Shipping supply chains and global conflicts | Inquirer Opinion

Shipping supply chains and global conflicts

Disruptions to shipping supply chains are being felt globally due to the conflict in Gaza and related attacks on ships by Houthi militias, as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but they are not the only tension points stressing global sea lanes.

Southeast Asian waters, the maritime crossroads of the Indo-Pacific, were not so long ago regarded as among the world’s most dangerous. Real progress has been made in recent decades, but the criminal threats have not been completely eliminated and could be revitalized.

Of particular concern have been pirates, armed robbers, and, to a lesser extent, terrorists which have historically exploited maritime governance gaps to attack the marine traffic concentrated in congested waters.

At the turn of the century, Southeast Asia’s piracy and armed robbery rates were the world’s highest. Terrorism and violent extremism were also major regional problems that too frequently bled into the maritime domain. In 2005, the insecurity of Southeast Asia sea lanes reached a crescendo when Lloyd’s insurance market, the Joint War Committee, declared the Malacca Strait to be at risk from “war, strikes, terrorism, and related perils.”


Southeast Asia’s coastal states collectively recognized the need for greater action and assigned maritime security greater policy priority while increasing the resources allocated for maritime law enforcement and criminal prosecution. A clear manifestation of these resources was the development of regional coastguards as strengthened agencies or new, maritime security-focused forces spun off from the navies.

In the wake of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the international maritime community created the International Port and Security Code, which mandated a comprehensive set of security measures be implemented by port and ship operators thereby further beefing up regional maritime security.

Regional states also expanded their cooperation. In July 2004, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia initiated a standing program of trilateral coordinated patrols in Malacca Strait. In November 2004, 16 Asian countries finalized the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships, an international organization that sponsors an Information Sharing Center (ReCAAP ISC) to maintain databases, conduct analysis, and provide service as an information clearinghouse.

In 2009, Singapore established the Information Fusion Center, where its Navy now hosts 25 international liaison officers from 20 nations focused on multinational capacity and confidence building.


Together, the measures created a substantial drop in the rate of pirate attacks and other incidents. Furthermore, ReCAAP records show that the vast majority of incidents during the 2007-2022 period amounted to petty theft. The most dangerous and violent sorts of attacks, such as those that involve hijackings, murder, and kidnapping have essentially ceased. This contrasts with 20 years ago when ship hijacking and kidnappings were relatively common.

As technology costs continue to drop, criminals are increasingly able to access the sort of high-quality maritime awareness data that was previously only available to states and the largest international cooperations. For example, low-end criminals operating in the Strait of Singapore describe how they use Automatic Identification Systems and smartphone applications to enable their attacks. This seems like routine technology now but would have been beyond their reach 10-15 years ago.


Cyber threats are emerging as a new angle for criminals to attack sea lanes. So far, criminals have not struck high-profile regional targets, but Southeast Asia suffered collateral damage as the 2017 NotPetya cyberattack on Maersk which shut down shipping operations and ports globally. Should a major Southeast Asia port be shut down or an attack disrupts traffic in the Malacca Strait, the global impact could be exceptional.

As regional geopolitics becomes increasingly defined by competition between great powers, especially in the maritime space, cooperation within the region is becoming more difficult. This contrasts with two decades ago when prospects for cooperation were constrained, but growing. Today, even cooperation is harder than ever, and even small decisions are measured against the possibility that they might be perceived as a high-consequence lean toward one side or the other. This trend is illustrated by Asean’s inability to hold a joint military exercise in the South China Sea, despite a history of naval exercises in that body of water, out of concern that the event would be an affront to China.

In the end, the 2023 exercise went ahead in a less sensitive location, but the need to factor in considerations when engaging in other forms of maritime cooperation has become an unfortunate reality. The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

John F. Bradford is a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs fellow in Indonesia.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 media titles in the region.

TAGS: Commentary, opinion

© Copyright 1997-2024 | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.