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.
There’s been a fair bit of reporting regarding U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Greenert’s supposed remarks that Malaysia was offering a base in East Malaysia for deploying US Navy P-8s. Despite the U.S. Navy clarifying his remarks and saying they’ve been taken out of a context, the “base offer” seems too good a story for the U.S. media to pass on. Unfortunately many of the reports miss the dynamics of how U.S.-Malaysia military cooperation actually works, as to anyone familiar with such the notion of Malaysia allowing the United States to regularly stage surveillance missions out of its airbases is fairly laughable.
The fact is, except under the ambit of the Five Power Defence Arrangement, every military cooperation activity by Malaysia with a foreign country is agreed to on a case-by-case basis. So the United States would have to ask for approval for, at a minimum, every deployment with no guarantee that Malaysia will approve. It might be hard for those outside the military-defence circle here to accept but military cooperation activities between Malaysia and other countries can often ad-hoc based on opportunities provided by a deployment that takes place close to or in the vicinity of Malaysia. For instance, last year when the U.S.S. Boxer was transiting through the Malacca Straits with no engagement activity or exercises with Malaysia planned, the United States then decided to offer to fly Malaysian military and defence officials via V-22 Ospreys to the ship to see U.S. Marines capabilities onboard and engage in briefings and discussions, an offer which was then accepted. Similarly in June last year, when the French LPD F.N.S. Tonnerre was on a deployment tour in the region, France put in a request to Malaysia’s Joint Force Headquarters (JFHQ) for an amphibious landing exercise but JFHQ declined, saying it was tied up with the ongoing CARAT 2013 exercise with the United States but referred the French to the Malaysian Army Headquarters who could accommodate the request.
These two examples illustrate that Malaysia’s military cooperation activities with other countries are often on an as-and-when basis, rather than occurring as part of a highly formalized arrangement. As Malaysia wishes to preserve its ambit of neutrality, any activity has to be offered in such a manner so that Malaysia can decide whether to allow it based on such criteria and whether the timing is suitable – requests to do something during the fasting month of Ramadan or the Eid Fitri celebration period for instance are typically going to be denied.
Indeed at the Asian Naval Warfare Conference in Kuala Lumpur on September 10, which was open to the media although very little media showed up, Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, Commander U.S. 7th Fleet, directly addressed the matter:
“There’s no formal treaty with respect to Malaysia as far as military operations. In fact, we conduct operations with the Malaysian military on a case-by-case basis, when permission is granted. We have a lot of subject matter exchanges including in the maritime patrol reconnaissance aircraft area so we’re doing more and more work in that regard, but that is not a formal policy document that says ‘hey, this is what we’re going to do and this is when we’re going to do it,’ this is really Admiral Kamarul [Vice Admiral Kamarulzaman, Deputy Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) Chief who was the senior RMN officer at the conference] and Robert Thomas saying, ‘hey what about this,’ and ‘can we get diplomatic clearance and permission to go work these exercises and this training.’”
And it’s not as if P-8s, or for that matter P-3 Orions, have not flown in and out of RMAF bases in the past in East Malaysia. Check out any Malaysian planespotting forum and you’ll see plenty of evidence, all related to cooperation activity and exercises between Malaysia and the United States. Part of the reason the United States is keen to have the P-8 Poseidon go to Malaysia is to highlight its capabilities to the Malaysian military given that Malaysia has long had an outstanding requirement for a long-range maritime patrol aircraft, and the P-8 could fill it.
Which raises another point, the ready assumption that anything to do with U.S. surveillance aircraft in East Malaysia has to be in regard to China. The fact is that Malaysia also has concerns on the state of security on the east coast of the state of Sabah in East Malaysia, which since last year’s incursion by Sulu separatists has also been plagued by cross-border kidnappings by various groups from the Philippines so a P-8 or P-3 going to East Malaysia may not necessarily be doing surveillance in an area where China operates. It’s not surprising that when the United States offers a chance for Malaysian personnel to fly aboard and see the P-8’s capabilities, Malaysia would opt to use the familiarization flight to gauge how it performs in an area where the country expects to do the bulk of its maritime surveillance mission.
Still, for some in the media it makes a nice story to say that Malaysia is offering the United States a base to stage P-8 flights as an attempt to counterbalance China and in response to Chinese maneuvers near East Malaysia and its waters. But the reality is that the Malaysian government hasn’t very much changed its position that it can resolve issues diplomatically with China. The New York Times report quoting “a senior Asian diplomat” saying that Malaysia has been in discussion with the United States on such has to be considered in context. There are some Asian countries that might see it as advantageous to draw a wedge between Malaysia and China, and thus tell the media something that may not be true for such a purpose. It also illustrates the danger of relying on a single source to determine the truth.
The Malaysian government is very much aware of how stretched the Malaysian Armed Forces are to cover the area in question. Allowing the United States to set up in East Malaysia for the purpose of monitoring China would only provoke the Chinese to step up their activities in the area, further taxing the RMN and RMAF, which makes it counter-productive, without mentioning the (domestic) political infeasibility. Unfortunately this type of context is seldom visible to those writing from Washington or New York, leading to narrative displaced from reality.
Dzirhan Mahadzir is a freelance defence journalist based in Malaysia and a regular writer on the Malaysian military and defence developments in Malaysia for a number of international defence publications groups including IHS Janes, Shephard Media, Mönch Publishing Group and Ventura Media.
Armed with AK47s and equipped with GPS devices, modern pirates pose a serious non-traditional security threat to all seafaring nations, their people, and economies. In 2012, five crew members were killed in pirate attacks, 14 wounded, and 313 kidnapped; and the world economy lost about US$6 billion through disrupted maritime logistic chains, higher insurance premiums, and longer shipping times. While most associate piracy with hijacked ships and abandoned crews around Somalia, the area with the most pirate attacks in recent years has been the South China Sea. While the most severe attacks here occur primarily in Malaysia, 78 percent of the incidents in 2012 took place at Indonesian ports and concerned small cases of petty theft.
This analysis is based on data by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN specialized agency for maritime security. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines piracy as an illegal act of violence committed for private ends by the crew or passengers of a ship or aircraft against another ship or aircraft on the high seas; the IMO extends this definition to include “armed robbery against ships”—pirate attacks within a state’s territorial sea.
According to the IMO, piracy worldwide has risen substantially since 1994 with incident peaks of about 470 and 550 in 2000 and 2011, respectively (see Figure 1). This is primarily due to the exponential increase of global shipping in the course of globalization—leading to 80 percent of world trade being shipped across oceans today—with which opportunities for piracy increased likewise. The real number of pirate attacks are thereby even higher: An estimated two-thirds of all pirate attacks remain unreported, as shipping companies skirt the bad publicity, higher insurance premiums, and investigation delays that come with reporting incidents.
With the exception of 2007 to 2012, when piracy in East Africa experienced a sharp increase, the South China Sea has been the most piracy-prone region in the world, with up to 150 attacks per year. Why? First, about 30 percent of global maritime trade passes through the region, so opportunities for attacks are plenty. Second, the area’s geographical features foster piracy, as the island chains and small rocks constitute ideal hiding places, while the narrow passages facilitate attacks. Third, unresolved territorial issues and lack of agreed jurisdiction, particularly around the Spratley and Paracel Islands, complicate maritime enforcement and patrols and thus facilitate illegal activities at sea.
While pirate attacks in the South China Sea are spread across the entire area, the majority happen around Indonesia: Of 85 incidents with a known location in 2012, 66 occurred in Indonesia, 10 in Malaysia, 3 in the Philippines, 2 in Singapore and 4 in Vietnam. Indonesia’s geographical features and the increased efforts of Malaysia and Singapore to combat piracy in the Strait of Malacca explain the predominance in Indonesia. Here, efforts to fight piracy are weak, cooperation of corrupt port officials is high, and punishment for piracy rather light.
In Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, most attacks occur at ports, whereas none happened in the Singaporean port. In Malaysia, the majority of incidents occurred on the high seas (see Figure 2). Taken together, this leads to a regional average of 67 percent ‘port-attacks’ in 2012, while only 13 percent happened on the high seas. In this regard, the South China Sea is distinct compared to the rest of the world, where more than a third of all pirate attacks are committed on the high seas.
To know more about the nature of the incidents in the different countries, the severity of the attacks can be calculated. Taking the four variables, (A) number of pirates taking part in an attack, (B) weapons used, (C) content stolen, and (D) amount of violence employed, the grade of severity is established by scaling the four variables appropriately (0.5A-2B-2C-3D), using them as axes in a four-dimensional coordinate plane and employing a point-distance formula of the point A/B/C/D to the origin.
Linking the severity with the location of attacks yields the map in Figure 3 (the larger the bubble, the more severe the attack; when several attacks of different severity took place in the same location, they are marked by black lines). While no hot spot is obvious, it is apparent that attacks in vicinity of Malaysia and Singapore were more severe (at an average severity of 37.5 and 34, respectively, on a scale from 8.5 to 59.5), while the mildest ones occurred in Indonesia at 24. The Philippines and Vietnam range in the middle at 29.5 and 26.7.
Comparing the severity with the area of attack in the different countries, two types of piracy become apparent. The first one is exemplified by attacks in Indonesia, which occur at ports and are not that severe. These are usually carried out by four pirates armed with knives, guns, or machetes; they target the crew’s personal belongings and the ship’s stores without employing much violence. These attacks can be characterized as low-profile piracy, which is generally conducted by un(der)employed fishermen or idle dock workers. As they lack resources, the attacks are ill-organized and opportunistic and exercised where security measures are low, law enforcement weak, and the concentration of shipping high.
In contrast, severe high-profile piracy occurs primarily on the high seas. It is carried out by well-organized international piracy syndicates, which have substantial means at their disposal and use modern techniques and equipment. In the South China Sea, this type of high-profile piracy is most evident in Malaysia. On average, these are carried out by 11 pirates armed with knives and guns; they hijack the ship and take the crew hostage or abandon it in life rafts.
The most self-evident explanation for the difference of low- and high-profile piracy in Indonesia and Malaysia is the disparity in living standards and wealth. In Indonesia, where the GDP per capita was US$5,100 in 2012, piracy attacks are much more likely to be motivated by poverty. Local fishermen do not have the means, or the motivation, to conduct high-profile attacks, but simply seek money and food—making Indonesian piracy less severe. In Malaysia, with a GDP per capita of US$17,200 in 2012, poverty is not as high and there is less necessity for fishers to conduct low-scale piracy attacks in order to survive. Instead, piracy attacks here are conducted by organized crime syndicates, entail much more criminal energy, and are more severe. Other factors that have an impact on the prevalent type of piracy include the amount of port security measures, the degree of law enforcement, and the strength of penalties.
Understanding the nature of piracy in the South China Sea leads to several implications for its combat. As most attacks happen in harbors, increased port and ship security measures would be highly effective in reducing the number of these incidents. In addition, stricter law regulation and enforcement mechanisms, as well as training for local port officials would be useful. Both these measures should be conducted in multilateral settings, like regional Piracy Law Dialogues or Conferences. They should include regional government officials, legal experts, representatives from the IMO and IMB, the shipping community, and other non-regional states with an interest in combating piracy in the South China Sea.
To address the cases on the high seas, any military mission patrolling the waters and accompanying ships (such as the successful NATO Operation Ocean Shield in the Gulf of Aden) would be highly controversial and inadvisable due to the possible escalation of territorial tensions. Instead, a joint coast guard system with common patrols could be much more effective.
For a country-specific course of action, the incidents in the respective country should be analyzed more closely, looking inter alia at the specific locations of the attacks with their surrounding circumstances and the general structure of criminality in the country. Nevertheless, based on the results of this analysis, piracy in the South China Sea in general can be much reduced if the root causes of unemployment and poverty in Indonesia are addressed. Through the depletion of resources, limitation of fishing grounds due to territorial tensions, and competition from large international fisheries that outclass them in the open sea, local fishermen can no longer sustain themselves by their livelihood. Facing a dearth of other employment opportunities, there is often little choice but to commit low-scale opportunistic crimes around harbors—and thereby become pirates.
Sarah Schoenberger is a postgraduate student of International Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Peking University in Beijing. Her focus is on security studies and East Asia. This article appeared in its original form at the Indo-Pacific Review and was republished by permission.
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.