The maritime security challenge

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speech by Lord Astor, Under Secretary of State.


The United Kingdom has long historical connections and many close partners here in Asia.

And for me these connections are personal.

As a young officer in the British Army I served here in the Far East in the late nineteen sixties. And have returned many times since with my family to visit and explore this fascinating region.

I have seen with my own eyes how much has changed.

I have seen the dynamism of the people channelled into the economies of the region.

I have seen rapid change, skyscrapers grow, and the region take its rightful place as a key centre of global power.

Some in Europe like to talk rather patronisingly about ‘developing’ economies here, but there are twice as many of the top 30 richest cities in the world in this region compared to Europe.

This region as an economic powerhouse and the countries here are now taking up the global responsibilities that this economic clout brings.

Because with power comes responsibility.

In this era of interconnectedness and volatility, no country, no matter how rich, can hope to provide for the security of its citizens by working alone.

Partnership is a necessity not an option.

So the responsibility of power is a responsibility to collaborate and find shared solutions to shared problems.

Some areas we need to work together are contemporary, such as cybersecurity, which I am glad to see on the conference agenda.

Others, such as maritime security, are enduring.

Why maritime security matters, global economic dependency

For an island nation like Britain, with a long maritime history, just like many of the nations in this region, the sea is our blood.

We intrinsically recognise the reliance we have on a rules based management of our use of the high seas.

Even in this digital age of fast, cheap air travel, 90% of world trade by value and 95% by volume is carried by sea, as is over half the world’s oil production.

Here in south east Asia an estimated 50,000 vessels are passing through the Malacca Strait every year.

And 40% of the world’s trade passes through the south China Sea and set to increase.

National, regional and, indeed the global, economies continue to be dependent upon the freedom of the seas.

This is the tyranny of geography.

Such is the global dependence on goods and energy passing through the region that if the critical sea lanes were disrupted for any significant time, the effect would be catastrophic.

As Peter Hinchcliffe, the Secretary General of the International Shipping Federation said,

Half the world would starve and the other half would freeze.

So the case for working together is self-evident, we all require security and no-one can provide it alone.

Upholding the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely key.

When a country’s trade transcends its strategic reach, it relies on international norms of behaviour for planning and reassurance.

Those norms are provided for under the ‘UN Convention of the Law of the Seas, UNCLOS’, whether by demarking territorial limits, economic zones, international straits, lifesaving responsibilities or rights of innocent passage.

Those norms are disregarded to the peril of us all.

Just as the sea can bring us all prosperity, failing to resolve our differences in accordance with those norms, can only bring strife.

So how should we manage security in the high seas?

Collaboration with a purpose

First we should look at what works.

Here in south east Asia you have shown the world how well co-ordinated action can prevent pirate attacks on global shipping.

A decade ago the Straits of Malacca were a popular hunting ground for pirates.

Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand came together to implement a range of collective measures, such as intelligence sharing and co-ordinating sea and air patrols.

As a result, the situation has vastly improved.

Off the Horn of Africa, the international community is learning from your efforts.

The contribution from this region to tackling piracy there has been fantastic.

Coalition Task Force 151, which is combating piracy through the Gulf of Aden and the eastern Indian Ocean, has previously been commanded by New Zealand, Pakistan, the Republic of Korea and Singapore.

In ten days Thailand will assume command of Coalition Task Force.

The UK’s Royal Fleet Auxiliary Fort Victoria is proud to serve as the command platform.

The Royal Navy plays an active role in both CTF 151 and the EU’s Task Group and it plays a command role in the Coalition Forces Maritime Component Command in Bahrain, where many nations, whether part of the coordinated activity or acting unilaterally, have lodged liaison staff.

So the success of the multi-national Straits Security Initiative and the international action to tackle piracy in other waters has shown that collective action delivers results.

The Regional Co-operation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) has been similarly successful in safeguarding merchant shipping; I am pleased to see that its tenure has been renewed for another 5 years.

Membership continues to grow beyond the region and the UK has joined Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands as extra-regional members.

The benefits of co-operation extend beyond security.

Regional security operations help build trust and encourage communication and information sharing between nations.

Multi-layered security

As a mature organisation, designed to promote co-operation, ASEAN has the potential to be a platform developing consensus and to help drive regional security collaboration.

But such organisations are simply an expression of the political will of the nations who are members.

It is the political will of its members to build capacity that is paramount.

So the United Kingdom is keen to do to provide practical help in the development of a cohesive and proactive ASEAN.

But we do not believe that security is served by an approach of putting all your eggs in a single basket.

We believe that an approach which provides for multi-layered security multilateral organisations like ASEAN supported by smaller group co-operation and bi-lateral relationships that can be swifter to act, more flexible in approach and generate real deployable capabilities in a crisis situation.

A building block approach to security, including maritime security, will ensure that collaboration is not held back by the lowest denomination but driven forward by best practice.

For instance, the UK is a proud member of the Five Power Defence Arrangements which is the cornerstone of our defence engagement in the region.

But this isn’t just about old friendships, as important as they are.

This is about new friendships too.

That is why Britain is increasing its defence engagement around the world.

Over the past 18 months, we have signed three defence treaties and 33 memoranda of understanding, including with traditional partners like Australia and New Zealand but also with Asian powers such as India and new friends in this region such as Vietnam.

This is a measure of the importance the UK places in our defence relationships and in the region as a whole.


So in conclusion, we in the United Kingdom are natural allies for any country who seeks to bring security to the sea lanes.

We recognise that the well spring of our own prosperity, and our security, is stability in the high seas.

That is why, in the Royal Navy, we continue to invest in some of the best and most capable ships ever to have graced the sea.

But we recognise that no man is an island and security can only be guaranteed by working together.

In this region of economic dynamism and power countries are co-operating as their interests demand, in maintaining the freedom of the seas and protecting the free movement of goods upon which our citizens rely.

The United Kingdom is part of that collaborative effort.

But we recognise that how the nations of this region manage their security, stability and prosperity will impact far and wide.

Just as the 20th century has been called the “American Century” increasingly people are calling the 21st century the “Asia-Pacific century”.

What happens here matters, not just for the region but for the world as a whole.

As I said earlier, with power comes responsibility.

As this region consolidates as a global power centre, so will the nations of the region have to shoulder their share of upholding international security and stability, based on the rule of law and peaceful co-existence.

When it comes to maritime security, the world needs YOU, it is YOUR future, just as much as it is ours.