Piracy and sea robberies (PSR) are expected to increase in Southeast Asia in the second half of 2022 owing to economic impacts resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, per a recent report by a think tank that is Singapore government affiliated.
The 100km Singapore Strait is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. It is the most notorious PSR black spot. The number of attacks there has increased by leaps and bounds since the end of 2019, per a report shared by author Ian Storey, a senior fellow associated with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
About 36 incidents were reported in Southeast Asia in the first six months of this year, compared to the 35 attacks observed during the same phase in 2021 and 47 back in 2020, per a piracy information group named ReCAAP-ISC.
The Singapore Strait, where more than 100,000 vessels loaded with billions of US dollars in goods and commodities pass by every year, observed 27 incidents within the first six months of 2022, all in Indonesian waters. The number marked was up from 20 during the same period of 2021.
From 2019 to 2021, most incidents took place in the Traffic Separation Scheme’s eastern sector, in waters of Indonesia in the Riau Islands, including Batam and Bintan, reflected to the data from ReCAAP-ISC.
The attacks, mostly nonviolent and low-level theft or robbery, were conducted against larger vessels like oil tankers, bulk carriers, and even general cargo vessels, mainly – by gangs comprising three to five individuals, typically with knives.
ReCAAP also reflected 49 Singapore Strait cases in 2021, accounting for 60% of attacks in Asia. This reportedly increased from 34 cases in the Singapore Strait in 2020.
Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia are responsible for the safety and security in their respective territorial waters that form the strait.
Several reasons may cause a sudden surge in attacks in the Singapore Strait over the years. Storey noted that the economic issues brought about by the ongoing pandemic could be one, though not in 2019.
The Singapore-based Information Fusion Centre said that unfavourable and poor weather conditions did not let the fishermen go to sea. This could also have accounted for the incidents in the fourth quarter of 2021, 23 of 49 that year, informs Storey.
He also pointed toward the start of year-end festivities, which may have prompted the locals to turn to petty crimes to supplement incomes.
Rising tensions between China and Indonesia over the South China Sea accounted for the increase in attacks.
The claims of China in the South China Sea are reportedly represented by its “nine-dash line”, a claim that overlaps with the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Indonesia around the Natuna Islands.
A ruling in 2016 done by a Hague tribunal had a massive impact on the territorial claims of Beijing concerning the South China Sea. It said that the case of Beijing did not have a legal basis and was in contravention of an international maritime convention.
To enforce the claims, Beijing raised the number of China-flagged fishing vessels in the area in early 2020 and late 2019.
The government of Indonesia responded by rejecting unlawful claims put forward by China and its increased military presence surrounding the Natunas by the redeployment of warships from various areas of the archipelago that also included the strait.
Per IMB-PRC, PSR incidents ceased in 2021 off the Natunas, Storey mentioned.
Southeast Asia’s anti-piracy attempts
Robberies at sea have accounted for most PSR cases in Southeast Asia. These include actual and attempted attacks that occur within the 12 nm territorial sea limit of any coastal state.
Regional coastguards and law enforcement institutions have reportedly strengthened their security in ports along with anchorages. This has reduced robbery in some of the major ports of Southeast Asia.
Per the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre based in Kuala Lumpur, incidents reduced from 43 in 2017 to about 25 in 2019. In 2020, it was 26 and nine last year.
The number of incidents in ports of Malaysia and Vietnam also dropped in 2020 and 2021.
Indonesia, especially, has been significantly successful in lowering the cases of sea robberies. Following its 2014 Safe Anchorage program, the Indonesian marine police reportedly hiked the patrols in 10 ports. The program has contributed to a decline in incidents in waters of Indonesia outside Singapore Strait.
But attacks in Manila were on the rise during the Covid-19 pandemic owing to the significant number of vessels anchoring in the port. The Philippine Coast Guard has reportedly stepped up the harbour patrols and made some arrests.
References: SCMP, Bangkok Post, News Track