This article deals with some aspects of one of serious problems in present international relations, which is the regional problem of piracy. The analysis shows the reader key phenomena why is the piracy in the Southeast Asia such a problem for international relations. The targets of this article are first to define the position of the threat of piracy among other threats to this region, second to inform the reader about the situation of piracy in the South East Asian region and its connotation for international relations and third to give some review and also proposals of the present anti-piracy combat efforts.
In this thesis, I deal with some aspects of the issue of piracy in Southeast Asia. I am not going to describe special behavior of each state in the region; I am rather going to analyze why the piracy in Southeast Asia is such a problem for international relations.
My primary target is first to define a position of the threat of piracy among other threats to this region. Second, I would like to inform (mainly European) readers about the situation, about the piracy problem and its development and of course about its impacts on international relations. This region is not in concern of European politics but we are talking here about a “choke point” that is important for world trade routes, and therefore very important for Europe as well.
There are lots of books, articles and reviews on the piracy problem in Southeast Asia (see references for a short review). However, they are all usually published in Asian or Asia-related written or electronic journals that are typically unknown in European region. Therefore, I would like to use this paper to broaden the knowledge about this “Southeast-Asian-region-related” but “world-affecting problem”. The piracy problem has got some crucial strategic impacts that I am going to mention.
The following text begins with a definition of the term „piracy“, then presents an analysis on why the region is so important and what the “choke point” means. Then, I take a look at the problem as such by combining both chapters which will finally lead to some proposals of what should be kept in mind when dealing with the problem and how to deal with it to secure the area. In the end, I will try to give the reader a very short view of probable future development of piracy related to the South China Sea region.
Piracy or the word “pirate” comes from ancient times from Mediterranean Europe. It is logical because of a special geographical condition of ancient Greece and Latin (ancient Italy). Since the Vikings from North of Europe had used to set off on their looting campaigns in 9th century, pirates enjoyed extensive evolvement. Their “golden age” was between 1500 and 1800. During 1800–1850, western navies eliminated all the organized piracy and it survived only in geographical favorable locations, such as South Asia with its numerous islands.
Nevertheless, these surviving, small, insignificant pirate groups have started to pose a serious danger for world maritime trade and traffic since the middle of 20th century. This is mainly caused by a special character of present international system that is largely based on liberal paradigm of international relations. This paradigm basically requires states to cooperate and trade, and sea routes are therefore of high importance. This is obvious when I emphasize that approximately 90–95% of international trade exchange1 is provided by sea (Waisova 2007: 71). Consequently, piracy is among crucial threats capable of harming the international relations system.
There are several important international organizations engaged in the problem of piracy. Among others, they are the United Nations, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) or the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Along with international agreements, they together create a legal basis to fight piracy.
The United Nations made its greatest contribution to the anti-piracy combat unintentionally when the Law of the Sea was put through at the UN Convention in 1988. The International Maritime Bureau and the International Maritime Organization are organizations that collect information about piracy incidents around the world and issue reports on piracy afterwards. These two organizations provide support for nations engaged in counter-piracy efforts by maintaining a database of all reported incidents of piracy, and by supporting the development of technologies and protocols to protect ships from pirate attacks (Johnson – Pladdet 2003: 45). This helps a lot to identify problematic regions and plan naval routes, but – on the other hand – they have no legal instruments to actually fight pirates.
Besides, the United Nations (and International Maritime Organization) view piracy differently to the International Maritime Bureau. The view of the United Nations is expressed in the articles 100–107 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This Convention defines piracy in the article 101 as:
(I) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
(II) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
This is quite a detailed definition; however, as Erik Barrios stressed, the definition excludes many of the types of maritime attacks that currently occur in Southeast Asia. In particular, the UNCLOS requires that a crime occurs on the high seas in order to be punished as piracy. However, the majority of maritime attacks in Southeast Asia occur within a state’s territorial waters. (Barrios 2005: 156) Acts of piracy in territorial waters are called “armed robbery” (Mo 2002: 345), and there are complications when using the right to pursuit pirates in these waters. The right of “hot pursuit” of a foreign ship may be undertaken when the competent authorities of the coastal state have a good reason to believe that the ship has violated the laws and regulations of that state. This right may be exercised only by warships or military aircraft, or other ships or aircraft clearly marked and identifiable as being on government service and authorized to that effect. Most importantly, the right of “hot pursuit” is only applicable when pursuing a ship on its way from state`s own waters to international waters. Unfortunately, the hot pursuit ceases as soon as the pursued ship enters the territorial sea of its own state or of a third state (UNCLOS: 63–64). This important fact makes counter-piracy efforts more difficult even although the article 100 of UNCLOS requires Convention participants to cooperate in the repression of piracy (UNCLOS: 60). The Convention was partially modified by the article 3 of the Rome Convention for suppression of unlawful acts against safety of maritime navigation. Following is a definition of piracy according to the Rome Convention:
1. Any person commits an offence if that person unlawfully and intentionally:
2. Any person also commits an offence if that person:
The Rome Convention is a legal basis for the International Maritime Organization. Despite this modification, the problem remains pressing because key regional states – Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia – did not sign the Rome Convention (Barrios 2005: 157). The view of the International Maritime Bureau is different. The IMB has a much broader definition of piracy:
An act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the attempt to or capability to use force in furtherance of that act (Johnson – Pladdet 2003: 45).
Therefore, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is mostly binding whereas the views of the International Maritime Organization and the International Maritime Bureau are wider and therefore better applicable. Although one could oppose that the definition of the IMB is too vague, it better suits to effectively respond to present pirates` activities. The problem is obvious; the IMO and the IMB are not organizations of legislative powers and their definitions of piracy are therefore not so widely accepted. Moreover, several key states of the South China Sea are not parties to the IMB. One way or another, the UNCLOS is the only legal organization to directly combat piracy. Also, UNCLOS has the greatest legal basis among others because it has 157 members.
The most urgent need to effectively combat piracy is therefore obvious; it is the need to have a commonly understood definition of piracy that is not obstructed by legal discrepancies and ambiguities as the UNCLOS is (see above). This definition has to be formulated by a legally powerful authority the regional states are members of. The UNCLOS is logically of the best position among others to be such an authority and it largely already is, but the problems mentioned and ambiguities of its definition of piracy are blocks for using the full advantage of its potential. Besides, Thailand and Cambodia, two important regional states, did sign the Convention but have not ratified it yet. Thus, they limit the multilateral regional antipiracy activities. Also, to combat the piracy in non-international waters a legally grounded cooperation between the states involved is necessary. This general problem of common understanding of the threat is only one of the problems related to the region of the South China Sea. From the legal view or from the view of international law, it is the very key problem, though.
The South China Sea is located in south of China and is part of the Pacific Ocean. The Sea is completely surrounded by continental or insular territories. The states are Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China (also Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan) in the North; Philippines in the east and Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia in the south and west. The Sea starts at the Malacca Strait in the west and ends at the Taiwan Strait. The South China Sea extends on an area of about 3.5 million square kilometers.
The South China Sea is of high importance for all critical-goods-importing countries in Asia. The Malacca Strait along with the Singapore Strait is a “chokepoint” of international maritime travel and trade. These chokepoints are vital communication points of maritime travel and communication routes. Obviously, they are straits, canals, ship-ways, and sounds. Their importance is growing in parallel with the increase of the capacity of goods transported by sea. The straits of Malacca and Singapore are the main seaways connecting the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea, and together they are the shortest route for tankers trading between the Middle East and Far East Asian countries. Consequently, traffic transiting the region is considerably heavy with approximately 60.000 vessels reported a year. In addition, there is a considerable number of local vessels engaged in the trade across the straits; numerous fishing vessels can be encountered in most areas. (Roach 2005: 97) 15% of world oil trade goes through the Malacca Strait, around 80% of all goods transported to Japan goes through the Malacca Strait.2 and also about 50% of all world maritime transport goes through the South China Sea (Waisova 2007: 71).
The South China Sea is naturally an object of more concerns than only transport. The Sea is a huge deposit of natural resources and that is the cause of problems with the creation of an effective legal system. Japan or China would probably posses (military) means to secure the region and to protect naval chokepoints from piracy, but no regional state is keen to see numerous Japanese or Chinese military ships to cruise around the Sea. When potentially declared as protectors, it would be easy for these two states to enhance their activities by achieving their private interests in the region in the name of piracy repression. Also, the Straits are so narrow that there are no international waters between them which would complicate potential antipiracy activities of China and Japan, as they would be legally considered as third states in one`s territorial seas.
China, with its growing natural resources consumption, seeks new sources and the South China Sea is considered a very good place to find them, especially because of its advantageous geographical location. China’s maritime strategy3 even includes an aim of exploiting mineral wealth of the sea off the Chinese continental shelf; it is a major preoccupation of the Chinese leadership (Cozens 2004: 6). The UNCLOS enables a state to create an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is an area of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured. The state has a right to exploit all the natural resources in this EEZ, but all third states enjoy freedom of navigation and over flight and of laying submarine cables and pipelines, and other internationally lawful uses of the sea related to these freedoms (UNCLOS: 43–45). It is obvious that Chinese territorial disputes, e.g. over the Tonkin Bay, the Paracel Islands or the Spratly Islands, are debated in regards of the possibility of extending the EEZ because this zone is measured from the baseline of territorial sea even around islands. China also wants to use the shelves as places for generating tidal electric power.
Chinese unilateral interests are contrary to a multilateral approach of the ASEAN. This organization could have the potential to manage the South China Sea and also to combat piracy if there are no internal disputes. Nowadays, numerous territorial disputes among ASEAN member states undermine this organization`s common effective approach.4 ASEAN is on one hand a platform to improve regional relations and economic development; its power is limited by disputes and misunderstandings among member states, though. In the end, the regional problems solutions are still more affected by national interest than by multilateral cooperation.
Last but not least is the potential piracy`s possibility of harming tourism in the region. The ASEAN states are not economically strong countries and many of them obtain considerable amounts of money from tourism (e.g. Thailand). When the fluent navigation through the straits is blocked and fear of navigating through them spreads, tourism could be harmed. The lack of money from tourism could have a negative impact on internal affairs of the regional states.
East Asian countries, especially Japan,5 understand the importance and also the vulnerability of the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait above all. There are several security risks deeply related to these locations. The first one is the mentioned legal disputes about the ownership of some territories; the well-known Spratly Islands dispute between China and Vietnam or China and Philippines are examples of such disputes. Another example is the territorial dispute between Indonesia and Singapore. The narrowest breadth of the Singapore Strait is just 3.2 miles, and throughout its length it is constantly less than 15 miles wide. Indonesia claims a 12-mile territorial sea, and Singapore claims 3 miles (Roach 2005: 98). The problem is that until there is a proper legal and multilateral understanding of the region among all the regional states, there can be no real effective anti-piracy alliance.
The second huge security risk is the potential ship accident in one of the Straits. This is an unintentional risk but with considerable impact. According to the Energy Information Administration, there were 15 million barrels transported per day in 2006 (EIA 2008b). Besides, there are more than 400 ships sailing through the Straits per day. Such an incident would interrupt fluent navigation, possibly stopping the communication and transportation for several days and causing traffic jams, environmental disasters, and harming lots of companies dependent on maritime transported goods. Even countries could be harmed badly; let me remind for instance that 80% of all the imported goods to Japan go through these straits. And the third huge security risk is the piracy in South China Sea and both Straits.
The existence of piracy itself always has been bound to international maritime trade. Also, piracy occurs practically only in locations where a number of trade ships circulate. The South China Sea along with the Malacca and Singapore Straits are such locations. Sea is an area with lots of terrestrial standards of behavior still not accepted. It is an area that has not changed considerably (in contrast to terrestrial areas) in last 500 years and is still largely based on the term “freedom”. Even such term as “international waters” that is widely accepted also among land-locked states has got no parallel on firm ground. Sea is still an area where one can easily get lost, where one can hide or where one can come across pirates.
Geographical conditions of South China Sea and both Straits are very suitable for pirate activities, as there is a broken terrain and a huge number of small islands, peninsulas, and bays. These conditions provide pirates with a very firm basis for their operations. Pirates in this region also abuse the fact that the region is of high importance and trade and transport ships are going to use these Straits despite the year-by-year increasing threat of pirate attacks. If they are required to sail on a different route, it would make more than 500 miles more, prolonging voyage times and generating a substantial increase in the requirements for vessel capacity along with raising freight rates worldwide (Roach 2005: 97).
The extent of piracy in the Southeast Asia is caused by several phenomena among which are presumably the following. The first ones are definitely the mentioned geographical condition along with traffic concentration and also the partially limited antipiracy activities caused by the mentioned fact that there is no fully common understanding of the definition of piracy. The other one is that pirates have been establishing networks, organizations or syndicates to better cooperate and improve their chances to success in attacking ships. This also helps them sell the stolen cargo. Another one is that Southeast-Asian pirates are more skilled in their trade (Ong-Webb 2006: 51), which means they are very well experienced in illegal trade and selling stolen cargo. Also, there is a trend of an increasing use of small and automatic weapons because of proliferation of these weapons from Cambodia, Afghanistan, and other countries. There is therefore another trend of increased violence and hostage-taking. Another phenomenon is a dynamic growth and development of maritime Asian economies that attracted greater volumes of commercial maritime traffic passing through the region (Ong-Webb 2006: 78). The last one is the fact that pirates also learn from their mistakes, they use modern technologies, Internet and radars, and nowadays they are therefore very well organized and equipped. Despite that, they are bound to use smaller, unsophisticated ships to be “invisible” and fast, and they are hence bound to a limited area of operation. This means that they mainly attack not far away from the coastline. These are key phenomena for the present (or recent) expansion of piracy in South East Asia.
The Southeast-Asian piracy deals mostly in hijacking ships, stealing cargo, kidnapping people, and unauthorized boarding on vessels followed by robbing personal property of the crew. Almost all reported acts of piracy involve also threatening, injuring or killing members of the ship’s crew. There are also rumors that some ship crews paid tribute to the pirates to be left alone (Burnett 2003). Pirates in the Malacca and Singapore Straits also like to hijack anchored ships. Due to the anchoring process, the ships are often separated from themselves by a great distance which makes pirates’ attacks actually easier. Southeast-Asian pirates also do not specialize in some sort of ships which leaves the seafarers in even greater uncertainty.
Pirates sometimes attack ships even up to 15 nautical miles away from shores of the Straits. They either stop the ship under the threat of heavy-weapons fire6 or use small boats to get to the victim-ship from behind, which is followed by throwing some ropes on the deck to climb up onto the ship.7 Finally, they pacify the crew. This is done mainly at nights when darkness covers pirates’ approach. Sometimes, they also claim to be customs officers, shipwrecked crews or fishermen. Captured boats that are not exchanged for ransom usually end in one of the many harbors of the region and the pirates sell them away. It is difficult to pursuit, capture or even to find the pirates after their attacks. They use steaming ships that are almost impossible to catch because of their high speed (Walters 2007: 11).8
Modern-day South East Asian pirates present a considerable threat in two key ways (among other lesser ones, such as possible international law weakening or domestic security credibility). It is a threat to stability of global economy and there is a threat of cooperation with terrorists. The first one was already noted above; the growing piracy activities are a huge threat to fluent navigation through the Straits, and thus to fluent exchange between West and East which would have significant impact on national, regional, and global economies. Also, piracy continues to be a serious risk for shipping companies, sailors, cargo owners, and insurers (Berg & Co. 2006: 7).
The piracy problem in the South China Sea is also a far bigger menace for there is a possibility of creating contacts between pirate organizations and Jemaah Islamiah, which is a local branch of Al-Qaeda (Ward – Hackett 2004: 1), based in Indonesia. The piracy could in this way easily turn into terrorism. The dividing line between piracy and terrorism has become rather blurred, and the danger of terror at sea is growing too. Every ten minutes one vessel transits the Straits, including many oil tankers carrying 40% of the worldwide output. Terrorists specifically exploit the western economies’ dependence on oil prices; Al-Qaeda’s intention is to disrupt maritime trade as the backbone of the modern global economy (Berg & Co. 2006: 16).
There is a number of problems that affect a positive treatment of not only the piracy problem but also of the multilateral and multidimensional problem of security of the South China Sea and both the Straits. One of them is for example a big number of unstated reports of piracy incidents (Ong-Webb 2006: 73). This affects all the statistics that are used by researchers. The researchers’ analyses are therefore in the end out of focus and their implication for real situation could be simply wrong.
The countries involved should realize that without any assistance of a great power it is rather difficult to eradicate piracy. Regionally, Japan is then in a position to play the role Great Britain performed during most of the nineteenth century, when it pressed for anti-piracy and anti-slavery campaigns (Teitler 2002: 76). This they cannot realize until they settle down their natural resources and territorial disputes, that are yet another problem.
These disputes block almost all the regional attempts to create some form of multilateral cooperation. Beside the three above mentioned organizations – the UN, the IMO, and the IMB – there are several agreements such as Asian Regional Anti-Piracy Agreement (ReCAAP) or Caribbean Regional Agreement. Even a huge organization like Association of South East Asian Nations is aware of the piracy threat and works on some cooperation. At the 12th meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum ministers in July 2005, the ministers welcomed the ARF’s sustained efforts in promoting maritime safety and security and highlighted four key areas for future cooperation: multilateral cooperation, operational solutions to maritime safety and security, shipping and port security, and application of technology for maritime safety and security (Roach 2005: 108).9 There are also several bilateral or trilateral cooperation efforts that are actually based on no firm agreement, e.g. co-ordinated patrols of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia (which is actually logical, as they share the waters of the Malacca and Singapore Straits). The territorial disputes are not, after all, the only conflicts of interests in the region.
Some great disputes lie in the fact that the South China Sea is very rich on natural resources and littoral states do not want other “third party“ powers to be involved in the region because of this. They do not want to lose their rights to exploit the resources. The oil consumptions in developing Asian countries is expected to rise by 2.7 percent annually from about 18.8 million barrels per day in 2004 to nearly 29.8 million barrels per day in 2030, and China is expected to account for almost half of the growth (EIA 2008a). Possible ownership of a cache of natural resources “at the door” leaves no littoral country out of emotions. A state with such a possibility would be much more secure in terms of raw materials transportation through the Straits since it could rely on the materials from the South China Sea. This is no doubt a considerable strategic advantage. This could also be used as motivation for China to enhance its navy, which is consequently likely to cause tensions in the region because of the Taiwan Strait and Chinese potential to invade Taiwan. Also, Vietnam has one of the longest shores of the South China Sea and its role cannot be underestimated. It is likely to enhance its navy also in reaction to Chinese activities. This all would be followed by similar Japanese activities and in the end there is a high risk of a breakout of new arms race in the region.
Another problem lies in political and financial costs of a potential solution to the problem. Pirates are very well equipped and to match them would require more than just a political agreement. It would also require technology and training, which is very expensive, and the Asian states are mostly developing countries. States that do not see immediate benefits for them to justify such efforts are not willing to share such an economically demanding burden. Besides, some pirating acts have been committed by unemployed seamen or fishermen (Mo 2002: 350), so even some social changes would be required to effectively combat the piracy. On the other hand, however, there can emerge a private organization to combat the piracy that can be able to negotiate an agreement with Southeast Asian states and be paid for maintaining security in the waters. Such a “private military company” could be a possible solution if all the involved countries find the necessary consensus.
Moreover, there are some attempts to combat piracy on the part of company owners and also on the part of shipping companies. They tried to use a convoy strategy (Nemec 2008) (known from the World War II), but in the end they found out it was incredibly expensive and it rather economically harms the companies. Also, not every company has got enough money to afford the convoy protection so there will also be always something left for the pirates to rob and hijack.
The USA, as the only world superpower, likes to engage in such affairs worldwide, but this location is actually not in their real interest. They are not at all affected by these problems as much as Asian countries or Europe since their transport lines of critical goods actually do not run through the region of South East Asia. Also, these regional problems are likely to weaken Chinese and Japanese efforts to become major world powers, which is actually comfortable for the USA. Regional powers are not likely to combat piracy on their own even if they probably have the power to do so. As stressed above, Chinese or Japanese activities are not welcomed because they would seek their national interests in the name of combating piracy.
From the above-mentioned information I can conclude that pirates are going to remain a major threat to Southeast Asian sea transportation. They will continue hijacking ships and robbing their cargo. There are, of course, lots of reactions from Asian states but these are affected by numerous disputes in the region and also by a special nature of Asian international relations. The countries involved are willing to cooperate for they definitely understand that they can prepare themselves for intentional attacks better than for unintentional attacks. Also, the piracy attacks are intentional and therefore affecting the long term policies of the countries now, which is in contrast with unintentional attacks that the countries are still “awaiting”. These countries also have to find a unified definition of piracy, especially in terms of a possible legal pursuit of pirates in waters of different states. This is probably the most important issue of the future of combating piracy.
The piracy in the South China Sea and both Straits has potential to affect and involve the European Union that is dependent on goods imported from Asian states. The EU is now not really interested in maritime security which is a mistake that is likely to be paid in future. Piracy is among crucial threats capable of harming international relations system itself.
Besides, there is a need for military, police and intelligence to cooperate to fight maritime piracy that could be possibly connected to terrorist groups. A possibility of terrorism being financed from maritime piracy is a serious issue. We can predict that as long as the disputes continue, the piracy will continue as well. Also, the piracy will continue with growing number of transported material and ships sailing through the region. This trend is unstoppable. The European Union should be involved in dealing with this problem, as there is no doubt it is going to harm its economy in the future.
Future researchers should among other aspects research how the EU is able to help to address the problem. Also, a deep analysis of ecological degradation, of the involvement of transnational crime syndicates and of social background of pirates themselves is necessary. Nobody has analyzed what the main reason for their pirating activities is and how changes in social policy could affect the pirates’ will to continue in their activities.
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Autor je studentem mezinárodních vztahů na Masarykově univerzitě.