Southeast Asia’s maritime security environment is growing more complex. States are improving their capacity, cooperation is at an all-time high, and a broadening set of stakeholders are contributing to the provision of maritime security. These changes have helped roll back some threats, while others seem to have become more dangerous. New threats are emerging while longstanding ones are evolving. Recognizing that understanding how the region’s maritime threats are evolving is an academic puzzle with real-world practical implications in Southeast Asia, the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Maritime Security Programme convened a roundtable of experts to take stock of regional maritime security definitions.

The workshop built directly on two previous events. The first studied the varied conceptualizations of maritime security by the key Southeast Asian maritime states and their extra-regional partners. The second investigated the evolving role of the region’s maritime security stakeholding communities. As the third event in this series, this roundtable-style workshop gathered 13 experts (two from RSIS and 11 external) to discuss the nature of maritime security threats in Southeast Asia. Each expert answered the same set of questions from the perspective of a threat area in which they hold expertise:

  • How has the threat evolved over the last 20 years?
  • What are the primary governance tools that are being used in response to the threat?
  • What are the primary harms the threat poses to regional stakeholders?
  • How has maritime awareness developed to reduce the threat?
  • What additional context is necessary to understand the maritime security challenges associated with the threat?

Evaluation of each of 12 different threats and two framing analyses were written by the participants. These pieces are available in AMTI’s analysis section and listed below:

The Evolving Nature of Southeast Asia’s Maritime Security Threats by John Bradford and Scott Edwards

Interstate Disputes by Vu Hai Dang

Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing by Asmiati Malik

Climate-induced Disasters by Lina Gong

Environmental Crimes by Deo Florence L. Onda

Occupational Health and Safety by Mary Ann Palma-Robles

Forced Labor by Sallie Yea

Cyber-Attacks by Chan Yan Jau

Piracy and Armed Robbery by Lee Yin Mui

Navigation Hazards by Cheryl Rita Kaur

Maritime Refugees by Antje Missbach

Illicit Maritime Drug Trafficking by Asyura Salleh

Maritime Terrorism by Jennifer Santiago Oreta

Southeast Asia’s Maritime Security Challenges: An Evolving Tapestry by Scott Edwards and John Bradford

Project Overview

On August 4, 2022, the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Maritime Security Programme hosted a workshop on the evolving threats to Southeast Asia’s maritime security. The workshop assembled experts from across Southeast Asia and beyond the region to take stock of about a dozen contemporary maritime challenges. These include interstate disputes; terrorism; piracy and sea robbery; illegal, unreported, and regulated (IUU) fishing; forced labor; human trafficking; illicit drug trafficking; environmental crime; seafarer health and safety; climate-induced disasters; navigation hazards; and cyber-attacks.

The discussion hinged on examining the current state of the security situation within Southeast Asia’s maritime areas. To explore those issues, the expert panelists shared their assessments regarding how these threats have evolved over the last twenty years and evaluated the corresponding responses that have been put in place. Other core questions dealt with the governance tools being used to respond to various threats, the harms imposed by the various threats, and the role of maritime domain awareness in relation to those threats.

While the workshop discovered that most regional maritime security threats have been reduced by state action, initial successes often turn up another layer of problems. For example, efforts to tackle IUU fishing challenges have highlighted the severity of the region’s forced labor problem. Shortfalls in the comprehensive regional cooperation framework were considered as one of the main impediments in managing many of the maritime threats that manifest outside of or across the exclusive economic zones of the coastal states. In contrast, interstate competition can exacerbate threats such as those related to irregular migration or, as in the case of territorial disputes, be the primary driver of security challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed additional strains on the already limited capacity to monitor, enforce, and tackle these challenges effectively, while economic conditions are pushing some individuals to engage in criminal activity and negatively impacting community resilience. As most of these maritime threats are transnational in nature, regional countries would need to enhance existing cooperative mechanisms and collectively find practical solutions at the regional level.