Is China affecting piracy with South China Sea encroachment?
Indonesia has to deal with China's increasing claims on areas within the South China Sea, which may contribute to increased piracy levels around Indonesia. This article will explore the issue of the South China Sea and how piracy may be increasing due to China being set on maritime expansion.
The South China Sea is a significant point of contention in contemporary international relations. The People's Republic of China seeks to push exclusive rights to the South China Sea, equating to over 90% or 3.5 million square kilometres. Benefits that would come from direct control of these waters include access to untapped oil and gas reserves, fishing areas, trade route leverage and access to islands on which bases and weapons platforms can be based.
China has natural mountainous borders and mostly friendly neighbours on land. Therefore, expansion in the South China Sea is not only a security measure for defence and its economy but also an investment in which China can project its power out further to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. However, this attempted expansion has not gone uncontested.
The local states of Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines have all been entangled in grey zone warfare with China, whose claims encroach on the exclusive economic zones of all these countries.
"Benefits that would come from direct control of these waters include access to untapped oil and gas reserves, fishing areas, trade route leverage and access to islands on which bases and weapons platforms can be based".
The first two nations in that list, Indonesia and Malaysia, also have other maritime issues: piracy and armed robbery at sea. Both countries have committed naval units to defend their assets and eject Chinese trespassing. However, the deployment of these units has meant that piracy is not as pressing an issue due to the potential loss of sovereignty and revenue if China was to acquire their claims. Since Indonesia borders the Malacca Straits, Singapore Straits and the Celebes Sea, some of the world's major piracy spots, a lack of response can have serious consequences.
Indonesia has long sought a powerful navy to be able to defend its waterways and protect its exclusive economic zone. The country is made up of over 17,500 islands meaning maritime power is essential for governance and security. In strategic circles, the islands' lanes are called Archipelagic Sea Lanes.
Control of these sea lanes not only interconnects the country but also connects the country to the rest of the world. As such, power is essential for combating not only piracy but terrorism, smuggling and human trafficking. Despite the need to command the sea, Indonesia has struggled with maintaining a sizeable and modernised navy.
The country set the goal of having a 274-ship fleet by 2024, and with 213 ships at the time of writing in 2022, it does not appear that they will achieve this goal. Therefore, with an underequipped navy and now the encroachment of China requiring the utmost attention, the vast expanses of sea lanes and coastal waters that the country has always struggled to police effectively are even more neglected.
"Despite the need to command the sea, Indonesia has struggled with maintaining a sizeable and modernised navy".
The lack of presence from the Indonesian navy and coast guard can lead to increased piracy. Pirates can escape from another country's navy by retreating into different territorial waters. As Singapore officials have noted, pirates mainly operate from outwith their country. Mostly pirates from Indonesia will cross over into international and Singapore territory to commit attacks and then flee into Indonesia to escape capture.
Usually, the strong ties between Singapore and Indonesia would mean that the countries could communicate, and the Indonesians would take over.
However, with increasing attention now focused on the South China Sea, pirates may see more chances to commit attacks with less response from Indonesia. It is, of course, hard to quantify how much this will affect the piracy numbers we have seen from South East Asia in the past few years, but it will undoubtedly play a factor.