Southeast Asia is often described as a “blue continent.” From a strategic point of view, this relationship to the sea can be understood through an exploration of the numerous issues linked to the security of the Malacca Strait. In this emblematic corridor, the security and fluidity of merchant shipping are crucial for global economies. Around the year 2000, the growing threat of piracy and armed robbery incited regional actors such as ASEAN and extra-regional actors such as Japan and India to develop unprecedented collaborative mechanisms focused on coordinated patrols and maritime information sharing. One of these efforts, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against ships in Asia (RECAAP), signed in 2006, can be seen as an interesting experiment. As they celebrate their fifteenth anniversary in 2021, RECAAP and the maritime Information Sharing Centre (ISC) that embodies it, both located in Singapore, are now recognized and respected contributors to maritime governance in Asia.
This article explores the nature of these successive efforts, characterized by their consensual approach to eradicating piracy and armed robbery at sea, and their transnational reach. RECAAP has led to a shared vision and a multilateral framework for the maritime security and safety of the region. Indeed, RECAAP represents more than a technical and operational cooperation agreement, but is based on the construction of shared maritime situational awareness in Southeast Asia. Above all, the agreement reflects the political will to share information in pursuit of better regional maritime domain awareness among all its “users.” Hence, RECAAP has contributed to the emergence of a wide maritime community that goes well beyond Southeast Asia and ASEAN and can be considered a model of maritime governance. This multilateral identity explains, among other things, the interest the European Union and its Member States have in seeking greater cooperation with the organization.
THE PIRACY CHALLENGES AND THE QUEST FOR A LOCAL SOLUTION
The first Southeast Asian attempts to address the growing piracy and armed robbery phenomena were not convincing and fostered an image of countries prioritizing their sense of sovereignty over the safety of their citizens and the users of the Malacca Strait. However, as the economic impacts of shared maritime security challenges became increasingly clear, momentum began to build for more cooperative responses.
According to the latest data from the International Maritime Bureau, or IMB, maritime piracy and armed robbery remains a significant security issue for a great number of countries. In 2019, 162 piracy and armed robbery incidents were identified around the world. Even if these have declined globally, Asia remains among the most sensitive regions for maritime navigation, along with West Africa (primarily Nigeria). In 2019, 48 percent of worldwide attacks were reported in Southeast Asia. The analyses of the IMB and the RECAAP Information Sharing Centre agree that the most dangerous area in Southeast Asia remains the Singapore Strait, with 31 incidents of piracy and armed robbery occurring in the Traffic Separation Scheme area.
Approximately 30 percent of worldwide shipping traffic, as well as a significant portion of the energy flows from the Middle East to China and Japan, travels through this critical maritime choke point annually. As such, piracy and armed robbery constitutes an international security issue which impacts both littoral states within the region and maritime nations the world over, necessitating a collaborative, multilateral response.
Insufficient National Means
Countries utilize several tools to combat maritime piracy and armed robbery, foremost of which is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its article 101, which addresses piracy. Its legal provisions have been reinforced by the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation of 1988 (SUA, Rome Convention). Individual measures left to the discretion of each country can be added. Since 2000, Southeast Asian coastal countries have reinforced and modernized their maritime administrations, naval forces, and coast guards in charge of combating piracy and armed robbery at sea. Some have conducted large-scale military operations; Indonesia, for example, has mobilized security forces in the province of Aceh during several years to fight terrorism and crime, including their maritime component. The littoral states of the Malacca Strait have upgraded their naval security forces. In 2005, Malaysia merged all of the government agencies responsible for the maritime domain into one organization under a single command, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA). Despite this and similar reorganizations, the civilian and military maritime security forces of all of the ASEAN countries have still been underfunded and under equipped to tackle recurring maritime security challenges. Indonesia and the Philippines, in particular, with their vast maritime domains, have faced a difficult task in responding efficiently to the upsurge of maritime crime and its diffuse links with terrorism.
Multilateral Efforts Born of Local Initiatives
Mindful about organizing their fight against piracy and armed robbery at sea, three littoral states of the Malacca Strait, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, set up the Malacca Strait Patrols around 2004, with Thailand joining a few years later. This multilateral effort allowed states to address the international community’s criticism that they were apathetic. The most well-known components of these efforts are the MALSINDO coordinated patrols and the creation of the Malacca Strait Security Initiative (MSSI). However, these efforts were curtailed somewhat by the resistance of some states to allowing the right of pursuit across territorial waters and to including countries outside the region in the management of the Malacca Strait. Despite this, information- and intelligence-sharing became institutionalized, and an aerial surveillance component, Eyes in the Sky, was implemented as a result of these agreements.
These ratified measures between the coastal countries of the Malacca Strait were undeniably a major step forward in inter-state cooperation to combat piracy and armed robbery in Southeast Asia. To date, they comprise one of the only coordinated operational military responses in existence. However, a broader regional reaction to piracy and armed robbery in the area was still needed, as these efforts were limited to the littoral states of the Strait. Although an effort to integrate the stakeholders in a common entity under a single command was clearly made, these efforts cannot be considered a total strategic success. These initiatives were somewhat hampered by the reluctance of participating states to allow interventions from foreign partners. Both in policy and in practice, combating piracy and armed robbery was perceived as solely the privilege of local governments.
RECAAP, A MULTILATERAL SECURITY APPROACH
The prevalence of piracy and armed robbery, as well as its potential link with terrorism, called for a larger-scale response in order to address the continued concerns of the international community. The establishment of RECAAP represented a transition from primarily local to increasingly regional efforts to address these issues. Southeast Asia has a strong record of multilateralism covering economic, political, security, and cultural issues, primarily through ASEAN. However, the region is also characterized by a reticence on the part of many regional states to allow this multilateralism to develop in ways that may be perceived as interfering with the sovereign prerogatives of any individual state. Despite these concerns, the RECAAP agreement, signed in Tokyo on November 11, 2004, and enacted in 2006, was designed to be a truly multilateral framework for regional cooperation between Southeast Asian countries in the field of countering maritime piracy and armed robbery.
RECAAP was first signed by eight ASEAN countries, with the notable exceptions of Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as three countries each from South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh) and East Asia (Japan, China, and South Korea). Major international maritime nations then joined the agreement, confirming its success: Norway in 2009, the Netherlands and Denmark in 2010, and the United Kingdom in 2012, followed by Australia and the United States. Presently, RECAAP includes 20 countries representing a supra-regional maritime space, with an issue focus limited to Asia. France and Germany are expected to join RECAAP in the near future. The increasing presence and interest of European states has encouraged the European Union to get closer to the organization and to seek more active involvement in its activities, including some capacity-building initiatives with the Southeast Asian members of RECAAP. The current EU-ASEAN Plan of Action includes maritime security cooperation and mentions the importance of combating piracy and armed robbery against ships. As such, the CRIMARIO II project, an EU maritime security-building instrument that is well known in the Indian Ocean, is now expanding into Southeast Asia in the hopes of increasing cooperation and contributing to maritime stability in the region.
Functionally, RECAAP can be defined as a regional cooperation agreement and information sharing hub that promotes and enhances government-to-government cooperation, capacity building, and mutual legal assistance against piracy and armed robbery in Asia. It does not, however, have any means of enforcement or prosecution allowing it to conduct maritime police operations against suspected acts of piracy and armed robbery.
Flow Diagram for Reporting Incidents in Asia
Adapted from: IMO, MSC.1-CIRC.1333-REV.1 (E).
The system is based on two essential elements. The first defines the obligations of the signatory states in countering maritime piracy and armed robbery, which includes the principle of cooperation as enshrined in UNCLOS. In addition to defining piracy, which is by nature limited to the high seas, RECAAP has included armed robbery at sea. As a result, member states are obliged to cooperate in combating piracy situations as well as armed robbery of ships to the extent of their capacities and in accordance with their respective national legislation. This can include arresting pirates or individuals suspected of violence, seizing the ships used to commit these crimes, and assisting and rescuing ships and crews targeted by piracy or banditry.
The second element of RECAAP focuses on enhancing areas of cooperation between member governments, and is based on information-sharing, maritime capacity-building, and collaboration with other international maritime stakeholders such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the maritime industry, and shipping companies. Sharing and processing information via occasional alerts or regular reports are among the most decisive components of the agreement as they enable a better collective understanding of the maritime domain. Moreover, RECAAP is structured around “focal points;” i.e., designated liaison officers from the maritime, civil, or military administrations of each signatory state.
A Maritime Governance Model Respectful of National Sovereignty
RECAAP’s strength does not lie in the creation of a supra-national police entity or the setting up of common patrols operating within the members’ maritime domains, but resides in collaboration in sharing information and coordination of government responses to incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea. Its existence demonstrates that traditional inter-governmental mistrust and historical animosities can be overcome, in the correct context, to address shared maritime security challenges. The maritime Information Sharing Centre based in Singapore was created with this in mind. The management team of this structure is made up of liaison officers and representatives of RECAAP’s member states. Dependent on the voluntary contributions of each member state, its decision-making bodies are subject to unanimous consensus. The Centre ensures the flow, collection, and processing of information as well as the dissemination of analytical reports on the state of piracy, armed robbery, and some other forms of maritime crime. In acting as the facilitator between different national security forces and maritime authorities in their efforts to combat piracy and armed robbery at sea, the Centre plays an essential role.
This is no easy task, given the complicating impact of tensions between member states and, even more challengingly, among different maritime security and law enforcement actors within member states. Furthermore, if coordination between a handful of neighboring states is difficult, it becomes even more challenging on a regional level. In order to accommodate the sensitivities of member states, RECAAP takes care to emphasize the principle of national sovereignty. Hence the absence of provisions concerning the establishment of joint patrols or the right of pursuit that were opposed by some member states. The result of this inclusive approach to regional maritime cooperation is that RECAAP and its ISC represent replicable models for other regions facing collective maritime security challenges. In fact, the agreement and its Centre have already inspired the architecture of the Djibouti Code of Conduct developed in East Africa to organize regional cooperation for fighting Somali piracy.
RECAAP eventually established itself successfully because of its non-binding processes. While derived from a regional dynamic, the RECAAP initiative fostered the internationalization of counter-piracy activities by including external actors. Even China, at first hostile to a Japan-led organization, joined the agreement. India, a key maritime player in Southeast Asia, equally supports the initiative.
Beyond maritime piracy and armed robbery in Southeast Asia, RECAAP now has a utility and a strategic role of its own. RECAAP established itself as a central platform for public and private stakeholders involved in broader maritime security. The organization of workshops, dissemination of a “best-practices toolkit,” and close relationships with the International Maritime Organization and shipping companies have all contributed to making RECAAP an important forum gathering a vast maritime community. This essential networking function, nurtured by the participating focal points, allows for the maintenance of necessary consensus among member countries on maritime piracy and armed robbery in Southeast Asia.
RECAAP and its ISC play an important role in the maritime domain awareness system which exists in Southeast Asia, along with the Information Fusion Centre in Changi and the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur. These organizations complement each other rather than duplicate efforts as they do not have the same means and mode of operation. RECAAP and IMB are focused on monitoring piracy and armed incidents at sea. RECAAP adds to this a role of cooperation and "maritime diplomacy" thanks to its network in the region and its publications. The IFC, created by the Singapore Navy, is based on the permanent work of about 20 foreign naval and coast guard officers who are mostly Asian but also from outside the region, and, beyond piracy and armed robbery, is monitoring proliferation and maritime terrorism threats. Working collectively, each body has an important role to play in enriching the maritime knowledge of Asia and transforming this strategic area into a highly connected region with comprehensive maritime domain awareness.
Marianne Péron-Doise is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Research, IRSEM, Paris. Her work focuses on Asia security issues with specific expertise on Northeast Asia (Japan-Korean Peninsula) and global maritime security topics such as emerging naval forces and key maritime theatres. She teaches classes in Maritime Security at Sciences-Po Paris as part of the International Relations Department. Marianne has occupied several senior positions on security issues in the Asia-Pacific region in the French Ministry of Armed Forces, notably Head of the Asia-Pacific Department Delegation for Strategic Affairs from 2007 to 2011. She was Political Adviser at the Allied Maritime Command in Northwood, UK, from 2012–2015. She was also Special Advisor for the EU maritime project CRIMARIO I (Critical Maritime Routes Indian Ocean) from 2015 to 2019 and joined a new development of the project as CRIMARIO II, shifting to South and Southeast Asia, in 2020.