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Southeast Asia

Part 3: Strategies for maritime security
By Eric Koo

See also:
Part 1: Southeast Asia's modern-day pirates
Part 2: Tides of terror lap Southeast Asia

SINGAPORE - Traditionally, each state that lays claim to coastal waters also maintains adequate naval forces, which the government uses to meet patrolling requirements as well as the occasional naval escort needed for certain important shipping. This is the typical security policy of states in the post-colonial era, states that have neither the capabilities nor the intentions of developing naval fleets beyond the scope of simple self-defense.

Maritime terrorism and modern piracy, however, tend not to recognize borders and exploit the open seas to evade capture. This poses a problem for those pursuing pirates or suspected terrorist groups, as state navies and maritime security forces must always consider the consequences of transgressing into a neighboring state's waters, leading to unwanted diplomatic repercussions.

Sovereignty has always been a touchy issue in diplomatic affairs within the context of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Thus the issue of border violations by the intrusion of naval ships into another nation's territorial waters is of serious concern.

It would be ideal if the policing of Southeast Asian waters were under the control of a centralized, neutral body with considerable naval capabilities such as the United Nations. But be that as it may, the onus of preserving the safety of ships in ASEAN waters falls on to regional players, particularly Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, all of which border the vital Malacca Strait waterway.

The three countries' launch in July of coordinated patrols to protect the pirate-infested strait is an excellent start in tackling the dual problems of maritime terrorism and piracy. The publicity surrounding the announcement of these sea patrols may in fact cause pirates to lie low for the moment. This does not mean, however, that these maritime threats have been eradicated, merely that they remain dormant (see Malacca Strait: Target for terror, August 11).

As time goes by without an actual crisis taking place, questions of joint cooperation, sovereignty and other national interests taking precedence may lead again to dissent and squabbling among regional partners. This is counter-productive in the long run. One way to prevent such diplomatic rows from taking place is to construct long-term agreements of joint cooperation and maritime policing in the form of a written resolution, with powerful, neutral third parties such as Australia, China or the United States as witnesses. This would demonstrate an unwavering commitment by Southeast Asian partners to the policy of joint patrolling.

Economic measures
As discussed earlier, combating piracy and maritime terrorism does not warrant large naval vessels more suitably equipped for war. Speed and detection are of essence in maritime security patrolling. State navies should seek to acquire fast gunboats or patrol-boat-class ships, with helicopter platforms for long-range patrols and reconnaissance. Helicopters are extremely useful in such low-intensity conflicts, whether on land or at sea, with their ability to fly at low heights and to transport personnel for various functional purposes. The demonstration by Malaysian Special Forces of rappelling from a hovering helicopter on to a hijacked ship is a good example of a "soft" naval tactic employed when direct annihilation of the target ship is impossible because of hostages.

In sum, speed and the capability of pursuit should be given priority over firepower when allocating state resources for naval assets.

Political measures
Among the Southeast Asian countries that border the sea, Singapore ultimately has little direct influence on the maritime policies of its neighbors. The coastal waters around Singapore are areas that pirates avoid because of the close proximity of maritime security bases. Indeed, secret hideouts or pirate bases would probably be best selected from deserted islands or islets in Indonesian or Philippine waters; the Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic militant group in the Philippines, has well-known strongholds on Jolo and Basilan islands. As such, eradicating piracy and possible maritime terrorists in ASEAN waters requires enlisting the long-term aid and cooperation of neighboring states.

For Singapore, diplomatic skill and means are required to win the trust and cooperation of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to gain a bigger role in maritime patrolling. High- and mid-level negotiations must take place in which Singaporean representatives can convince other parties that practical anti-piracy efforts sometimes entail inevitable intrusion into waters within other nations' sovereignty.

An offer of help can also be made to the new nation of East Timor in securing and establishing a naval base there, thus increasing the range of available patrols using the port-network concept.

Naval strategies
Putting a stop to piracy, maritime terrorism and smuggling doesn't require much concern with the possession of naval firepower needed to overcome these antagonists physically. Modern security forces, especially at sea, have far more armed might than pirates or maritime terrorists. Unlike conventional naval warfare, the tactical goals of maritime security forces are not to sink a pirate or terrorist vessel, but to capture suspects involved in the operation as well as any evidence that may lead to a further unraveling of the criminal or terrorist network.

And unlike the case of their land counterparts, strategic naval theory does not allow for the waging of guerrilla tactics at sea. Ambush at sea, although not impossible, is much more difficult for weaker naval forces to stage on stronger ones. Maritime clashes are in essence straightforward shooting matches between vessels.

However, the hideouts and bases of pirates are another matter. Southeast Asian seas are dotted with numerous islets and islands with hidden alcoves, giving hidden shelter to pirate ships or maritime terrorists. Thus the problems faced by maritime security forces in fighting piracy and maritime terrorism lie not in firepower but rather in correct target identification and the jockeying of human resources to avoid disruption of maritime commerce. An effective and efficient intelligence and security coordination network set up between nations providing the naval muscle for patrolling a given ocean zone therefore is vital.

Submarines should not be deployed for naval patrolling, as they may prove to be more of a liability than an asset. Because a submarine's tactical advantage lies in its ability to travel out of sight underwater, its activities are regarded most often as being suspect of espionage. Since any cooperative effort among the Southeast Asian nations requires trust and openly implemented measures, the use of submarines becomes irrelevant in this context.

It is not enough to limit maritime security to only brown-water security patrols. The guarding of sea straits by maritime security forces is merely the first step in the war against piracy and maritime terrorism. The recent alliance in maritime cooperation among Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia may cause pirates to lie low for the moment, but vigilance must be maintained over long periods of inactivity. Maritime security matters have a more international hue when compared with land-based security affairs. As such, the impact and application of naval activity even outside Southeast Asia are of interest. For a start, the possibility of extending the range of patrol area covered by Singapore could be seriously considered.

The British and the Dutch who colonized much of Southeast Asia never did eliminate completely the problem of piracy during the late 19th century. This was due in part to the inevitable limitations caused by dispersed attention to overseas colonies with only limited naval assets.

The contemporary situation is more favorable, since Southeast Asian navies need only be concerned with patrolling within the seas of the region. The problems that remain concern proper diplomatic arrangements and the coordination of all available naval assets from each nation to ensure optimum and effective deployment.

Future threats at sea in the context of Southeast Asian countries will not likely come from other conventional navies from other states, although that potential remains. The more realistic threat arises from non-state actors such as pirates and maritime terrorists. Often, the nature of sea operations increases the likelihood of an alliance between sea criminals, or pirates and terrorism, much more than in the case of their land-based counterparts.

Piracy and maritime terrorism are forms of asymmetrical warfare that non-state actors use as instruments in disrupting the peace and security of states. It is therefore necessary for navies to revamp and find new definitions for their role in the modern security context.

This is the final article in this series.

Eric Koo has a bachelor's degree in materials engineering and a master's degree of science in strategic studies from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He is currently writing commentary and analysis articles about international events, security issues and terrorism for newspapers.

(Copyright 2004 Eric Koo.)

Oct 21, 2004
Asia Times Online Community

Straits security reflects hazy dividing line
(Jul 14, '04)

Turmoil over anti-terrorism standards for ports (Jun 26, '04)

Divisions over terror threat in Malacca Straits
(Jun 16, '04)


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