This article is part of Conceptualization of “Maritime Security” in Southeast Asia, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Despite its growing prominence in international relations and foreign policy discourse, there is no commonly accepted definition for maritime security.1 Among Southeast Asia’s key coastal states, only the governments of the Philippines and Thailand have officially defined maritime security. Both of those definitions are exceptionally broad, embracing national goals oriented toward the safety, security, and socio-economic development of their maritime space. The surveys of Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam found general consensus regarding similarly broad understandings of what threat responses fit into the domain of maritime security.
One way to understand these conceptualizations is to view them as the maritime elements of the national resilience approaches to security that are common among Southeast Asian states. The national resilience concept fuses the protection of sovereignty against the influence of foreign states with the strengthening of the state’s economic, social, and political fabric.2 It connects economic and social development goals with internal and external security activity to create a condition where national power addresses all threats to the integrity of the nation-state.3 At the regional level, the national resilience has both internal and external implications as national governments are expected to “promote domestic stability on a comprehensive basis so that the resultant secure states can withstand internal and external stresses and thus contribute to the attainment of regional resilience in Southeast Asia.”4
Maritime security only entered Southeast Asia’s policy lexicon in the 1990s, moving from the Track II community into official policy discourse. The proceedings from a 1991 conference on maritime change convened by the Australian Chief of Naval staff illustrate the early stages of this development. Papers delivered by senior naval officers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Australia, India, and the United States discuss concerns regarding the maritime environment, international security, sea lines of communication, trade, law of the sea, pollution prevention, information exchange, naval security, national sovereign territorial integrity, maritime commerce, and maritime manpower development.5 However, these combined papers only use the term “maritime security”: once, when Indonesian Commodore I.G. Artjana wrote that cooperation between Southeast Asian states is, “contributing toward global maritime security.”6 In contrast, the paper delivered by a fixture of the period’s maritime-oriented Track II circuit, J.N. Mak, discussed the Royal Malaysian Navy’s effort to balance its “maritime security” and “maritime defence” missions in support of Malaysia’s national resilience.7 Mak’s assessment reflected western approaches to divide maritime missions that had found their way into regional academic discussions that did not necessarily comport with the application of maritime power by Southeast Asian states.8
As shown in Jay Batongbacal’s analysis, in 1994 “maritime security” was incorporated into the Philippines National Maritime Policy, perhaps the first use of the term in a Southeast Asian national policy. This policy was an important element of the Ramos government’s comprehensive security strategy and was designed to cement the Philippines’ position on archipelagic waters as the 1982 UNCLOS entered into force.9 The reason that this document served as the bridge carrying the term from Track II to official discourse correlates to the fact the Philippine government outsourced the drafting of the policy to a group of academics. The resultant definition encompassed military defense, constabulary activities, and socio-economic development in the nation’s maritime space.
According to Dita Liliansa’s research, the 1994 Chairman’s Statement of the First Meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum contains the first use of the term maritime security in ASEAN-related documents even though ASEAN policy discourse had been focusing on concerns such as unresolved maritime borders, armed robbery at sea, smuggling, and drug trafficking. Going forward, the documents produced by ASEAN and ASEAN-related bodies show that the bodies involving non-ASEAN members are more progressive on maritime security issues and more likely to use the term earlier. The likely reflects the fact that in the post-Cold War era the security of regional sealanes was a key intersection of Southeast Asian and extra-regional partners’ security concerns. The ambiguous nature of “maritime security” enabled the consensus-based organization to approve its use whereas more precise terms would have likely been dissatisfactory to at least one member state.
As the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, a series of events reordered Southeast Asian states’ threat perceptions and placed maritime security at the top of their agendas. Around the Sulu Sea, the Abu Sayyaf group’s operations included amphibious raids such as the 1995 attack on the town of Ipil that took about one hundred lives, and the hybrid terror/criminal group conducted a long string of kidnap-for-ransom attacks against watercraft and coastal communities. In Indonesia, sectarian violence spilled into the maritime domain as fighters traveled by ships between islands and small craft became both targets and the means of attack.10 Mass casualty bombings of ferries such as Our Lady Mediatrix (2000), Kalifornia (2001), and Superferry 14 (2004) took hundreds more lives in the Philippines and Indonesia. Al-Qaeda’s attacks on USS Cole (2000) and MV Limburg (2002) took place beyond Southeast Asia but increased concerns that the regional terrorist affiliates might conduct similar operations in critical sea lanes. Those concerns were underscored by Singaporean authorities’ discovery of plots for Jemaah Islamiyah cells to attack visiting American warships and other maritime targets.11
In the same period, rising rates of armed robbery in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore spurred expanding law enforcement actions and the development of international cooperative mechanisms such as the Strait of Malacca Patrols and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). As counter-terrorism and maritime security emerged as the issues dominating regional security discourse, states prioritized maritime security action both to simultaneously safeguard their people, protect economic activities, and forestall potential foreign intervention.12
The first formal ASEAN instrument to use the term “maritime security” is the 2003 Bali Concord II. By naming maritime security a common ASEAN concern and specifically placing maritime cooperation among the aspirations of the ASEAN Security Community, this agreement placed maritime security formally at the heart of the ASEAN agenda for comprehensive security, “which goes beyond the requirements of traditional security but also takes into account non-traditional aspects vital to regional and national resilience, such as the economic, socio-cultural, and environmental dimensions of development.”13 By the end of the decade, the term “maritime security” had found its way to the center of the regional policy lexicon, and had become a regularly recurring feature of senior political leaders’ statements and national policy documents. These usages consistently frame maritime security as both countering the threats posed by non-state actors and sustaining state sovereign rights at sea.
Southeast Asia’s primary extra-regional players also began embracing “maritime security” as a framing concept during the early 2000s. In the immediate post-9/11 era, the United States launched the Proliferation Security Initiative and Container Security Initiative, two important elements of President Bush’s Southeast Asia agenda. Both resided under a maritime security conceptual umbrella. In 2003 and 2004, the Regional Maritime Security Initiative clumsily attempted to unify various projects to improve regional capacity and cooperation action against non-state maritime threats. After Malaysia and Indonesia loudly objected to the program by sharing their concerns regarding U.S. intent to violate their sovereignty, the name was swiftly taken out of use, though most of the programs under its umbrella continued. The practical outcomes of the initiatives were generally welcomed so long as they respected regional sensitivities.14
Japan become involved in international maritime security by mobilizing diplomatic and coast guard resources to aid Southeast Asia with the sea robbery problem of the early 2000s and the 2007 Basic Act on Ocean Policy laid out its national maritime security policy. The 2008 Mumbai terror attack served as a catalyst transforming Indian perceptions of maritime security similar to the American 9/11 experience. In 2009 the Guide to Australian Maritime Security Arrangements (GAMSA) was first published by Australia as an overarching document for various government agencies that would provide a comprehensive approach to a wide range of maritime threats under the broad umbrella of maritime security.15
Southeast Asia’s conceptualization of “maritime security” increasingly took on inter-state elements during the 2000s as relations with China became more antagonistic concerning the territorial disputes with some ASEAN members. For example, in 2009, diplomatic tensions escalated when China responded to a Malaysian-Vietnamese joint submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to extend their continental shelves beyond the standard two hundred nautical miles and in the wake of the USNS Impeccable incident. As state competition ramped up in the South China Sea, the United States increasingly used maritime security as a concept that had less to do with countering non-state actors and more as a euphemism for “holding the line” against rising Chinese naval power. Unlike the 2003-4 Regional Maritime Security Dialogue which had focused on terrorists and criminals, the Maritime Security Initiative at the 2015 Shangri-la Dialogue was focused on inter-state competition. The perceived euphemistic value was clearly reflected in the fact that Maritime Security Initiative was the diplomatic moniker applied to funds originally authorized by Congress as the “South China Sea Initiative.”16
In contrast to the extra-regional powers’ lean into great power competition, Southeast Asian states’ concerns have grown with respect to both state and non-state maritime threats. Socio-economic development also remains a central part of maritime security concepts. For example, while Chinese actions in the South China Sea have been of great concern, the domestic and internal pressures associated with IUU Fishing have also been essential drivers of regional maritime security action. Maritime security is institutionalized in the 2025 ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint, and it is increasingly discussed in organizations and meetings chartered under the ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community.