s economic impact is not just the direct influence of stolen goods, but also the opportunity cost for other projects. Further, private businesses are less likely to invest in Indonesia due to the capital that they must spend to secure their interests. The high costs, in terms of human and financial risk, deter businesses from investing further in Indonesia, hindering its further economic development. Additionally, piracy makes the navigation of a strategic chokepoint dangerous, hindering the physical transportation of aid in a number of forms, including humanitarian, on its way to Indonesia.

However, one form of aid which the United States and other powers with an interest in utilizing the Strait should eagerly offer Indonesia is aid in their transportation and storage sector. Indonesia’s large population means that there are markets in that country worth exploring for major corporations, but they are hindered by the country’s poor port infrastructure. In 2012, the United States sent USD $202.8 million to Indonesia in foreign aid. Only $109,000 of that was concerned with transportation infrastructure. That number should increase significantly in order to assist the Indonesians in creating long-term economic development and maritime security in the Strait. As Indonesian ports improve, shipping companies will be more likely to take the risk to do business in Indonesia, improving Indonesia’s economy on a sustainable basis. As the economy improves, Indonesia will have more resources to direct towards its security problem, finally quashing its problems with piracy and armed robbery.

Indonesia, thanks largely to prior autocratic rule, has yet to develop a strong free economy. However, with the recent democratic regime, the opportunity to develop economically is present. Further, Indonesia has a trump card: its geographic position. Some of the world’s most powerful trade states have a high interest in using an Indonesian resource.

However, the solution to an Indonesian problem must come from Indonesia itself. For any investment in its maritime sector to be a truly effective method of stopping piracy, Indonesia will need to create an effective bureaucracy capable of good governance on both land and sea. President Widodo has continuously emphasized his interest in seeing Indonesia become the “maritime axis” of the world. In order to do, Indonesia’s public and private sectors will need to reign in corruption, allocate resources smartly, and work to find the best economic solutions for all citizens. Only then will piracy finally be extinct in the Strait of Malacca.

Christopher Papas is an undergraduate student at The College of William and Mary, the Division Leader of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary University Programs, and Acting Director of Publications at CIMSEC. His views are his own. This article was adapted from a paper for Professor Rani Mullen’s Politics in the Developing World class. Follow Christopher on Twitter: @CPapGo.

[1] “Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Report for the Period 1 January-30 September 2014” (ICC International Maritime Bureau, 2014), 5.

[2] Takashi Ichioka, “Cooperation in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore,” in Navigating Straits: Challenges for International Law, ed. David D. Caron and Nilufer Oral (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2014), 343.

[3] Edward Aspinall, “Indonesia: Redistributing Power,” in Politics in the Developing World, ed. Peter Burnell, Lise Rakner, Vicky Randall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 320.

[4] Mary George, “Security, Piracy and Terrorism in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore,” in Navigating Straits: Challenges for International Law, ed. David D. Caron and Nilufer Oral (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, 2014), 316.

[5] “Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Report for the Period 1 January-31 December 2013” (ICC International Maritime Bureau, 2014), 5.

[6] Ichioka, “Cooperation,” 343.

Whither the Private Maritime Security Companies of South and Southeast Asia? (Part 2)

This feature is special to our Private Military Contractor (PMC)s Week – a look at PMCs’ utility and future, especially in the maritime domain.

In the first part of this article we briefly explored the long history of private maritime security companies (PMSCs) in South and Southeast Asia, as well as the conditions most conducive to their sustainment and growth. In part two we look at regional factors that have or could lessen the threats to which PMSCs provide services in response – including government action, capacity building, and legal regimes – and will conclude with final thoughts on the outlook for PMSCs in the region.

Lessening the Prospects for PMSCs

Perhaps the largest mitigating factor for PMSCs’ prospects is the whether governments will themselves tackle the underlying issues, including economic development, instability, and corruption, and/or their outgrowths that PMSCs attempt to address, such as piracy and maritime crime. This factor consists of and can be measured by both the desire and ability of governments to take on these challenges.

As discussed in part one, levels of piracy and armed robbery (PAR) and kidnapping and ransom (K&R) against ships have been two of the main determinants of the market for PMSCs in the region and the frequency, severity, and locations of these attacks have varied over the recent decades. This dynamic owes in part to several measures undertaken by regional governments beyond those development efforts aimed at removing the economic basis for crimes. What follows is not intended as an exhaustive catalogue, but an attempt to highlight some of the most illustrative examples.

Demonstrating Desire

In coming to terms in the post-Tsunami peace agreement, Indonesia’s government and its Aceh foes removed a major source of instability that opportunistic actors from both sides of the conflict reportedly used for kidnapping and ransom operations at the mouth of the Malacca Strait.  Whether attackers’ motives were to provide a revenue stream to further the insurgency, or as a manifestation of corruption, the removal of the combatants – along with the tsunami’s decimation of the local population and maritime assets used in attacks – helps explain the documented drop in numbers by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).1819

Alternately, governments can take direct action against criminals based in their territory as well as demonstrate their willingness to crack down on internal corruption feeding such crime. PMSC expert James Bridger remarks that the Chinese government launched a campaign in the 1990s against “criminal syndicates and ‘rogue’ police and coast guard units that had been engaging in hijackings and phantom ship fraud out of Hong Kong and southern China.” While there are dangers in relying on self-reporting, an area once known as a favorite destination of hijacked vessels re-named for resale,20 Hong Kong, is now known far more for piracy of a digital kind.21

Attacks and attempts in 2013: South Asia and Southeast Asia. Source: IMB.
Attacks and attempts in 2013: South Asia and Southeast Asia. Source: IMB.

Governments can also work together, and with non-governmental organizations such as the IMB, in the fight against maritime crime. These efforts can be particularly important in preventing criminals from exploiting the seams between territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZs). In 2004 Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia initiated an agreement known as the Trilateral Coordinated Patrol, or MALSINDO, nominally providing smarter coverage by coordinating patrol areas. Illustrating the importance of closing the maritime seams, the agreement was criticized for failing to provide cross-border pursuit permissions due to sovereignty sensitivities.22 As Lino Miani notes in The Sulu Arms Market, “territorial disputes and historical mistrust…undergirds the hesitation to enter into multilateral agreements.”23

In 2005 the three nations of the MALSINDO agreement were joined by Thailand in an attempt to bolster the initiative’s effectiveness by dedicating air assets for maritime air patrol missions with hosted liaison officers in what is known as the Eyes in the Sky (EiS) plan.24 In addition to the capability boost, EiS also marked the first time the nations allowed each other to briefly cross a short ways into their territorial airspace while executing the coordinated mission.25 In 2006 the participating countries combined the two efforts in the new Malacca Straits Patrol Network.26

Another recent example of inter-governmental cooperation helping close maritime seams is the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). The initiative, which entered into force in 2006, establishes information-sharing and attack reporting procedures among 19 countries and an Information Sharing Centre (ISC).27

Yet Malaysia and Indonesia are notably absent from ReCAAP. In another move seen as indicative of the nations’ territorial sensitivities the pair passed on the U.S.-proposed Regional Maritime Security Initiative in 2004, which would have involved Americans in joint patrols including “special forces on high-speed boats.”28 A key difference between these efforts and the Malacca Straits Patrol Network is the involvement of nations external to Southeast Asia. While it doesn’t include Malaysia or Indonesia, ReCAAP involves nations such as Japan, China, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.

Singapore stands in contrast with the two former nations in its openness to long-term partnerships involving a foreign presence. In addition to hosting the ReCAAP’s ISC, it has invited the United States to rotate through a squadron of forward-deployed littoral combat ships, temporarily stationing them at Changi Naval Base, along with the maintenance facility the United States has long maintained in the port.29 An important indicator of the outlook for PMSCs in the coming years will therefore be the receptiveness of these straits nations to maintain or pursue regional approaches to combating maritime crime – as well as their tolerance for joint patrols or a foreign presence.30

Investing in Capacity

Whatever the merits of these regional initiatives in concept, they and individual nations’ efforts require assets to be effective. These assets in turn require investments in procurement, training, and maintenance.31 It’s what separates ReCAAP’s ISC from ASEAN’s Center for Combating Transnational Crime – first proposed in 1997 and stuck on the drawing board ever since.32 Even with the EiS add-on, MALSINDO has been criticized as a public-relations salve lacking the resources to provide comprehensive coverage  and hindered by corruption.33

SIPRI Changes-in-military-expenditure-by-region-2012-13

Tracking defense expenditures therefore serves as a similar measure of governments’ seriousness in tackling PAR. While the specifics vary, South and Southeast Asian nations have a large appetite and long-term plans for expanding their coast guards and naval forces – with submarines, patrol craft, and naval aircraft high-priority items.34 Yet the ability to field these maritime forces, and do so effectively, is constrained by limited, though rising, budgets.35 Many of these investments are aimed at protective capabilities in the event of inter-state conflict against the backdrop of China’s own spending increases, but several can also boost maritime enforcement efforts. Key nations including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh, and the Philippines are pursuing corvette or frigate programs, as well as various fast attack and patrol boat procurement.

Indonesia bears closer scrutiny as it faces perhaps the largest PAR threat and is expected to double defense expenditures from 2013 to 2018, after increases of 34 percent in 2011, 16 percent in 2012, and 7 percent in 2013.36 In addition to frigates, the country is also building three classes of fast attack craft that can aid maritime enforcement efforts.37 Further, Indonesia’s military (TNI) announced in March that it would increase its presence around Natuna Island, a former mainstay of piracy to the east of the current hotspots near the Riau Archipelago. While this move is publicly aimed at preventing “infiltration” and “instability” in the South China Sea – primarily to safeguard nearby oil and gas fields – the additional air force and naval assets could act in a secondary capacity to deter PAR to the west when not otherwise engaged.38

AndamanMeanwhile at the western approaches to Malacca Strait, India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands could act as the first line of defense against a return to epidemic maritime crime in the strait. India’s Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) is charged with “maritime surveillance, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as suppressing gun running, narcotics smuggling, piracy, and poaching in India’s EEZ.” Since establishing the ANC in 2001, the India has continued to develop the command’s capacities, albeit at a slow pace, commissioning a new naval air station in 2012 and a new offshore patrol vessel in 2013.39

Yet in the short run, foreign partners or PMSCs may be the easiest capacity-bolstering ways for states to preserve the gains against maritime crime or reduce it further. Help from the former is forthcoming from several corners, potentially limiting the need to turn to PMSCs. India agreed to build four Offshore Patrol Vehicles (OPVs) for Myanmar’s navy, along with a “$100-million credit line to Vietnam to purchase” four patrol boats.40 The United States has recently sold former U.S. Coast Guard cutters to Bangladesh and the Philippines on favorable terms. Japan is likewise “donating” 10 patrol boats to the Philippines, reportedly by extending a $110-million line of credit,41 and Vietnam has asked to procure them as well.42 While there has been no public confirmation of a deal between Japan and Vietnam, including during last month’s bilateral agreement on enhanced maritime security ties, it’s possible that this will be announced during President Obama visit this week to Asia. On Friday the Yomiuri Shimbun cited sources stating that Japan and the U.S. will on Thursday announce moves to jointly help ASEAN countries “strengthen their maritime surveillance capabilities,” “counter piracy,” and “help member states better respond to natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes.”43

A final way for governments to boost their capacity directly mimics PMSCs’ at-sea protection services through what are known as vessel protection detachments (VPDs). These detachments are typically comprised of active duty service members of a nation’s military and hired out to individual shipping companies for protective duties in high risk transit areas or aboard World Food Program vessels.44 While VPDs have faced criticism on legal and efficacy grounds – for blurring the lines between sovereign services and mercenaries and for narrowing protection to individual ships – the list of countries offering VPDs has grown markedly in the past five years, albeit primarily for use along the East African coast.45

An Estonian VPD off Somalia
An Estonian VPD off Somalia

The effect of this competition on PMSCs is debatable. On one hand some shipping companies have “voiced a strong preference for VPDs” over PMSCs due to their perceived legal protections and ease of moving weapons.46 As will be discussed below, however, these legal protections have been challenged. Further, according to a 2013 study, only 35% of Dutch ships traversing high risk areas off Somalia applied for a VPD due to the “high costs, lack of flexibility of deployment, and long application schedule.”47 (Figures for Southeast Asia were not available but the business case rationale is likely analogous when available) While those Dutch companies who looked to PMSCs as an alternative did so illegally due the nation’s laws, it’s clear that VPDs will remain attractive to some who would otherwise higher PMSCs.

Legal and Policy Issues

Governments’ legal regimes and policies serve as additional factors directly impacting the prospects of PMSCs in the region on several fronts. When operating in territorial waters, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides little clarity on the legal status or protections for PMSCs performing embarked duties or vessel-protection escorts. The innocent passage regime protects the rights of states in territorial waters, including their transiting warships, but sees armed non-state escort vessels, or private armed on-board detachments as violating the “standard practices” of the international community. No definitive case law has put the matter to rest and the increasing acceptance of armed guards on ships combating Somali-based piracy could lead to a change of acceptance elsewhere, but for the time being the waters remain murky.48

In setting national policies, Indonesia and Malaysia both publicly prohibit the use of armed shipboard PMSC detachments, with Singapore the exception – provided stringent weapons control requirements are followed.49 Carolin Liss notes, however, that despite these pronouncements PMSCs are routinely able to obtain back-channel notifications and permissions, smoothed over with “fees.”50

The varying home laws of the shipping companies also impact the environment for PMSCs in South and Southeast Asia. As mentioned, some states such as the Netherlands currently prohibit PMSCs aboard their vessels. Nonetheless, the trend is clearly towards operating states allowing their use in a regulated process as the Netherlands is the sole E.U. nation without such legislation in place, and a Dutch law that would permit PMSC use in 2015 is in the process of approval.51

Whether PMSC or VPD, Italy’s experience in the Enrica Lexie case is illustrative of the legal dangers in the region facing embarked detachments. In February 2012, two Italian Marines – part of a VPD – shot and killed a pair of Indian fishermen they believed to be pirates. The case has tested the belief that sovereign actors provide greater legal protection for counter-piracy teams in international waters and is still working its way through India’s legal system with a trial date scheduled for July.52

Regional weapons control laws also complicate the logistics of both VPDs and PMSCs. Kevin Doherty, President of Nexus Consulting, a PMSC that operates in Southeast Asia, states that in contrast with ports servicing embarked teams in the western Indian Ocean, “many Asian ports don’t allow weapons to be ‘introduced,’ and must therefore be loaded well in advance.” One outcome is the creation of so-called floating armories in international waters, which come with their own set of complications and regional baggage.

Seaman_Guard_Ohio_VesselIndia in particular has expressed concern for these armories. Then-Indian Navy Chief of Staff DK Joshi argued at the 2013 Galle Dialogue they could fall prey to pirates and that they and PMSCs’ lack of international regulation made them susceptible to supporting criminals, traffickers, and terrorists.53 Another on-going case illustrates the complexities and difficulties for PMSCs. After the Sierra Leone-flagged vessel Seaman Guard Ohio entered Indian waters in October 2013 it was escorted to port by an Indian Coast Guard vessel.54 While the Indian government has labelled the vessel operated by U.S.-based PMSC AdvanFort, a floating armory, the company’s spokesman denies the categorization saying the ship serves as an escort vessel that was unable to dispose of its weapons prior to entering port due to the sudden nature of the detainment by the Indian Coast Guard.55

During the same Galle speech, Joshi commended neighboring Sri Lanka for providing what he viewed as a model regulatory regime of both PMSCs and the nation’s government-supported armories. PMSCs can receive licenses from the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense to store equipment and weapons on naval bases or on floating armories run in partnership with the government – although these primarily service western Indian Ocean transits.56 Center for Naval Analyses’ Nilanthi Samarankaye says that this stringent effort to control armories through regulation is due in part to the “still fresh” memory of their use by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the Sri Lankan civil war, giving context to the regional fears that unregulated PMSCs and their support networks could have destabilizing side-effects.

Marine Resource Protection

A final area of possible mitigation for PMSCs’ prospects is in the realm of marine resource protection. As The Diplomat’s Zachary Keck notes, PMSCs “have sometimes been used by states to combat illegal fishing in their EEZs. Tensions over fishing rights in Southeast Asian waters have been high and are likely to persist so long as states continue to dispute their maritime borders in places like the South China Sea.”

Yet PMSCs are not alone in seeking to find solutions to these problems. Maritime activism expert Cdr. Chris Rawley, U.S. Navy, points out that “today, pirates, environmental activists, and more legitimate private security contractors compete for some of the same business, especially in the realm of marine wildlife protection.” For example, “Illegal shark finning remains a problem mostly driven by Asian markets that NGOs have expressed an interest in combating.”

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's Steve Irwin
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Steve Irwin

It’s a fascinating trilateral confluence of interests which, instead of seeing states hiring PMSCs, could see NGOs outsourcing to PMSCs to achieve their aims, or alternately NGOs becoming more like PMSCs by “selling” their services to nations. In one possible scenario, in exchange for the enforcement of a nation’s territorial claims, an NGO might extract concessions on marine wildlife preservation. As documented by Rawley, some of have already moved towards PMSCs in tactics and capacity if not in business models or motivation.57 Says Keck, “Already, we have seen the Philippines use nominally civilian vessels to resupply their marines on the Second Thomas Shoal in the face of China’s blockade. Thus, there seems to be demand for more innovative solutions to the region’s growing maritime disputes.”

In providing training maritime law enforcement (MLE) to national agencies PMSCs might also run into difficulty. Heather Bacon-Shone, a U.S. Coast Guard officer with experience conducting MLE training in Southeast Asia says PMSCs would have trouble finding an adequate profit and could lack credibility if they don’t hire personnel specific to the mission. “MLE training is as much if not more about laws, legal process, case packages, and reasonable suspicion than it is about kicks, punches, and stuns,” said Bacon-Shone. “What we are really trying to teach them is about the rule of law, not about how to take each other down. It’s a real eye-opener for some that we accomplish so much compliance without having to beat people up.”

Assessing the Outlook

On the balance, the opportunities for PMSCs in South and Southeast Asia appear constrained. “The need for PMSCs is limited,” says Doherty. “The ‘high risk’ zones are only a day or two of transit, not like the 7-10 days in the [western] Indian Ocean or like a week at anchorage in West Africa.” Meanwhile geography might also help prevent a resurgence of piracy in the Strait of Malacca. As Bacon-Shone points out it’s “quite narrow and limited of a space, unlike the Gulf of Aden, which is much harder to patrol and control.” Additionally, “the prospects for PMCs in Southeast Asia may be dimming, remarks Keck, “as tensions over the South China Sea push Southeast Asian nations to develop stronger navies and coast guards, which should reduce demand from commercial entities for private security.”

Nonetheless, PMSCs will not disappear from the scene. Outside the universal need for port security, especially prevalent in the region, there are opportunities in high-value transit protection, training of VPDs and security forces, investigation services, and marine resource protection. And, as we discussed above, Keck says “it’s possible that some of the weaker maritime Southeast Asian nations could hire PMSCs to help patrol the waters they claim. This could be seen as a cheaper or at least quicker, temporary solution to their maritime woes, compared with building up their own naval and coast guard fleets.”

Furthermore, one should never discount the ability of organized crime syndicates to adjust and find new vulnerabilities to exploit. As von Hoesslin stresses, criminal organizations remain “dynamically fluid and capable of adjusting quickly to enforcement pressures.”58 Counter-terrorism too could return as a greater priority and create an opening for PMSCs. “There are a lot of really bad guys reportedly getting out of jail this year in Indonesia,” remarks Doherty, “and the line between piracy and terrorism is not going to be as clear.”

In the “Asian Century,” PMSCs will continue to play a role when threats outpace state capacity. The breadth of that role has yet to be defined.


LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founder and vice president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.


18. Catherine Zara Raymond, “Piracy and Armed Robbery in the Malacca Strait: A Problem Solved?” Naval War College Review, (Summer 2009): Vol. 62, No. 3, 37: http://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/7835607e-388c-4e70-baf1-b00e9fb443f1/Piracy-and-Armed-Robbery-in-the-Malacca-Strait–A-
19. Kate McGeown, “Aceh Rebels Blamed for Piracy,” BBC News Online, September 8, 2003: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/3090136.stm
20. Abby Tan, “In Asian Waters, Sea Pirates Eschew Eye Patches, Steal Ships via Internet,” Christian Science Monitor, 13 June, 1996, http://www.csmonitor.com/1996/0613/061396.intl.intl.4.html/(page)/2
21. Interestingly it should be noted that several sources contacted for this article mentioned rumors of continued criminal syndicates operating out of Chinese , which if true, shows the danger in relying only on reported statistics.
22. Raymond, 36.
23. Lino Miani, The Sulu Arms Market (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies: Singapore, 2011): 122.
24. Zou Keyuan and Shicun Wu Maritime Security in the South China Sea (Ashgate: 2013): 61.
25. Raymond, 37. Admiral Bernard Sondakh, Indonesian Navy Chief of Staff, emphasized the patrols are “coordinated” vice “joint” as there is no singular command structure. Keyuan and Wu, 62.
26. Rajeev Sawhney, “Redefining the Limits of the Straits: A Composite Malacca Straits Security System,” IDSS Commentaries, 18 May, 2006: http://www.rsis.edu.sg/publications/Perspective/IDSS0372006.pdf
27. “About ReCAAP” (accessed 17 April, 2014): http://www.recaap.org/AboutReCAAPISC.aspx
28. Bill Tarrant, “Balancing Powers in the Malacca Strait,” Reuters Global News Journal, March 7, 2010: http://blogs.reuters.com/global/2010/03/07/balancing-powers-in-the-malacca-strait/
29. Christopher P. Cavas, “Next LCS Decployment to Last 16 Months,” Defense News, January 6, 2014: http://www.defensenews.com/article/20140106/DEFREG02/301060023/Next-LCS-Deployment-Last-16-Months
30. There is additionally a multitude of short-duration bilateral and multilateral exercises and coordinated patrols with counter-piracy or maritime enforcement components, including India’s Indo-Thai Joint Patrols and biannual Indo-Ind Corpat and the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) exercise hosted at Singapore’s Multinational Operations and Exercise Center at Changi Naval Base.
31. Miani, 126.
32. Fund for Peace, Transnational Security Threats in the Straits of Malacca, 17: http://library.fundforpeace.org/library/ttcvr1213-threatconvergence-malaccastraits-08e.pdf
33. Liss, 295.
34. For a recent survey of procurement programs in the region see Wendell Minnick, “Tighter Budgets Limit Southeast Asian Plans,” Defense News, 13 April, 2014. http://www.defensenews.com/article/20140413/DEFREG03/304130015/Tighter-Budgets-Limit-Southeast-Asian-Plans
35. For analysis of defense budgets in the region see “Military Spending Continues to Fall in the West but Rises Everywhere Else,” SIPRI, April 14, 2014: http://www.sipri.org/media/pressreleases/2014/Milex_April_2014; Global Defense Budgets Overall to Rise for First Time in Five Years,” IHS Pressroom, February 4, 2014: http://press.ihs.com/press-release/aerospace-defense-terrorism/global-defence-budgets-overall-rise-first-time-five-years; “Southeast Asia: The Next Growth Opportunity in Defense,” McKinsey and Company, February 2014.
36. “Forecast International Expects Defense Spending to Project Upward Across Asia-Pacific Region,” Forecast International, October 31, 2013: http://globenewswire.com/news-release/2013/10/31/585516/10055526/en/Forecast-International-Expects-Defense-Spending-to-Project-Upward-Across-Asia-Pacific-Region.html
37. Minnick, “Tighter Budgets Limit Southeast Asian Plans.”
38. Scott Cheney-Peters, “Indonesia’s Skin in the Game,” CIMSEC’s NextWar, Mar 19, 2014: http://cimsec.org/indonesias-skin-game/
39. Jeff M. Smith, “Andaman and Nicobar Islands: India’s Strategic Outpost,” The Diplomat, March 18, 2014: http://thediplomat.com/2014/03/andaman-and-nicobar-islands-indias-strategic-outpost/
40. Nitin A. Gokhale, “India’s Growing Military Diplomacy,” The Diplomat, August 16, 2013: http://thediplomat.com/2013/08/indias-growing-military-diplomacy/
41. “Philippines Asks Japan for $110M Loan for 10 Patrol Vessels,” manilastandardtoday.com, February 12, 2014: http://newsonjapan.com/html/newsdesk/article/100931.php
42. “Japan Coast Guard Vessels and Equipment in High Demand in S.E. Asia, Africa,” The Asahi Shimbun, September 30, 2013: http://ajw.asahi.com/article/asia/around_asia/AJ201309300001
43. “Japan, US to help ASEAN monitor Seas,” The Japan News, April 20, 2014:
44. James Brown, “Pirates and Privateers: Managing the Indian Ocean’s Private Security Boom,” Lowy Institute, 12 September, 2012: http://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/pirates-and-privateers-managing-indian-oceans-private-security-boom
45. However several of these limit their use solely to World Food Program vessels, and many to own-nation flagged or controlled shipping lines. Ibid.
46. Ibid.
47. Bibi van Ginkel, Frans-Paul van der Putten, and Willem Molenaar, “State or Private Protection Against Maritime Piracy?” Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael (February 2013), 10: http://www.clingendael.nl/sites/default/files/20130200_state_or_private_protection_web.pdf
48. Gerard Ong Graham “A Case for Armed Guards on Ships,” World Security Network, June 01, 2005: http://www.worldsecuritynetwork.com/Other/Gerard-Ong-Graham/A-case-for-armed-guards-on-ships. As an indication of changed attitudes towards armed guards on vessels, see the International Maritime Organization’s interim circulars: http://www.imo.org/OurWork/Security/PiracyArmedRobbery/Pages/Private-Armed-Security.aspx
49. Fund for Peace, Transnational Security Threats in the Straits of Malacca, 15
50. Liss, 336-338
51. “ESS&SA Pioneering Maritime Security Industry,” Maritime Executive, February 26, 2014: http://www.maritime-executive.com/article/ESSSA-Pioneering-Maritime-Security-Industry-2014-02-26/
52. “Italian Marines Case: Court to Hear Case on July 31,” The Times of India, March 31, 2014: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Italian-marines-case-Court-to-hear-case-on-July-31/articleshow/33023539.cms. That the actions took place in international waters is a matter of contention, and the Italians’ legal team contends the shots fired were warning shots.
53. PK Balachandran, “Regulate Private Maritime Security Firms: SL Navy Chief,” The New Indian Express, November 26, 2013: http://www.newindianexpress.com/world/Regulate-private-maritime-security-firms-SL-Navy-Chief/2013/11/26/article1910994.ece
54. S. Vijay Kumar and Praveen Paul Joseph, “Ship with Armed Guards Detained in Indian Waters,” The Hindu, October 19, 2013, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/ship-with-armed-guards-detained-in-indian-waters/article5229375.ece
55. Edward Lundquist, “M/V Seaman Guard Ohio Remains Detained in Indian Port,” Defense Media Network, October 21, 2013: http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/mv-seaman-guard-ohio-remains-detained-in-indian-port/
56. Lowy and Oscar Rickett, “Piracy Fears over Ships Laden with Weapons in International Waters,” The Guardian, January 10, 2013: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/10/pirate-weapons-floating-armouries
57. Chris Rawley, “The SOFification of Maritime Activism,” Information Dissemination, March 22, 2014: http://www.informationdissemination.net/2014/03/the-sofification-of-maritime-activism.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+InformationDissemination+%28Information+Dissemination%29
58. von Hoesslin, 546.