Japan has played a key role in multilateral counter-piracy efforts in Southeast Asia since the end of the Cold War. The administration of Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo seized the initiative with a series of ambitious proposals for regional cooperation, which resulted in the establishment of ReCAAP, the world’s first international organization with the sole mandate of countering maritime piracy. Another milestone came in 2009, when the government of Aso Taro dispatched the Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) to the Gulf of Aden. However, Japan’s involvement in multilateral counter-piracy efforts became less ambitious under the Abe administration, as the problem of piracy became one of many competing security priorities, subsumed within Japan’s wider geopolitical considerations.
Although overall piracy rates declined in 2016, transnational criminal networks and extremist groups such as Abu Sayyaf have continued to carry out growing numbers of well-organized attacks. This includes a spate of crew abductions in the Sulu and Celebes seas, which has continued into 2017. Since late 2016, Abu Sayyaf has also been actively targeting large commercial vessels underway – previously considered at lower risk due to their size and speed. As a result, multilateral cooperation is more important than ever. Tackling these more complex forms of piracy will require structured and sustained law enforcement cooperation between regional countries. Unless such cooperation is institutionalized among countries across Southeast Asia, it will diminish as government priorities (and resources) shift elsewhere.
Japan is well placed to regain the regional initiative, either by expanding ReCAAP’s mandate to include all forms of maritime crime, or by establishing a new organization. This paper argues that Tokyo will need to navigate deeply entrenched sovereignty concerns across the region while keeping its counter-piracy efforts separate from the wider competition with China.