Southeast Asia Takes ‘Mini-Lateral’ Approach to Maritime Security

Last month, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines agreed to begin coordinated patrols to improve maritime securityafter an increase in kidnappings at sea by the Filipino militant group Abu Sayyaf. In an email interview, Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, discussed maritime security cooperation in Southeast Asia.
WPR: How extensive is maritime security cooperation among Southeast Asian nations, and what efforts are underway to expand cooperation?

Collin Koh: Maritime security cooperation among Southeast Asian countries remains primarily bilateral, which makes sense since countries in the region have varying threat perceptions and resource capacities. In the past decade, countries have gravitated toward so-called mini-lateral frameworks—coalitions of a few neighbors coalescing around a particular, common maritime security problem that does not require a broader, multilateral level of participation. These coalitions are better focused and take into account the region’s unique geostrategic and geopolitical contexts. 

The first such experiment is the Malacca Straits Patrols (MSP), which brings together Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand to fight piracy and robbery in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. ASEAN governments are also expanding the scope of their cooperation beyond collective maritime actions. For example, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam successfully conducted joint investigations following the hijacking of the tanker MT Orkim Harmony in June 2015. Countries in the region have also worked to improve information-sharing, a key reason behind the successful resolution of several recent ship hijackings. New initiatives have been proposed recently, including expanding the MSP to include more ASEAN members, and extending the patrols to the southern reaches of the South China Sea. But countries are considering these proposals cautiously given intra-regional political sensitivities. 

Nonetheless, the recent declaration by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to undertake joint patrols in the Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea, which is also known as the Sulawesi Sea, after a spate of ship hijackings and crew kidnappings by armed militants shows that Southeast Asian governments are willing to unite and tackle common maritime security problems together.

WPR: What are the main maritime security threats in Southeast Asia, and how effective are current efforts to tackle these threats?

Koh: It is important to begin with the notion that Southeast Asia is a diverse region, where different countries possess varying perceptions of the multitude of maritime security threats. Indonesia would view illegal fishing as the primary maritime security concern, Malaysia smuggling, Singapore maritime terrorism, and the Philippines and Vietnam the South China Sea disputes. Nonetheless, because of the interconnectedness of Southeast Asia’s maritime geography and strong regional economic interdependence, certain transnational maritime security threats become common concerns for subregions within Southeast Asia.

Most recently, the threat of maritime terrorism has increased in Southeast Asia, in large part because of the rise of militancy that is now also attributed to the Islamic State, whose influence has expanded into the region. Some senior ASEAN naval officers have described this insidious threat as the most difficult to counter. In order to fight extremism, regional governments have demonstrated greater willingness to share intelligence and refine the level of interoperability between their security agencies—and taken steps to do so. The effectiveness of these efforts is yet to be proven, but more collective action between Southeast Asian countries does deter potential terrorists and reassures other stakeholders, especially the shipping industry.

WPR: What more needs to be done to address maritime security in Southeast Asia, and what can regional powers and international partners do to support current efforts?

Koh: ASEAN governments could adopt a more active, instead of reactive, posture in tackling ever-evolving maritime security threats. To this end, they can build on existing successful initiatives to expand intra-regional participation and pool resources more effectively and efficiently. The proposed expansion of MSP is a step in the right direction. Information-sharing, intelligence exchanges and joint training and exercises should continue, but they are currently insufficient. 

But intra-regional political sensitivities will remain for the foreseeable future, and any new maritime security initiatives will need to be rolled out carefully. This means that ASEAN governments will not radically change how they formulate and implement maritime cooperation programs. As such, national-level initiatives to address maritime security issues will continue to dominate, putting the onus on national governments to improve their maritime security capacities. Training and technical assistance from regional powers and international partners is key to these capacity-building efforts. Not only do such forms of assistance allow international partners to avoid getting entangled in the geopolitical minefields of Southeast Asia, they also contribute to empowering ASEAN governments to better manage their internal and regional affairs.



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