The Southeast Asian region (SEA) is surrounded by ocean space, from which there is a vast potential to harness energy. Wave, tidal energy, and ocean thermal energy conversion could be tapped, to provide alternative sources of clean and dependable energy in the region. This article contributes to the growing academic literature on ocean renewable energy (ORE) in SEA by improving understanding of the opportunities and challenges of ORE development in the region, beyond its technical aspects. It conducts a critical analysis of the socio-political aspects of ORE development at a regional scale, which have been less studied in the existing literature. Aside from providing a sustainable energy source, the development of the ORE sector could provide socio-economic benefits to SEA countries through employment opportunities, inter-industry learning, inbound investments and improving economic resilience. However, these benefits can only be maximised if the costs of deployment, maintenance and repair are reduced, the impact to the marine environment is taken into consideration and issues of public acceptance are addressed. Beyond a cost–benefit analysis, this study critically assesses the unintended risks and consequences of ORE technologies and activities in the region and recommends different policy strategies to mitigate them. It concludes that for the region to reap the benefits of ORE, a coordinated approach among different stakeholders (technology developers, policymakers, and end-users) is needed to minimise the risks and unintended consequences.