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  • Writer's pictureTravis Turgeon

SEACAT Training Continues in 2022 for Enhanced Maritime Security in Southeast Asia

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

"Naval forces and maritime authorities from 21 countries, including the US, gathered to complete ten days of training exercises to help combat drug smuggling, piracy, human trafficking, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in Southeast Asia.

On August 16th, the 21st Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) annual training kicked off in Singapore. Naval forces and maritime authorities from 21 countries, including the US, gathered to complete ten days of training exercises to help combat drug smuggling, piracy, human trafficking, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in Southeast Asia.

The yearly exercise aims to facilitate ongoing international cooperation as part of the latest strategies in the Indo-Pacific to counter over-assertive countries, namely China, from operating in unauthorized waters, as well as reduce the overall amount of illegal activity from all vessels across the region. While China has not been named explicitly within these maritime security strategies, it is evident that many strategies aim to deter them specifically.

The US Navy leads the SEACAT training every year with the hopes of helping nations collaborate to take control of security risks and improve economic resilience in the region.

When asked about the outcome of this year’s training, Captain Tom Ogden, commander of the Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 7, said, “These past two weeks have reiterated what we already knew. Our nations and maritime forces are smarter and stronger when we share information and work together.”

Commander Ogden went on to say, “The in-person, multilateral collaboration exhibited in SEACAT has undoubtedly enhanced our relationships and promoted maritime security across the Indo Pacific.”

Militaries from 21 nations came together to participate in this year's SEACAT training, including

  • Australia

  • Bangladesh

  • Brunei

  • Canada

  • Fiji

  • France

  • Germany

  • Indonesia

  • Japan

  • Malaysia

  • Maldives

  • New Zealand

  • Peru

  • Phillippines

  • The Republic of Korea

  • Singapore

  • Sri Lanka

  • Thailand

  • UK

  • US

  • Vietnam

Non-military participants were also present, including members from

  • International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL)

  • National University of Singapore (LKYSPP NUS)

  • Pew Charitable Trusts

  • International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

  • Risk Intelligence

  • Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

  • Stable Seas

  • EU Critical Maritime Route Wider Indian Ocean (CRIMARIO)

  • S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)

  • United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

What Types of Exercises Did the 2022 SEACAT Training Cover?

This year’s SEACAT training took place on land and at sea.

The first part (about a week) of this year’s SEACAT training included an uncrewed aerial system (UAS) workshop, which shared the best practices for UAS employment, planning, and operations to enhance regional maritime domain awareness. It also included seminars on search and seizure protocols and understanding the complexities of maintaining a secure maritime environment.

After the first week of training concluded, participants moved to open water to practice procedures and drills, including a tanker boarding exercise carried out by the Singapore team. The “sea phase” simulated real-world environments and suspicious activity commonly seen in Southeast Asian waters using the Information Fusion Center in Singapore. The Information Fusion Center served as a central hub for information sharing in tracking simulated vessels of interest - demonstrating how information sharing is a critical component of effective maritime monitoring and management.

At the opening of the 2022 SEACAT event, Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, the US Navy’s 7th Commander, said, “SEACAT is about learning how to share information effectively between like-minded partners. Our respective governments have all independently decided that it is also within our national interests to uphold the international norms that govern the maritime domain, which is applied without prejudice for the benefit of every nation."

While only some entities participated in every workshop, most chose the exercises that fit their role in maritime security most accurately. The US Coast Guard, for example, scheduled two days of workshops that included boarding, search, and seizure drills - a key component of their enforcement strategies.

US Commander Tom Ogden said, “This iteration of SEACAT is designed as a scenario requiring participating countries to use all MDA assets available to conduct multilateral intercepts using standard procedures. Training together develops capability and trust among participating countries to cooperate and provide mutual support in response to a crisis or illegal activity in the maritime domain."

Do Maritime Initiatives in Southeast Asia Run the Risk of Regional Militarization?

The Quad Alliance and the Southeast Asia Cooperation Against Terrorism are critical aspects of challenging dark shipping and illicit maritime operations in the Indo-Pacific. However, some analysts say that the recent moves could spark militarization in the region.

The Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) will share commercially available satellite data and monitor national and international waters. The monitoring task force will notify the respective authorities of intrusions, suspicious activity, or unauthorized actions that may fall under the category of IUU fishing, human trafficking, or illicit Ship-to-Ship (STS) transfers of materials like crude oil or natural gas.

When asked about the impact the IPMDA will have in the region, a US White House representative responded, “This initiative will transform the ability of partners in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean region to fully monitor the waters on their shores and, in turn, to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Dark shipping will be a primary focus of the Indo-Pacific initiative, integrating three crucial regions into strategic development, including Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Indian Ocean region. Satellites will help identify and monitor vessel data such as identification numbers, call signs, locations, travel paths, ports of origin, and destinations - giving a full-picture perspective on how ships circumvent maritime law when carrying out illicit activity at sea.

China is a known player in IUU fishing in the region, and a big part of the initiative will aim to stifle such activity.

According to Major General Dhruv Katoch of the Indian Army, “It is fairly well known that ships conducting illegal shipping are Chinese in their origin. The satellite data will serve to confirm this and improve accuracy and capabilities manifold.”

China currently has disputes with Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan over territory in the region, with Chinese vessels frequently straying into contested areas within the South and East China Seas. Indo-Pacific leaders will keep a close eye on any potential militarization by China in the coming months, but the hopes are that the initiative will do more to benefit the region than it will cause conflict.

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