This article is part of Evolving Threats to Southeast Asia’s Maritime Security, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

How has piracy/sea robbery evolved over the last 20 years?

Piracy has existed since ancient times, wherein pirates looted vessels carrying commodities. Today, piracy and armed robbery against ships (PAR) continues to pose threats to maritime trade.[1]

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Southeast Asia witnessed a surge in piracy and sea robbery incidents in Asia. Over 200 incidents per year were reported which prompted Asian countries to seek expanded frameworks for regional cooperation.[2] One incident that particularly stood out was the hijacking of the Japan-registered vessel, Alondra Rainbow on October 22, 1999. Within hours of departure from Kuala Tanjung, Indonesia for Port Miike, Japan, ten criminals armed with pistols and knives boarded the ship from a speed boat and seized command. On 29 Oct, the 17 crew were set adrift in an inflatable life raft. The Japan Coast Guard and Japan Ship Owners’ Association appealed to coastal states for assistance, and on November 13 the Indian Coast Guard and Indian Navy boarded the vessel, now renamed Mega Rama, and arrested the pirates. These events, coupled with the escalating situation of PAR in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS), led Japan to champion the deliberation of an agreement among the Asian countries to combat PAR in Asian waters.

Based on 15 years (2007-2021) data analysis of 1,822 incidents, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre (ISC) has identified some general patterns among incidents in Asia. The serious nature of incidents committed by organized criminal groups were of three types, which were dominant in different periods: (1) hijacking of tugboats and barges for resale (2009-2014) (2) theft of oil cargo from tankers (2011-2017), and (3) abduction of crew for ransom (2016-2020). With the arrest of many abductors, since 2020, no incident of crew abduction has been reported in Southeast Asia. In recent years, PAR incidents in Asia have been limited to petty theft. Most incidents in Asia were robberies which were opportunistic and non-confrontational in nature. In 80% of incidents the crew were not harmed. The remaining 20% mainly involved the crew being threatened, tied up, locked up in engine room, etc.

What are the primary governance tools that are being used in response to the piracy/sea robbery threat?

The rules, laws, and norms governing PAR in Southeast Asia are essentially the same as in other parts of the world in that most of the coastal states are parties to major international conventions such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the 1979 Hostages Convention, and Convention for the 2005 Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA Convention). Regional anti-PAR governance stands out for its cooperative arrangement designed to enhance enforcement capacity.

One of the earliest arrangements was the Malacca Straits Patrols which began in 2004. These have been expanded over time. Now four partners—Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand—ensure the security of the SOMS by organizing coordinated surface patrols, “Eyes-in-the-Sky” combined maritime air patrols, and the Intelligence Exchange Group.

On September 4, 2006, the Regional Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) came into force—the first regional government-to-government agreement to combat PAR and promote regional cooperation. Under the agreement, ReCAAP ISC, referred to as “the Centre” was established in Singapore. To date, 21 states (14 Asian countries, five European countries, Australia, and the United States) are Contracting Parties to ReCAAP. The ReCAAP agreement was established to address issues of piracy as defined in UNCLOS and armed robbery against ships as defined by the IMO.

The ReCAAP ISC remains committed to its mission of protecting crew, ships, and cargo from PAR incidents in Asia through information sharing, capacity building, and cooperative arrangements. As an inclusive international organization, the Centre engages government agencies, the shipping industry, and the maritime community toward achieving the common goal of eradicating the threat of PAR in Asia. The ReCAAP network consists of a spectrum of agencies which are the operational units dealing with incidents of PAR within their areas of responsibility, including coast guards, navies, and maritime authorities. Each agency must play its part to ensure that the waters in Asia are safe and secure for maritime trade and commerce, bringing economic growth for all in the region.

Engagement with the shipping industry includes conducting dialogue sessions, nautical forums. and anti-piracy conferences as well as the production of guides and posters for ships. Together with the shipping industry, the Singapore Information Fusion Centre (IFC) and the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), the ReCAAP ISC produced the Regional Guide 2 to Counter PAR in Asia to assist ship owners/operators/masters and crew to adopt measures to avoid, deter, or delay attacks, and prevent unauthorized boarding. To encourage reporting of incidents by ship master/crew, the Centre published a poster containing the contact details of Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) and ReCAAP Focal Points.

The establishment of ReCAAP ISC has facilitated operational linkages among the Contracting Parties and Focal Points for information sharing, incident reporting and response in an expeditious manner. Incident reporting is crucial to prevent attacks from becoming more aggressive as they allow enforcement agencies to swiftly respond.

To strengthen cooperation and response to kidnapping, robbery and other threat in the Sulu and Celebes Seas, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines established the Trilateral Maritime Patrols (TMP) in 2017. In 2018, the Global Maritime Crime Programme – United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (GMCP-UNODC) established a Contact Group focused on the same maritime area. This is a multi-stakeholder approach to bring together the law enforcement agencies, foreign missions, international organizations, academics, and private sector actors to achieve a comprehensive and shared understanding of maritime crime trends and responses in the Sulu and Celebes Seas and form a collaborative response to tackle the challenges.

What are the primary harms the piracy/sea robbery threat poses to regional stakeholders?

PAR attacks impact the well-being of and cause trauma for mariners. The mere potential of attacks creates stress and extends their watch hours/security reinforcement duties in their daily tasks. For the shipping industry, PAR disrupts sea trade and creates repercussions for supply chains. It also impacts insurance premiums and adds costs related to the implementation of preventive measures. When ships are advised to re-route, it results in longer voyages and greater fuel consumption, increasing overall costs. For states, any disruptions affect the economic situation and livelihood of their people and the impact is particularly dire for countries lacking the resources to respond to these challenges.

How has maritime awareness developed to reduce the threat of piracy/sea robbery?

Collection, dissemination, and usage of maritime awareness data remains a key pillar in the fight against PAR.  To adequately develop maritime awareness data, some states along with their navies, coast guards, and other law enforcement agencies use registrations and port data (arrival/departure times, sailing plans when shared, etc), electronic monitoring (radar, automatic information systems, etc), and patrols (aircraft and surface) to track shipping and rely primarily on victim reporting to identify vulnerable locations and build threat profiles.

More than twenty years ago, it became very clear that, given the transnational nature of shipping and the PAR criminals, international sharing of maritime awareness data would be critical to counter this threat.  In 1992, the International Maritime Bureau set up a Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur to gather and disseminate this data, but was limited by the fact that it was not tied to any of the states and relied completely on voluntary disclosures from the shipping community. When the PAR problem intensified around the turn of the century, the littoral states took steps to bridge this gap by launching the Malacca Straits Patrols. The coordinated patrols were not so much about intercepting pirates at sea, but to ensure the patrols were coordinated to maximize deterrence and information collection.  The information sharing protocols were perhaps more important than the patrols themselves.

The launch of ReCAAP in 2006 was the next major step forward in maritime data sharing in support of the fight against PAR.  ReCAAP ISC provides the maritime community with the latest information and analysis by issuing incident alerts and updated reports. By highlighting the modus operandi of the perpetrators, severity level of incidents and event locations, crews can exercise vigilance and authorities can prudently employ resources. The Centre increases its situational awareness with information from external sources, including the Singapore IFC (a navy-oriented international center hosted in Singapore since 2009) that reports on other maritime crimes, IMO reports via the Global Integrated Shipping Information System, victim ship reports to International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Center and information from overt sources. The ReCAAP ISC also employs data analysis to provide visualization of patterns and trends of past incidents and establish correlations of factors leading to the incidents. To provide more in-depth analysis, the ISC is analyzing the external factors which might have linkages to PAR incidents. These factors include weather conditions, moon phases, economic drivers, and the prices of the commodities commonly targeted by perpetrators. The analysis is aimed at providing a better understanding of the situation in different parts of Asian waters and developing more targeted responses.

What additional context is necessary to understand the maritime security challenges associated with piracy/sea robbery threat?

Some of the challenges faced in addressing the threat of PAR by the countries in Southeast Asia include domestic priorities, prevailing illegal maritime activities that strain available enforcement resources, the presence of fishing boats in proximity of ports/anchorages that provide cover for perpetrators to board ships anchored in the area, lack of employment opportunities, and an absence of coastal community programs which serve as the first line of defense. No single agency or country on its own is able to suppress the threat of PAR. Therefore, the fight against PAR is a shared responsibility that requires collaboration and cooperation among all maritime stakeholders including states and the shipping industry.

[1] Definition of piracy is in accordance with Article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Definition of armed robbery against ships is in accordance with the Code of Practice for the Investigation of Crimes of Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) Assembly Resolution A.1025 (26).

[2] ICC International Maritime Bureau, Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships Annual Report (1 January – 31 December 2005)

About Lee Yin Mui

Lee Yin Mui is the Assistant Director for Research at the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia Information Sharing Centre (ReCAAP ISC). She conducts data analysis of incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia and has published her findings in articles, guidebooks, posters for the shipping industry, and periodic reports.