Friday, February 11, 2011
Asia vs. the Pirates
Piracy poses a growing maritime security problem for East Asia. The region is home to major shipping nations with some, especially Indonesia and the Philippines, being leading providers of international seafarers.
China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are all heavily dependent upon sea-borne trade through waters at risk of pirate attack off Somalia and in Southeast Asia. Japan is at the forefront of moves to counter piracy in these areas, while China and South Korea have also deployed warships to waters off Somalia.
By far the greatest concentration of piracy globally in 2010 was off the shores of Somalia, but attacks in Southeast Asian waters have also increased. The downturn in international shipping following the global financial crisis led to more freighters laid up in anchorages, such as off Johore, in Malaysia and Vung Tau in Vietnam, where more attacks have occurred. Vessels underway have also been attacked recently around Mangkai and Anambas islands in the South China Sea, although some ships may be loitering in this area while waiting for work, making them more vulnerable to attack.
There is speculation that pirates in Asia might adopt the Somali model of piracy, but this is unlikely. Somali pirates operate out of a lawless land where ships can be held securely while ransoms are negotiated. They are able to operate far offshore.
In contrast, pirates in Southeast Asia do not have the arsenal and coordination of their African counterparts, as well as lacking their range. It’s unlikely that Southeast Asian pirates could hijack a vessel and hold it for ransom without local intelligence agencies foiling their plans.
Japan is heavily involved in global efforts to counter piracy at sea. The nation has actively used its Coast Guard for building local capacity to counter piracy in Southeast Asian waters. The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, the nation’s navy, would be unacceptable for operating in this region due to the island nation’s Constitution.
Japan is also instrumental in other important initiatives to improve regional maritime security, including establishment of the Heads of Asian Coast Guard Agencies meetings, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, and the Cooperative Mechanism for Maritime Safety and Environmental Protection in the Malacca and Singapore Straits.
Piracy off Somalia was a critical turning point for the Japanese constitutionality of overseas military deployments. After increasing attacks on Japanese ships and following the example of China, Japan decided to deploy JMSDF ships and aircraft to protect its shipping off Somalia. Japan now plans to open its first overseas military base this year in Djibouti to provide an airfield for maritime patrol aircraft and a permanent port facility for warships.
Shipowners suffer extra costs due to raids, but the ultimate victims of piracy are the seafarers who are exposed to violence during attacks, have their personal valuables stolen or suffer the privations of being held hostage for many months aboard a hijacked ship. The recent incident in which Korean marines killed eight pirates during a successful operation to free a Korean-owned merchant ship from Somali pirate control could lead to escalating violence against seafarers.
Apart from lobbying for increased security efforts by governments, the shipping industry might also do more to ensure that ships are not attacked. There are still many substandard ships at sea, and some vessels are not following best practices and recommended procedures for countering piracy. Professionally operated and maintained vessels with well-trained and efficient crew can take all the proper precautions against attack.
Interestingly, piracy has served the broader strategic interests of the rising powers of Asia — China, India and Japan. All three have sought to play a role in anti-piracy operations both off Somalia and in Southeast Asia, but so far an element of strategic competition has been evident in their initiatives. They have all deployed warships to Somalia and have provided assistance to local security forces both in the Indian Ocean and in Southeast Asia. These actions may be as much about regional influence as countering piracy.
Dr. Sam Bateman is a senior fellow and adviser to the Maritime Security Program at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
East Asia Forum