Maritime Piracy in South-East Asia: A Regional Perspective


A number of key transportation routes are concentrated in the maritime space of SEA, passing primarily through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea (hereinafter – SCS). The leading countries of the region are actively involved in the process of the world division of labor and world trade, therefore ensuring the safety of maritime navigation is their vital priority. This task is of particular relevance for island and archipelagic states, such as Singapore, which is a global economic hub. In addition, the interests of extra-regional actors also depend on maritime security in SEA. In particular, China’s plans to create a “Maritime Silk Road” – one of the core elements of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Japan’s energy security is largely ensured by uninterrupted supplies of hydrocarbons through Southeast Asian shipping lanes. Petroleum products from the Persian Gulf countries are also transported to China and the Republic of Korea mainly through the Strait of Malacca. Despite the presence of a wide range of states whose interests are related to the stable functioning of the sea transportation arteries of SEA, including states with serious naval capabilities, one of the serious threats to security – maritime piracy and maritime terrorism – remains relevant here.

In the period of 2013-2016, there were a series of incidents related to the hijacking of oil tankers to sell their cargo on black markets. For example, according to the Piracy Reporting Center of the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau, operating since 1992 in Kuala Lumpur, there were 108 maritime piracy attacks in 2015, mostly on small tankers. This can largely be attributed to the use of slow-moving oil tankers with small crews by shipping companies in the face of oil price corrections. The attacks were well organized, with pirate groups possessing insider information about the ships’ routes, the nature of their cargo, and so on. Of particular concern was a series of attacks on ships to ransom their crews in 2016 by militants of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group. The ransoms received for hostages were likely used to finance terrorist activities. An earlier act of maritime terrorism involving the group took place in 2004, when a bomb destroyed a ship in Manila Bay, killing 116 people. The Sulu Sea, where the hostage-taking occurred, is a major regional hotspot for smuggling, arms and drug trafficking. In 2017, while the number of attacks on merchant ships in Asia increased by 16% (101 incidents compared to 87 in 2016), the number of attacks by maritime pirates on ships for resale or hijacking in waters near the Philippines, the SCS, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore increased, while the number of kidnappings of ship crews for ransom in the Sulu Sea decreased. While 2016 saw the highest number of violent attacks on merchant ships, the number of such attacks declined sharply in 2017 (15 incidents – 2016, 6 attacks – 2017). In general, however, pirates in SEA try not to use firearms and other weapons during attacks. In 2014, four seafarers died at the hands of pirates, three of them in the SEA. Attacks on merchant ships were predominantly at anchorages or berths (68%).

The specifics of maritime pirates’ activities are usually related to the following essential conditions. The seizure of ships for resale or the seizure of cargoes transported by them does not require a significant amount of time. It takes a few hours to repaint a ship and a few days to sell a ship or cargo. However, the profits from such activities require access to the relevant infrastructure. Hijacked vessels must be re-registered, usually at a port and with the involvement of the relevant officials, often corrupt but often simply negligent. In addition, pirates must be given access to various trading platforms, including electronic ones, in order to quickly sell large volumes of hijacked cargo. By contrast, hostage-taking for ransom does not require access to economic infrastructure, but it does require a specific political environment – a lack of willingness or capacity on the part of local authorities to deal with such crimes. In addition, negotiating a ransom demands a significant amount of time, during which time determined police officials from higher bureaucratic echelons, as well as law enforcement officials from other states, may intervene.