JAKARTA: The fear that the Malacca Strait, with its high level of maritime piracy, would jeopardise the security of bordering states – Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – as well as the international trade route has been allayed, at least for now. The three governments finally got their act together last week and launched a coordinated patrol of the strait.
Although this is a normal defensive measure against piracy, it is also seen as the beginning of a new chapter in regional inter-navy relations.
The initiative, perhaps, would have been impossible if the security issue of the Malacca Strait had not been raised publicly by Admiral T. Fargo, Chief of the United States Pacific Command.
In March, he presented an initiative to work with South-East Asian countries to protect the Malacca Strait, one which envisaged shared intelligence and joint patrol of the waterway.
Fargo indicated that the initiative would involve US Marines who would take action when such a decision was made, and Singapore initially embraced the idea.
The US initiative may have been prompted primarily by the possibility of a terror attack involving hijacked ships in the strait.
The launch of the maritime patrol agreement by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore was, perhaps, an answer to this initiative, but it seems to focus specifically on deterring maritime piracy – not maritime terrorism.
The position of the three is that the security of the strait lies in their collective hands.
Indonesia reckons that the deployment of a foreign navy in territorial waters could harm the national interest, even if the aim was to fight terrorism.
The issue of security in the Malacca Strait has, in reality, split the region over whether there is a parallel between maritime piracy and acts of terrorism.
Finding exact definitions for piracy and terrorism has been problematic for national and international policymakers alike. Many are unsure at which point piracy becomes terrorism.
Indonesia and Malaysian officials, in particular, avoid mentioning terrorism as their reason for the coordinated patrol.
Possible terrorist threats involving shipping include: the use of ships to carry hidden weapons or dangerous cargo for terrorist purposes; ships being targeted in a terrorist attack as in the cases of the USS Cole and the Limburg; and the use of either ships or containers to disrupt shipping lanes or port facilities.
The vulnerability of merchant shipping and the potential for massive damage through terrorism involving ships were raised during the Conference on Maritime Security in December 2002 at the London headquarters of the International Maritime Organization.
The conference adopted a maritime security measure called the International Ship and Port Facility Code (ISPS Code) as a means of increasing security on ships and in ports, which entered into force in July.
Under the code, signed by about 150 nations, each ship is required to have a security officer, an alarm system, a method of identifying all on board and other precautions.
It is worth noting that major ports in Indonesia – such as Belawan, Tanjung Priok and Panjang – as well as Singapore port and Malaysia’s Port Klang and Penang, have been certified for the ISPS Code.
The code might not be a fail-safe deterrent against terrorist attacks, but it should help raise security awareness levels. In essence, the code is a risk management strategy.
The definition of piracy provided by the United Nations Convention of Law of the Sea is violence on the high seas beyond any state’s 12 nautical mile maritime territory.
There is a problem when such a definition is applied to South-East Asia, as most robberies at sea occur within the 12-mile limit, meaning that such incidents are not legally classified as piracy.
Therefore, if the coordinated patrol is aimed at stamping out piracy, political barriers are likely to emerge, as naval vessels cannot stray into the territorial waters of a neighbouring country.
Maritime terrorism, by definition, is any illegal act directed against ships, their passengers, cargo or crew, or against sea ports with the intent of influencing a government.
There may be a difference in the definitions of piracy and terrorism but, in many cases, the effect is the same and those circumstances that allow piracy and terrorism to flourish are often similar – such as political instability, poverty and ineffective law enforcement.
The coordinated patrol launched by the three countries is good move amid rising maritime piracy. Politically, however, it is no more than an enhancement of military cooperation between Asean member states.
Normal precautions and measures against piracy are inadequate and inappropriate to deal with maritime terrorist threats, particularly suicide terrorists. Thus, military cooperation that only stresses the deterrence of maritime piracy – if this is indeed the main strategic purpose of the coordinated patrol – ignores the likelihood of piracy and terrorism converging and fusing into a general threat.
The arguments for a coordinated patrol is strategically weak, in the sense that their fear of perceived challenges to their sovereignty has apparently been allowed to override military logic.
If any thoughts arise as to the US stepping in at some point, this is not a strategy to make the Indonesian Navy look weak but a strategy to provide multilateral benefits from a secure strait.
Regional naval authorities should not exclude the nexus between terrorism and piracy. Time will tell whether the defensive measure implemented by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore is strategically suited to confronting long-term maritime terrorist threats or a possible long-term alliance between pirates and terrorists.
o The writer is a lecturer of the International Relations Post-graduate Studies Program in the Faculty of Social and Political Science, University of Indonesia.
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