The waters of Southeast Asia stretch 6,500 kilometers across a dozen seas, many archipelagic waterways, and thousands of islands. Yet, the region’s narrow focus on major power tensions in areas such as the South China Sea has prevented a wider understanding of the roots of maritime instability in the region. As the main drivers of maritime insecurity remain unaddressed, organized political violence in the regional waters continues to endanger the transit of goods and people along these waterways. Stable Seas, a program of the One Earth Future Foundation, provides a unique approach that studies linkages between nine critical maritime issues to allow for a more holistic and multi-faceted understanding of Southeast Asia’s maritime security.

The South China Sea is recognized for the tensions that have materialized between the United States, China, and other emerging powers. While America persists with freedom of navigation operations, China continues to expand military infrastructure on contested territory.i Meanwhile, Southeast Asian claimant states are engaged in an intricate territorial dispute over highly contested waters filled with abundant fisheries stocks and rich oil and gas deposits. Through this prism of hard security concerns, the region’s maritime security is largely determined by the balance of military capabilities between regional powers and the ability to defuse unanticipated security crises. This focus has produced competitive geopolitics in a region that could greatly benefit instead from stronger multilateral cooperation around issues such as fisheries protection, marine conservation, and sustainable blue economy development.

However, maritime security is also an extension of land-based developments. To ensure durable maritime security, it is important to move beyond hard security aspects and investigate the roles of other maritime drivers. Threats to maritime security, such as the piracy and armed robbery activities of terrorist groups, illicit trades, and unregulated migration are rooted in land-based issues such as political disenchantment and underdeveloped coastal communities. However, these threats can also undermine the free and safe navigation of vessels and threaten the lives of fishermen and other mariners who rely on these busy waterways to sustain their livelihood.

The Stable Seas approach, developed from the findings of critical case studies in Africa and Asia, outlines nine maritime drivers that impact maritime security in both regions. These multi-faceted drivers are coastal welfare, illicit trades, fisheries, maritime mixed migration, piracy & armed robbery, blue economy, international cooperation, maritime enforcement capacity, and the rule of law.

Through this holistic approach, it is derived that illicit maritime activities such as arms smuggling, piracy, and armed robbery are an outcome of poor coastal welfare. The vulnerability of coastal regions to the boom-and-bust cycles of global price changes in commodities such as oil and gas has given rise to troubling political actors that weaken the local rule of law to pursue subversive activities. In turn, these activities reinforce informal networks that illicit actors rely on to perpetuate instability on both land and sea. Fisheries also provide an incentive for regional countries to assert overlapping territorial claims and for people to conduct illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. While IUU fishing can sustain coastal communities, it can also destroy the rich marine biodiversity and diminish fishing stocks. Due to this vicious cycle of maritime insecurity, future opportunities for blue economy industries have become limited. Southeast Asia’s heavy reliance on maritime trade, fishing, coastal tourism, and offshore oil and gas production can be further compromised if the roles of these maritime drivers are not better recognized.

Nine focus maritime issues of the Stable Seas approach 

Fortunately, the Stable Seas approach also studies how international cooperation, maritime enforcement capacity, and the rule of law facilitate solutions for maritime insecurity. The Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement in the Sulu and Celebes Seas demonstrates the critical importance of international cooperation for maritime security.ii Although security threats remain in the Sulu and Celebes seas, reported piracy and armed robbery incidents across the region have significantly fallen by 25 percent in 2018.iii However, there still needs to be a stronger understanding of the role of international cooperation to address knowledge gaps, overlapping mandates, and enhance inter-agency trust. Meanwhile, international cooperation efforts need to be complemented by the maritime enforcement capacity of regional navies and law enforcement agencies. As regional navies develop forward force projection capability, there also needs to be a strong capacity for regional information-sharing and immediate response operations to maritime crises. Stable Seas has also identified that the rule of law can impact maritime security. While local port officials are needed to enforce regulations and boost the legal economy, officials that continue to receive unregulated monetary incentives would only sustain illicit markets.

By situating maritime security as an extension of developments that take place on land, a multi-faceted understanding can be cultivated. The Stable Seas approach ( offers a method to identify how developments that begin in state capitals can impact coastal communities and eventually contribute to instability in the high seas.[iv] By shifting away from the hard security focus and recognizing the roles of other maritime drivers, regional policymakers and maritime experts alike can achieve practical solutions needed to secure Southeast Asia’s waterways and sustain maritime security.

i Bodeen, Christopher, “After latest FONOP, China fires ‘stern complaints’ at US”, Navy Times, 7 January 2019, and ABC News, “Beijing opens Maritime Rescue Base in South China Sea”, ABC News, 31 January 2019,

ii Philippines Department of National Defense, “Defense Ministers affirm Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement”, Press Release, 3 August 2016,

iii ReCAAP, Annual Report 2018: Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (Singapore: ReCAAP ISC, 2019)

iv Stable Seas, Stable Seas, accessed 15 February 2019,

Asyura Salleh

Asyura Salleh joined One Earth Future (OEF) as Project Manager for the Stable Seas program in 2018 in which she oversees engagement and research projects on Indo-Pacific issues, including the expansion of the Maritime Security Index. Prior to joining OEF, Asyura was a political analyst for the Brunei Darussalam Prime Minister’s Office. In addition to her master’s degree in War Studies from King’s College London, Asyura received a bachelor’s degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, UK. Asyura is also currently completing her doctorate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.