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.

Located at the crossroads of the Indo-Pacific, the Southeast Asian region incorporates some of the world’s most essential straits and sea lines of communication. The region also relies heavily on its maritime areas as a source of revenue, an important conveyer of intra-regional transportation, and a core element of its cultural heritage. While growing tensions in the South China Sea dominate much of the extra-regional attention, Southeast Asia’s wider maritime domain is a tremendously complex risk environment where many other threats lurk, and these pose dangers to a wide array of maritime stakeholding communities. Recognizing and parsing this complexity drives a need to better understand the broad array of new and enduring threats facing Southeast Asia today.

Southeast Asian security outlooks have long been at odds with the definitional divisions between traditional and non-traditional security found in Western perspectives. With the immediate difficulties of post-colonial state-building that took place in the context of emerging Cold War competition, Southeast Asian security policy reflected desires to focus on the development of national resilience. Relatively comprehensive, national resilience meant states would respond to the range of threats that could undermine the building of strong, centralized, and developed nations. In the maritime sector, early security challenges over this era included the waves of irregular migrants that sought to escape the conflicts in IndoChina, and cross-border trafficking of heroin from the Golden Triangle southward along the Western Maritime Route, down through the Andaman Sea and Malacca Straits.

As the Cold War came to end, the threats facing the region continued to evolve.  While some criminals used routes of global circulation to move illicit goods to and across borders, others sought to benefit from attacking this circulation directly. Piracy and armed robbery became more commonplace and more violent, centered around the increasingly busy Malacca Straits and Sulu/Celebes Seas. From only a handful of attacks per year in the Malacca Straits reported in the 1980s, this rose in the early 1990s, dipped a bit and then spiked in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. National and regional responses appeared slow at first.

Critically, this occurred in a context of concerns other agents – not motivated by profit – using the oceans for nefarious means. The scale of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, triggered global alarms, including in the Southeast Asian region. Contemporaneous attacks against ships such as Our Lady Mediatrix (Panguil Bay, Philippines, Feb 2000), Limburg (en route to Malaysia, October 2002), and SuperFerry 14 (Manila Bay, Feb 2004) demonstrated that the “war on terror” would necessitate a better consideration of the potential challenges that could take place on the ocean.  The international maritime community moved to shore up the vulnerabilities being exposed by these threats through strengthening national responses, launching regional cooperative arrangements (in Southeast Asia these included The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia and the Straits of Malacca Patrols), and using regulator instruments such as the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code to push a wider range of stakeholders to make more proactive contributions to the maritime security equation.

At the same time, old concerns were resurfacing with new traits such that tackling them remained problematic. The irregular movement of people continued to take place across Southeast Asia seas, but Indo-Chinese refugees were replaced by those fleeing conflict conflicts in Mindanao and Aceh. Southeast Asia also saw the arrival of those displaced by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, who passed through the region towards Australia. The movement of these refugees in particular demonstrated the ways in which Southeast Asia was an increasingly important crossroad for global flows.

Southeast Asia’s maritime threats vary greatly in nature, but they all harm users of the seas and seep profitability of licit maritime activities that take place upon it, therefore undermining resilience.  In the face of evolving threats, resilience no longer necessarily places the nation-state as the only security referent and there is a growing acceptance that other referents need to be protected for the seas to become truly secure spaces. The movement within ASEAN towards “people-centered, people-oriented communities” in the 2007 ASEAN charter, while sometimes criticized for its lack of action, has documented a shared recognition that people need to be protected. Extra-regional pressure is also adding to this process, as the norm of human security proliferates throughout the world.

It is increasingly clear that this complex web of issues needs to be considered holistically, due to the interlinkages between different threats facing the region. Forced labor, for example, has become an important facilitating crime for those engaged in IUU fishing. Without recognizing this human security dimension, any enforcement against IUU fishing vessel crews risks victimizing those who have been deceived or coerced to be on the vessels rather than those who drive the crime itself.

It is also increasingly clear that national and community resilience also requires the seas themselves to be healthy. Many communities depend on ocean health for their basic needs. More than 10 million people in Southeast Asia work in the fishery sector, and fish provide 60 percent of the region’s protein. The Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center estimates that Southeast Asia contributed approximately 52% of total fishery production globally in 2018. For other actors, including states, the seas provide more than their basic requirements—these actors are beginning to realize their potential as a source of prosperity. The oceans are increasingly exploited spaces in of themselves, providing resources and energy, while also facilitating trade and the globalized supply chains on which most regional states depend.

A global shift to promulgating blue economy strategies, leading to the coinage of the “blue acceleration,” is perhaps the starkest dynamic which highlights this. The ASEAN Leaders’ Declaration on the Blue Economy, for example, acknowledged that “that the ocean and seas are key drivers of economic growth and innovation.” On a national level, Indonesia’s (stalled) Global Maritime Fulcrum too placed the oceans as a source of national prosperity, highlighting the maritime economy and infrastructure as being a key pillar. This movement, however, also came with the recognition that such usage would need to be sustainable: environmental protection featured in the global maritime fulcrum, while the ASEAN declaration pointed to a “sustainable, resilient and inclusive use.” Anthropogenic activities that threaten the oceans occupy a difficult space, given some are illicit but others are technically legal albeit damaging, raising further questions on what threats should be focused upon.

Understanding and meeting these challenges would be complex in a region without cross-border tensions occupying the minds of policymakers, but these too feature as threats in Southeast Asia. Overlapping claims have previously led to significant intra-ASEAN tension (for example, concerning Ambalat between Indonesia and Malaysia), though this tension is relatively well-managed in most cases (for example, Malaysian and Singapore competing claims to Pedra Branca/Batu Puteh). Of greater concern is the South China Sea, which is becoming a key international battleground between both great power and the littoral states. As China intensifies its activities to solidify its maritime claims and the United States marshals its allies and partners to the defense of the rules-based maritime order, the risk of major interstate conflict is rapidly growing. The adoption of whole-of-nation approaches to prevent and, if necessary wage, such wars are having repercussions through all sectors of the maritime domain at the time the region grapples with a complex threat environment.

In the last decade or so, then, regional maritime security stakeholders have become relatively satisfied with their efforts to suppress maritime terrorism, piracy and armed robbery, while becoming concerned with new threats that can disrupt the resilience of people, communities, states, and the region as a whole. As some issues are tackled, they reveal new forms of insecurity. The new focus on areas such as climate change and cyber-insecurity show us that even if the region successfully tackles existing threats, others are likely to emerge. At the same time, it is clear that many issues are inter-linked, and tackling just one in isolation is not sufficient in addressing maritime security as a whole. With the evolution of both threats and engagement with the oceans in mind, maritime security becomes a process whereby lessons learnt dealing with some threats need to be factored into provision. There is a greater need, then, to understand the threats so the region can better prioritize and respond to them.

About Scott Edwards

Dr. Scott Edwards is a research associate on the Transnational Organised Crime at Sea project at the University of Bristol's School of Sociology, Politics, and International Studies. His research interests include maritime security, inter-state cooperative mechanisms for countering maritime security issues, the international relations of Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific, Malaysian politics, and Indonesian politics.

About John Bradford

John F. Bradford is the inaugural Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in Indonesia. He is also an adjunct senior fellow in the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His research focuses on Asian security with special attention given to maritime issues and cooperative affairs. He retired from the U.S. Navy with the rank of Commander.