- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Securing Southeast Asia’s Sea Lanes: A Work in Progress

Ian Storey


This article assesses the impact and effectiveness of regional and national initiatives to improve sea lane security in Southeast Asia.

Main Arguments

  • Though piracy and sea robbery have always posed a threat to international trade, since September 11, 2001, the specter of maritime terrorism has refocused attention on the problem of maritime crime. Despite a recent drop in pirate attacks, violence at sea remains a problem in Southeast Asia, where a number of political, geographic, and economic factors make the region’s seas a particularly opportune space for sea-borne criminals.
  • Cooperative efforts to address maritime violence in the region have met with real but qualified success. Though competing priorities and sovereignty concerns have inhibited the full participation of regional states in cooperative security programs, the perceived threat of unilateral involvement by the United States has served as a catalyst for improved cooperation among states in the region. These cooperative efforts in turn have led to a decline in incidents of maritime crime. Significant weaknesses, however, remain in the approaches of regional states.

Policy Implications

External powers—the U.S., Japan, China, and India—could play an important role in further improving security in the region’s seas by taking the following steps:

  • By better coordinating outreach efforts, external powers could improve the communication, surveillance, and interdiction capabilities of regional states’ navies and maritime law enforcement agencies.
  • External powers could improve maritime security in Southeast Asia by helping governments address the root causes of maritime violence—specifically through the improvement of governance capabilities and the promotion of economic growth. States in the region could also take a number of steps to improve security:
  • Increase levels of cooperation among littoral states’ security forces, especially in the triborder sea area, as well as conduct more frequent and joint patrols in problematic areas.
  • Most importantly, regional states could implement long-term programs to address the deep political and socio-economic problems of which piracy and sea robbery are only symptoms.