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The audacity of hype: Why international cooperation will easily defeat piracy in Southeast Asia

The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.

Maritime piracy -- any non-state attack on another vessel, crew or cargo that could impede cargo delivery or crew safety -- is making news again as an "accelerating" problem in the Southeast Asian Straits of Malacca and a contained issue in East Africa off the coast of Somalia. 

This is one of those times when the news is not quite as apocalyptic as the reports would have you believe. There are three reasons for this.

One, the Straits of Malacca are not the new Somalia: Somalia was the new Straits of Malacca. The Straits are a crowded, shallow and narrow 550-mile waterway near Indonesia and Malaysia through which most of the world's maritime trade traverses. Because jagged coastline and crowded sea lines slow maritime traffic to a crawl, the vessels within are easy prey for pirates-- and always have been.

Two, because of the historical correlation of the Straits with pirates, Southeast Asian states have developed an international policing regime that has already successfully reduced the levels of piracy. Using data from the Anti-shipping Activity Messages (ASAM), which tracks reports of piracy events from across the globe and compiles detailed descriptions to create a unified database of piracy activities based on geographic locations and timing, START researchers found there were fewer recorded piracy events in 2014 than there were in 2000, the tail end of historically high piracy levels in Asia. In fact, the three states most affected by Malacca piracy between 2000 and 2014 -- Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia -- were able to decrease the total number of attacks over time. As a proportion of the decreased piracy, it was Singapore that made the most relative progress, almost completely eradicating pirate operations in its waters by 2012.

Three, the reason why Southeast Asian countries so successfully reduced piracy is because non‐state actor threats, such as piracy, smuggling and maritime terrorism, are issues that negatively affect the security and economic interests of many regional states, without putting them in direct conflict with one another. Counter-piracy cooperation in Asia began in the 1990s between Japan and China—two countries with a very contentious relationship—through Chinese law enforcement and Japan’s Maritime Safety Agency, which was renamed to Japan Coast Guard in 2000. The success in reducing the amount of piracy Japan directly faced spurred additional attempts at multilateral counter-piracy cooperation through a variety of organizations, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Asia–Europe Meeting, the International Maritime Organization and its Maritime Safety Committee and the International Maritime Bureau.

The zenith of counter-piracy cooperation in the region is the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), which covers parts of the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, the Straits of Malacca, Gulf of Thailand, South China Sea, Sulu Sea, Philippine Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan. ReCAAP began in 2004 with eight ASEAN members and has expanded to 19 signatories, including the China, Japan, and the United Kingdom. Despite being a part of ASEAN, neither Malaysia nor Indonesia are signatory states; Malaysia will not join ReCAAP as long as the agreement’s hub is in Singapore whereas Indonesia objection’s stem from its concerns about maintaining its sovereignty. The cornerstone of ReCAAP’s success as a cooperative framework is the Information Network System (IFN), a 24-hour, web-based system that enables the collection, analysis and distribution of piracy information among ReCAAP member countries through the Information Sharing Center (ISC). The IFN and ISC improves the functionality of multilateral counter-piracy operations considerably; if a pirate vessel exits the maritime jurisdiction of a ReCAAP member state, the ISC notifies the nearest relevant authority in a member state to continue the pursuit. Despite not being members of ReCAAP, both Indonesia and Malaysia share information with the ISC.

In conclusion, far from being an emergent threat, the security architecture of Southeast Asia is more than equipped to handle and prevent additional piracy operations. Moreover, the specter of piracy brings even committed rivals into significant, deep and successful international cooperation on matters of security.

John Stevenson is a lead investigator and senior researcher on the Strategic Multilayer Assesment (SMA) Projects of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). John completed his Ph.D. (2014) and M.A. (2007) in Political Science at the University of Chicago, and an A.B. in Government from Dartmouth College in 2005. Having a passion for teaching and methodology, John teaches in START's online terrorism graduate certificate, and, with various START colleagues, designs and delivers training on qualitative and quantitative data analysis for national security professionals.

Garett Tippin is a U.S. Army Veteran with more than eight years of Military and Civilian Operations Management and Intelligence and Security Management experience. He has training and experience in HUMINT and Human Terrain Analysis, Atmospherics Analysis, Detainee Operations, C-IED and C-RAM Analysis, All-Source Analysis and Intelligence Briefings. He has military operations and intelligence analyst experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, the U.A.E., Malaysia and Thailand.



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