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.
Southeast Asia’s maritime security landscape is steadily evolving. Earlier in 2022, an RSIS study showed that the region’s maritime stakeholders are increasingly aware of their interconnectivity and taking on new roles such that there is no longer a clear division between security users and providers. An August 2022 workshop similarly found that there is increasing awareness regarding the interwoven nature of the region’s maritime security threats. While stakeholder action has reduced the risk and harms associated with some threats, the problems have not been eliminated and it has become progressively clear that no threat can be completely eliminated so long as there are disorderly activities in the region’s seas. Unfortunately, such disorderly activities remain abundant. Some pose rapidly growing threats to the region’s maritime security, while others are emerging as new priorities to be addressed by Southeast Asia’s governments and other essential maritime stakeholders. The evolving nature of Southeast Asia’s maritime security threats can be evaluated by categorizing specific threats as improving, intensifying, and emerging.
Improving threats are those where stakeholder action has reduced the harms and dangers posed to the maritime community. For example, piracy and armed robbery (PAR) are less of a problem in Southeast Asia than they were fifteen years ago. In absolute numbers, the rate of PAR incidents has gone down, but, more significantly, in recent years the most dangerous forms of PAR – hijackings, kidnapping, and wholesale cargo theft – have not been recorded, and the attacks have been limited to petty theft.
Maritime terrorism is another example of an improving threat. In the decades since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, Southeast Asian states have made notable achievements in counterterrorism. However, a multidimensional, complex and multifaceted terrorist threat persists in the maritime domain, and extremist groups operating in the southern Philippines are the organizations with the greatest capacity to conduct maritime attacks in Southeast Asia.
Improved infrastructure and shipboard systems have also reduced the threats posed by navigation hazards in Southeast Asia, but the challenges have not been eliminated. For example, more than 250 shipping incidents occurred between 2007 – 2017 in the busy South China. In the regions’ busiest chokepoint, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, more than one thousand cases have occurred over the past twenty-five years, but the rate and severity of these has declined. In contrast in the late twentieth century, major oil and hazardous substance spills have become relatively rare. However, the positive trends may not continue. As maritime traffic increases, Southeast Asia’s sea lanes will become more congested and navigation and piloting accidents, therefore, more frequent. One study by researchers at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia calculates that traffic may surpass the SOMS safe carrying capacity as early as 2024. This illustrates how, in the dynamic region maritime environment, changes in only one or two variables can quickly reverse progress.
Intensifying threats are those that have been longstanding in Southeast Asia but have become more harmful to good order at sea and pose greater risks to regional security. These include interstate disputes, issues conducted with maritime refugees, illicit drug trafficking, environmental crime, and climate-induced disasters.
Whereas most interstate maritime disputes in Southeast Asia are being resolved or managed, competition in the South China Sea is clearly becoming more intense. Though there have not been repeats of the naval clashes of the 1970-90s, states are increasing their security presence in contested waters, violence involving fishermen and coast guard units has become more frequent, and the likelihood that accidents or miscalculations could spark a larger conflict is growing.
State behavior is also at the heart of issues conducted with maritime refugees as the recent wave of individuals who have been fleeing persecution by the governing powers in Myanmar. The refugees themselves pose little, arguably no threat, and, from their perspective, a state is the primary threat. The fact that the migrants are not being attacked by armed robbers at sea, as were the refugees leaving Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s and 1980s, is a sign of improved regional maritime security. However, the large-scale irregular population movements strain the resources of the recipient states and leaves the migrants vulnerable to further exploitation by criminal elements.
A set of criminal actors who are thriving are illicit drug traffickers. Southeast Asia is booming as a producer, consumer, and conveyer of illicit drugs, and the landscape is quickly evolving. When states responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by closing borders and limiting international travel, traffickers adapted by shifting volume away from land crossing to maritime routes. This illustrates how maritime security threats quickly adapt to evolving conditions.
Environmental crimes have been a long-standing regional maritime security threat. While enforcement activities may be slowing the rate of destructive activities in some areas, ecological damage continues at a rate that outpaces recovery. As a result, the cumulative impacts are snowballing and many facets of maritime ecosystems are on the verge of collapse. The dynamic surrounding environmental crimes perhaps most clearly illustrate the interlinked nature of Southeast Asia’s maritime security threats. Interstate disputes prevent law enforcement activities, and, as is the case with the construction of artificial islands in the South China Seas and protection of fishing in disputed water, encourage some states to subsidize environmental destruction. In turn, the destruction creates economic conditions that encourage criminal activity and exacerbate the harms inflicted on maritime communities.
This synergetic damage is clearly seen in the threat of climate-induced disasters. Extreme weather events have become more common and more intense in Southeast Asia and elites have come to view these as one of the region’s top challenges. Furthermore, environmental damage multiplies the impact of natural disasters. This was clearly seen in 2018 when an earthquake and tsunami in central Sulawesi caused more than 4000 deaths and $1.3 in damage because the impacts were magnified by pre-existing erosion, slope failures, and soil liquefication.
Emerging maritime security threats are those against which Southeast Asian stakeholders are increasingly focusing attention and resources even though the threat has not definitively grown in terms of the immediate risks it poses. This is generally because the harms and dangers associated with the threats are becoming more apparent or otherwise gaining higher priority among policy focus areas. These include IUU fishing, forced labor, cyber-attacks, and seafarer occupational health and safety.
IUU fishing is nothing new in the region and states are putting greater priority into responses as they seek to protect their jurisdictional rates, improve the economic benefits fishing delivers to their nation, and enable the sustainability of fish stocks. Data suggest that these state actions are reducing the economic losses related to IUU fishing, but stakeholders are increasingly aware of how IUU fishing activities complement other threats such as the trafficking of drugs and people, forced labor, environmental crimes and interstate disputes. In fact, if fishing regulation enforcement continues to improve while fish stocks decline, the mariners and craft may turn to more troubling activities in order to ensure profits. Already economic pressures seem to be pushing fishers to lower costs by relying on forced labor or shifting to illicit activities such as smuggling.
Economic pressure and the drive for profits are also the root cause of maritime occupational health and safety problems. Ships are inherently risky environments but a lack of investment in safety equipment and the overworking of crew exasperates the problem. When border closures interrupted crew changes during the COVID-19 pandemic many seafarers were forced to extend their work periods, this dynamic both exacerbated and highlighted the problem. Given the role of Southeast Asia as a global maritime crossroads and a major supplier of seafarers, the safety of the crews and the knock-on effects of inappropriate work conditions such as collisions and spills have an immediate impact on the regional well-being. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore and the Philippines were leaders in creating safe opportunities for crew swaps while protecting populations from viral spread. Heightened awareness may encourage flag state enforcement of shipboard conditions and the elevation of training and regulation standards in the labour-producing countries.
Among maritime stakeholders, cyber-attacks may be the most talked about emerging threat. These pose rapidly expanding risks in terms of disrupting shipping operations and endangering safety at sea. Although there have not been any major attacks thus far in Southeast Asia, the potential for nation-state hackers, cyber-criminals, and criminal organizations to do grave harm is quite clear. Beyond Southeast Asia, cyber-attacks have already comprised port security systems to enable illicit drug trafficking, and a global shipping company announced losses of $300 million after a 2017 cyberattack paralyzed its operations. As maritime industries and regulators digitalize, vulnerabilities to cyber-attacks are growing to include all stakeholders. Cyber-attacks will become enabling tools for those individuals and organizations posing the full range of maritime security threats.
As maritime security threats become more complex and more interwoven it has become increasingly problematic to consider any specific threat without also taking in the wider tapestry which is the maritime system. This is particularly true since not all maritime stakeholders view various threats with equal concerns. In fact, while traditional security analysis focuses on the risk and harms threat pose to states, some regional stakeholders see state action as counterproductive or even a root cause. This can be seen as states promote unsustainable fishing and environmental damages as a part of the sovereignty concerns or actions against their own populations trigger the movement of refugees. Therefore, when examining maritime threats, it is important to immediately ask the caveating questions, “threat to who or what?”
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 “The State of Southeast Asia 2022: Survey Report” (Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2022), https://www.iseas.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/The-State-of-SEA-2022_FA_Digital_FINAL.pdf.
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