Covid-19 has seen Southeast Asian countries cut defence budgets just as maritime threats look to be growing dire.
The Covid-19 outbreak has hit hard for Southeast Asian
economies. Anticipating more shocks to come, several countries have already
moved to cut defence spending, seeing the military as a budget line that can be
readily reduced. Indonesia, for example, has?announced?it will slash its defence budget this year by
nearly US$588 million. Thailand has?likewise
reduced?its defence allocation by $555
million. Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines all face similar pressure.
All these countries are key maritime powers in the
region. Less defence spending will invariably mean less patrols at sea. The
Philippines has decided to?cancel?the annual?Baltikatan 2020?exercise,
which would have involved drills with the US and Australian navies.
these cuts come at a time of growing maritime security threats in the region.
If anything, the pandemic has made dangers even more urgent.
In recent months amid the coronavirus outbreak, China’s
naval forces are reported to have carried out intense manoeuvres in the South
China Sea, the scene for several overlapping and disputed territorial claims.
The Haiyang Dizhi 8, a Chinese government research ship,?conducted
a survey?near the Malaysia’s
Petronas-operated West Capella, creating tension with the Malaysian government.
In another incident, a Vietnamese?fishing
vessel was sunk?by a Chinese maritime
surveillance vessel in disputed waters.
China has also sought to instigate?sweeping
new administrative units?over the South
China Sea, seemingly to take advantage of the weakened position of the other
claimant countries in an effort to bolster its own “nine dash line” claim.
Although Indonesia and China have not had any recent
maritime dispute, Indonesia did have a?sharp
exchange?with China in December and
January over patrols in the North Natuna Sea, before the scale of the
coronavirus outbreak became clear. The Chinese Coast Guard had?escorted?Chinese vessels while fishing illegally inside the
Indonesian exclusive economic zone. Jakarta responded with a?diplomatic
protest?to Beijing, and in a signal of
Indonesia’s seriousness, President Joko Widodo personally led a meeting with
the navy and coast guard in the North Natuna Sea, ordering more intense
None of these issues are resolved between Jakarta and
Beijing. China still considers the North Natuna Sea as part of its nine dash
line, while Indonesia has a firm policy of?not
recognising?such a claim. So while
maritime patrols remain necessary for Indonesia to ensure China does not
encroach in its waters, cutting the defence budget will pose challenges for
It is not only the
disputes with China that remain a risk in these heavily transited waters of
Southeast Asia. Piracy is another enduring threat.
it is not only the disputes with China that remain a risk in these heavily
transited waters of Southeast Asia. Piracy is another enduring threat that may
increase as the economies of the region sour, putting pressure on legitimate
business enterprises and creating an incentive for illicit activity.
Waters in and around Indonesia have long been regarded as
one of the?most
dangerous zones?for piracy. More than 60%
of all maritime piracy incidents between 1993 and 2015 occurred in Southeast
Asia, with more than 20% of those incidents taking place in Indonesia alone.
Research following the Asian financial crisis in the late
1990s found an?ten-fold
increase?in the number of piracy cases in
Indonesian waters compared with the decade before, with 115 cases reported in
2001 compared to only 10 in 1993. Similarly, in the two years following the
2008 global financial crisis, the?Regional
Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery?(ReCAAP) reported a 25% increase in piracy rates in
of this should be taken to downplay the importance of responding to the
Covid-19 threat or the challenge in addressing the economic fallout. But the
priorities for spending should be carefully considered, so as not to cut back
on an area such as defence, only to make matters worse.