Nothing encapsulates the spirit of globalisation better than world trade, most of which is carried out via the medium of the sea. Maritime trade can thus be said to be the pivot around which the global economy as well as our collective social well-being actually revolves.

The advent of steamships and the construction of the Suez Canal in particular revolutionised commercial maritime connectivity. The biggest breakthrough by far occurred in 1957 when the first dedicated container-carrying vessel was put to sea. It made an indelible and immediate impact on world trade by not only making transoceanic trade profitable but by completely transforming a system that was seen as slow and unwieldy into an efficient one. More than 90% of general cargo is currently being transported in containers.

As maritime trade flourishes, it is but natural for challenges to crop up in its wake. These take the form of piracy, poaching, environmental degradation, narco-smuggling, gun-running and human trafficking, and extends all the way to terrorism at sea, which despite being a relatively recent phenomenon, is potentially the most destructive and disruptive.

It is apparent that most of these threats, when taken singly, with the possible exception of terrorism, don’t actually pose a direct existential threat to global trade. Though they fall under the broad category of illegal activities at sea, with varying strains of criminality, they generate far greater ripples of high-end insecurity in a volatile maritime environment when they tend to complement or facilitate each other.

During the period 2005 to 2012, piracy off Somalia posed the predominant threat to world shipping. What started off as a local endeavour to curb the rampant poaching and dumping of toxic waste in lawless Somali waters grew into a full-blown piratical enterprise. Incidents of piracy rose seven fold to 35 in 2005, prior declining briefly the next year, and then from 31 pirate attacks in 2007, the problem literally exploded in 2008, when fabulous sums of money were raked in as ransom for captured vessels, cargo and crew. In 2010 alone, pirates seized close to 50 vessels, taking nearly 1200 seamen as hostages. And from this peak, piracy dwindled gradually in 2011 and more rapidly in the next. In figurative terms, successful seizures went down from 49 in 2010 to 28 in 2011 and only 13 in 2012. Despite a large number of warships being employed in the area to thwart piracy, what caused piracy to flourish was a belated and disjointed international response.

Compared to Somali piracy in its heyday, piracy incidents in the Malacca Straits, the South China Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Guinea are mere pinpricks. Piracy in the Malacca Straits has been kept in check through effective coordination between the three major countries straddling the waterway, namely Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, by the setting up of Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against ships in Asia (ReCAAP) and instituting the joint Malacca Straits patrol. The only major flashpoint at the moment is the Gulf of Guinea, where the principal regional player, Nigeria, needs to spearhead a similar initiative. The G8++ Friends of the Gulf of Guinea (FOGG) group tries to help out with the capacity-building of the regional states.

So, while formulating a broad framework for moving towards an ideal where operations at sea can be undertaken in perfect unison, ways can and should be found along the way to first skirt and then move on to progressively overcome the constraints that stand in its way. This may not prove so simple as it seems, as can be seen from the contrasting approaches on display in the South East Asian region. On the one hand is the South China Sea arena, where regional tensions, geopolitical rivalry and maritime boundary disputes preclude an effective regional maritime alliance of any sort. On the other hand, we have the example of the Malacca Straits patrol, a trilateral coordinated policing scheme involving the navies of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, which succeeded in drastically curtailing the crime rate in the waterway by nearly 70% in five years.

Since Singapore has the greatest stake in ensuring the safety of the sea lines of communication on which it is overtly dependent, it correctly assessed that external maritime threats cannot be effectively tackled without setting one’s own house in order. It accordingly has in place a Maritime Security Committee (MSC), a Maritime and Port Security Working Group (MPSWG), Singapore Maritime Security Centre (SMSC) and a Maritime Security Task Force (MSTF) which ensure effective coordination, information management and timely responses through cross-ministerial and inter-agency linkages. Another notable initiative chalked up by the Republic of Singapore Navy is the setting up of the Information Centre (IFC) at Changi in April 2009, which hosts International Liaison Officers as well as maritime information sharing portals such as the ASEAN portal and the Regional Maritime Information Exchange (ReMIX).

One of the biggest problems that Pakistan faced was a near total lack of coordination between the various public sector agencies charged with maritime responsibilities and which ultimately had an adverse impact on safety and security issues. Pakistan Navy took the initiative of setting up a Joint Maritime Information Coordination Centre (JMICC) under the auspices of Coastal Command Headquarters in 2013, which helped foster interagency coordination and joint decision making in matters involving two or more agencies. Apart from developing a local tactical picture, JMICC enhanced this coverage by entering into strategic linkages with other info sharing portals like Information Fusion Centre of Singapore and Virtual Regional Maritime Traffic Centre of Italy. Owing to its greater reach and mobility, the Pakistan Navy endeavours to supplement the efforts of the Maritime Security Agency in maintaining order at sea within the country’s maritime zones.

While the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICCs) International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre, UKMTO, EUs Maritime Security Centre-Horn of Africa (MSCHOA), Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the US-led Combined Task Forces are laudable achievements, the fact remains that the effective policing of such a vast area that constitutes the global maritime commons can only be done through a unified multilateral approach in terms of surveillance, intelligence gathering, collation, dissemination and sharing of information and above all, well-coordinated and timely responses to all emerging threats. The only way a consensus can be forged is by sidestepping continental fault lines and perceived national interests in favour of a collective regional and global maritime security template, and by extending regional linkages into a wider capacity-building, info sharing and enforcement network. A Common Information Sharing Environment (CISE), which offers real time situational awareness to the maritime fraternity through an inter-linked maritime surveillance network is an essential tool in the battle against the dark forces of the sea. The evolution and utilization of technology has been crucial in strengthening all tiers of maritime security. If ever it will be needed more than ever, it is possibly in countering the sophisticated cybercrimes of the future. Almost all countries have a vital stake in preserving the freedom of the seas, and it is thus in their common interest to join hands in clamping down on all illegal activities at sea of every shade.