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 participatingin 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.
It 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 Canadaand was republished by permission.
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.  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. 
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.
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.  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.
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.  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.  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.
 “Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Report for the Period 1 January-30 September 2014” (ICC International Maritime Bureau, 2014), 5.
 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.
 Edward Aspinall, “Indonesia: Redistributing Power,” in Politics in the Developing World, ed. Peter Burnell, Lise Rakner, Vicky Randall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 320.
 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.
 “Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Report for the Period 1 January-31 December 2013” (ICC International Maritime Bureau, 2014), 5.
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.
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
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
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
Meanwhile 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
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.
India 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.”
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.
By Felix Seidler, Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany / German blogger.
Nothing has been as over-hyped since August 2011 as China’s aircraft carrier program. After the former Soviet carrier Varyag, fully refurbished by the Chinese and renamed Liaoning, took its first “test drive”, thousands of blog posts, press pieces, and scholarly articles argued about possible regional and global implications. Is this single ship a regional or even global threat? What about the balance in the East and South China Seas?
Stay calm, people. After a few tests, China’s Navy – the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – has shown it is in fact still years away from having an operational aircraft carrier, let alone integrated carrier strike group.
Moreover, if a navy wants to have a single operationally available aircraft carrier at any one time, it needs at least two, and better still three carriers in rotation: the one in operational status, one in the shipyard, and one in training and work-ups. According to these numbers, it is unlikely that the PLAN will be able to sustain a “blue water” carrier presence before 2020 based on projected shipbuilding schedules.
Even the first flights of a J-15 Shark from Liaoning’s deck were more PR event than step towards a credible carrier force. It’s one thing to launch a single fighter under controlled and planned conditions. Conducting dozens of flight movements per hour in wartime requires a significant increase in capabilities and training. To reach this, China must still walk a long road.
Eye on India
However, while most observers were busy with Liaoning, Asia’s only operational aircraft carrier, India’s INS Viraat, has largely been left out of the discussion (sorry, Thailand, but your never-operating carrier is not a serious asset). The first reason why India’s carrier must be taken more seriously than China: operational experience. India has been operating its current carrier since 1987 (the now-decommissioned INS Vikrant began service in 1961), and already has in place the necessary supply chains and logistics that the PLAN lacks. China’s maritime “Long March” could take longer than Mao’s to gain all the experience India already has. And while both China and India could turn to Russia for potential assistance, only the latter would likely receive carrier support – whether logistics or training – from the U.S., France, or the U.K.
Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Indian commanders already conduct serious exercises with their helicopter and fighter pilots integrated with their carrier crews. China, due to the lack of capacity (i.e. a carrier at sea) has not yet started the most crucial parts of its carrier training. Russian experts warn it may take the Chinese another decade to learn how to “efficiently” run carrier operations. Meanwhile, India’s next carrier INS Vikramaditya (former Soviet Admiral Gorshkov), due the benefits of Russian support, is already training in Arctic waters and is expected despite delays to enter service in late 2013 or 2014. The indigenously built INS Vikrant is slated to be commissioned in 2015. In consequence, whenever the PLAN’s first carrier is operational, India will have at least two well-trained counterparts (Viraat is set to decommission in 2020). Furthermore, India will generally be able to maintain one operational carrier off-shore while China, at least initially, will not.
New Delhi and The Three Carrier Big Boys
Beside Russian support – generous, but not free – India participates in joint exercises with the navies of the other two “Carrier Big Boys,” the U.S. and France. The PLAN is far from such trials and, beyond search and rescue (SAR), these navies by policy will not conduct full-scale combat training with a Chinese carrier, their possible future foe.
For instance, in April 2012, the U.S. and India conducted the 15th joint naval Exercise Malabar; which also included warships from Australia, Japan, and Singapore. Training with the U.S. means that India has the opportunity to look at and, thereby, learn from the skills of the world’s best carrier-operating navy. However, Indians pilots have not yet been reported taking off from U.S. carriers. Also unprecedented but not improbable, India’s carrier officers, pilots, and crews could hone their skills training side-by-side with the world’s best counterparts. This is something Chinese sailors are probably never going to experience. China’s fighter pilots had to travel to Brazil for portions of their carrier flight training.
Moreover, the U.S. is joined by France in using their carriers as political means of improving strategic ties with India. In 2011 the French Navy sent its carrier Charles de Gaulle, accompanied by surface vessels and a nuclear sub, to India for a joint exercise. Of course, this was also an advertisement for the French carrier-capable Rafale fighter, which India has since purchased. Operating combat-proven (Libya), NATO-interoperable fighters from carriers is surely a positive. Meanwhile, the competition is mostly working with slight improvements on copied Soviet and Russian designs. While China is developing a flat-top capable stealth fighter (the J-31), it will take years before it reaches full operational capabilities and production. In response to the threat of a Chinese carrier with J-31s, India could opt for the F-35C or a carrier-capable version of the Russian T-50 PAK FA. The U.S. and Russia would probably sell everything to New Delhi to keep a resurgent India in their camp.
Given all these advantages there can be no doubt that India’s already operating carriers deserve much higher esteem than China’s refurbished test-object in Dalian shipyard. However, it’s time to put the carriers into the geo-strategic context.
India’s Lasting Geo-strategic Advantage
For all its current carrier edge over China, India will not become a U.S.-like carrier superpower; but nor does it need to. Look at the Indian Ocean on the map and you’ll see the world’s most important sea-lanes running in front of the Indian military’s ports and air bases. Some of the most critical geostrategic hotspots and maritime chokepoints, including the Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Strait, and the Gulf of Aden are nearby. For example, from its Andaman and Nikobar bases, India could easily block the northern entry of the Malacca Strait in the event of conflict.
By comparison, the PLAN has natural access only to the Malacca Strait, and to reach it must traverse the South China Sea, which can easily be filled with the subs and vessels of neighboring nations’ and the U.S. Navy. Thus, due to geography, the PLAN would have a far more difficult time exerting control on, or re-opening, access to the chokepoint than the Indian Navy. The Indian Navy would have a good deal easier job of accessing the South China Sea than the PLAN the Indian Ocean. Additionally, India has no “island chains” from which opposing forces can launch strikes, and therefore does not need to concentrate on Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) and instead can focus on freedom of action.
The Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game
Finally, in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game – how I like to describe what is going to happen in the map at top over the next 50 years – the better cards are in India’s hand.
As mentioned, India has the geographic edge. New Delhi’s maritime lifelines cannot easily be blocked. And, if someone tried, India’s carriers, surface vessels, subs, and air bases are within striking distance of the chokepoints. Furthermore, India has the better demography, with a younger (average) population base than China’s, which is “getting older before it gets rich.” This is important, because the Achilles Heel of the PLAN’s carrier program is the development of the Chinese population. Changes in society and government could reverse Beijing’s decisions in the carrier case. In 2060, India is expected to be the third or second largest economy in the world. Hence, it will have the money and the technology to sustain its number of carriers at an even higher rate than present.
With this in mind, whoever worries in the U.S. or Europe about these Chinese carriers, which could patrol the Indian Ocean’s SLOCs, should remember that India will be there too. So will other countries, like Australia. It’s time to recognize that of the two Indo-Pacific neighbors only one can as yet legitimately claim to be a global maritime power.
Besides, it won’t all come down to naval power in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game. Of course, as the U.S. military recognizes, it must incorporate Air-Sea, but Space and Cyber must play integral roles too. Remember, all ships and fighters are worth nothing without satellite communications and a working cyber infrastructure. Therefore, wordy though it is, an Air-Sea-Space-Cyber-Battle is the way ahead (or perhaps Air-Sea+?); perhaps not only for the U.S., but for those developing their influence in the Indo-Pacific too.
Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas. Home of the NextWar Blog