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Securing the Maritime Corridors in the "ASEAN Way": The Dynamics, Challenges and Prospects

Maritime Security: What is it and Why Does it Matter

Occupying 70 percent of the earth’s surface, the ocean has become a crucial source for all lives in the world. From resources such as food, to the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC), the ocean has provided us not only the basic needs of our lives, but also access to other parts of the world; making its sustainability and security highly imperative and critical. The fact that around 80% of trade in goods – especially gas and oil – is carried out by ships has further highlighted the importance of the maritime domain (Chong, 2017, p. 44). Based on such idea, more emphasis has been put on ‘Maritime Security’; a term famously used by recent scholars in defining ocean-related security matters. With the absence of consensus regarding the definition, maritime security is often described as “good” or “stable order at sea”, with the absence of threats at sea such as piracy, maritime terrorism, humans and drugs trafficking, illegal fishing, inter-state disputes, environmental disasters and even maritime accidents (Bueger, 2015, p. 2). Thus, the term tends to cover a wide scope, namely national security, environment, economy and human security as detailed in figure 1.

Figure 1: Maritime Security Matrix. Source: (Bueger, 2015, p. 5)

Maritime Security in ASEAN: Challenges in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore

Such a buzzword has left an important yet vague task for countries in securing their maritime domains, including the ASEAN countries. With almost all its members being maritime nations, the sea has become a decisive sphere for the region. This is especially linked to their critical role in the global shipping route, in which the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS) serve as the main feature. Surrounded by the littoral countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, these straits are highly strategic and as such are crucial resources for the countries. These littoral countries are also dependent on the straits for export-base trading activities that significantly contribute to their GDP (Chong, 2017, p. 44). Singapore, for example, is a port-city mega hub that is surrounded by the Malacca Strait, Singapore Strait and South China Sea, making it highly reliant on maritime corridors. Malaysia is also attempting to become be a major destination for maritime facilities, while Indonesia sees the Malacca strait in a strategic lens as the “only maritime highway that pierces its archipelagic border” (Chong, 2017, p. 45; Mak, 2006, pp. 144–145).

More specifically, these straits play a crucial role as they connect the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, in particular connecting Asia’s biggest economies to the world such as China, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan and South Korea (BRINK, 2017). Around 60,000-70,000 ships pass these straits annually and also almost 16 million barrels of oil – in 2018 – pass this lane every day; causing it to be the world’s second most important oil transit checkpoints after the Strait of Hormuz (BRINK, 2017; Chong, 2017, p. 44; Hirst, 2014; Statista, 2021). Together, they not only provide the shortest route for the OPEC countries in western Asia to East Asia, but also for Europe-Asia international trade activities (Evers & Gerke, 2006; Rusli et al., 2021).

Figure 2: The Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Source: (The Nippon Foundation, n.d.)

Figure 3: Level of seaborne oil transiting possible chokepoints in 2018 (million barrels per day). Source: (Statista, 2021)

Concentrating such a crucial part of the world trade activities, the straits have become prone to maritime threats such as piracy and armed robberies, as well as maritime terrorism and kidnappings (BRINK, 2017; Xu, 2017, p. 85). Ever since the 9/11 attack, there has been a significant increase in the number of transnational crimes, especially in major passages and chokepoints for international trade such as the SOMS. The Malacca Strait has become one of the most vulnerable and targeted waterways for piracy attacks in the world, accounting for 41% of the total global attacks from 1993 to at least 2013 (ICC International Maritime Bureau, 2021). The security of the Singapore Strait is also concerning; in 2020 alone, it was the target of nearly a quarter of the total piracy attacks amongst the world’s major hotspots (ICC International Maritime Bureau, 2021, p. 7). With increasing various transnational crimes and incursions, littoral countries have voiced strong concerns about the security and safety of the straits.

The Weaknesses and Limits of the “ASEAN Way” in Securing the Maritime Corridors

Reasserting commitment to and concerns over the maritime security of the SOMS, several agreements of exclusive maritime security cooperation between the littoral countries have been ratified in this area, such as the 2004 Malacca Strait Sea Patrols (MSSP) or MALSINDO and Eyes in the Sky (Matthews, 2015, p. 1). However, constituting an important feature of the Southeast Asia region, several regional frameworks have also been established and utilized as part of the efforts. The ASEAN Way, as often used to describe the ASEAN framework, is in essence an approach which strongly emphasizes national sovereignty and “collectively resisting interference by external powers” (Sato, 2007, p. 8). From this idea, there are at least three general, maritime-oriented regional frameworks established that are relevant to the issue: the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting, and the ASEAN Maritime Forum (Agastia, 2021; Rajni Gamage, 2018, p. 14). The ARF contains the Intersessional Meeting on Maritime Security, aiming to facilitate high-level discussions between the members before coming up with the maritime security-related programs that are put into the Maritime Security Work Plan every three years. The ADMM and its extended version named ADMM+, on the other hand, are attended by the defense ministers, are more exclusive and are equipped with the eight Experts’ Working Groups, consisting of experts in the fields rather than government officials. Finally, is the AMF and its extended version, EAMF. Acknowledging the group’s lack of an exclusive and comprehensive maritime security framework, Indonesia initiated the initial concept of the AMF, which led to its formal establishment in 2010. Despite its intended exclusive nature, the Forum was then expanded to include ASEAN Dialogue Partners and eventually led to the first EAMF in 2012 (Agastia, 2021; Gaol, 2017; Rajni Gamage, 2018).

Though the group has provided various frameworks and dialogues as platforms for cooperation, some shortcomings are inevitable. The first concerns the nature of the group itself as a mere association instead of a union. In other words, ASEAN’s non-binding nature causes the cooperative measures of the grouping, especially the three littoral countries, to be less effective due to their different interests, perceptions, and approaches toward maritime security issues. For example, the littoral countries are known to have different beliefs and approaches in addressing the piracy issues due to different maritime doctrines and economic interests (Saeri, 2019, p. 22). Following up on the previous point, the non-binding, less effective relations of member countries have often been followed up by inter-state tensions. The relatively weak coordination between littoral countries due to the rejection of enabling ‘hot pursuit’ of another littoral warship into neighboring territories, coupled with the proximity of maritime borders have caused border disputes which lead to clashes between local authorities (Angkasari et al., 2020, p. 1; ANTARA News, 2020; Chong, 2017, p. 58).

Another issue relates to the ‘ASEAN Way’ of cooperating, which strongly upholds noninterventionism to sovereignty. Outside of the dialogues, ASEAN members tend to be skeptical when it comes to foreign involvement in the security framework, and suspect foreign parties of wanting to benefit from strategic straits (Ahmad Almaududy Amri, 2016, p. 361; Saeri, 2019, p. 20). For example, the U.S.’ RMSI and Japan’s ReCaap to secure the Malacca Strait were strongly rejected by Malaysia and Indonesia; initiatives that they perceive as an effort – especially by the U.S. – to “internationalize” the strait. Despite the fact that littoral countries are still lacking in terms of effective military equipment for sea patrols, the two strongly oppose the initiatives in order to keep their neutrality and more importantly, their sovereignty (Ahmad Almaududy Amri, 2016, p. 361; Pangestu, 2019, p. 975; Saeri, 2019, p. 20,24). The previous points then lead to the one inevitable, ultimate weakness of the group, namely the impracticality of cooperation. Due to the group’s limitations, most of the security cooperation frameworks are dialogue-based only and are less practical. Moreover, as implied in the previous paragraph, these measures tend to overlap which then leads to ineffective, agenda-based cooperation measures (Agastia, 2021; Rajni Gamage, 2018, p. 20).

Prospects and Opportunities of the ASEAN Maritime Security Cooperation Frameworks

Despite the split opinion on Japan’s ReCAAP, there is perhaps a preferable option for member countries, especially littoral countries. As the maritime security issues – especially the security and safety of the SLOCs – have become more relevant in the international community, it may be the time for ASEAN to utilise and integrate other regional maritime security cooperation frameworks, such as Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) maritime security initiatives (Ahmad Almaududy Amri, 2016, p. 370). The FOIP was initiated to ensure freedom of navigation and is highly maritime-oriented in its nature (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2019), whereas the SOMS are known to hold a pivotal role in the FOIP initiative due to its strategic importance. Thus, the group, especially the littoral countries, could utilise Japan’s expanded security commitments to the world by integrating ASEAN’s regional frameworks, particularly the littoral countries’ MALSINDO and EiS into this joint initiative. The group could exploit Japan’s developed military equipment to conduct joint or coordinated patrols around the Straits. Moreover, acknowledging the fact that Japan is still bound to its pacifist clause of antimilitarism, the member countries could perhaps fill in this gap by providing necessary use of force and support in executing the patrols (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2015, 2019). In other words, there exist possible numerous ways of integrating and converging the two parties’ initiatives and strategic interests in the Straits (Ahmad Almaududy Amri, 2016, p. 370).


Several recommendations are worth considering regarding ASEAN and its way of addressing the common maritime security issues. First, ASEAN Members need to strengthen their unity, lessen maritime border disputes and trust each other. Regarding seaborne incursions and clashes, the littoral countries should reach a consensus on how to deal with such issues without causing unnecessary bilateral tensions. Coherence and consistency between the countries are arguably the keys to better cooperation (Ahmad Almaududy Amri, 2016, p. 374; Lai, n.d., p. 11; Saeri, 2019, p. 28). Furthermore, ASEAN members need to rethink their current approaches toward its maritime security cooperation frameworks. In this sense, the group needs to find a middle ground between safeguarding its sovereignty from unnecessary foreign interventions and cooperating with global powers for capacity building and practical purposes (Ahmad Almaududy Amri, 2016, p. 374; Damayanti, 2018, p. 130). This especially pertains to combatting high-priority maritime security issues, including but not limited to assistance offered by Japan through its FOIP initiative, which would be highly propitious and resourceful. Finally, ASEAN needs to rapidly step up its maritime security cooperation frameworks, in a way that involves a more robust and focused practical agenda comprising joint naval exercises, intelligence sharing and so forth. This way, the cooperation between member countries would not be limited to the ‘talk shop’ level but would instead hinge on more effective and focused measures.



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