Asia’s anti-piracy strategy paying dividends
TOKYO — Pirate attacks in the South China Sea have doubled in the first half of this year, according to the United Nations-sanctioned group that monitors attacks at sea worldwide.
But that increase remains relatively small — there were only 13 attacks in the same waters in all of 2009 — especially when compared with the 100 attacks off Somalia in the first half of 2010.
And the attacks in the South China Sea and other Asian waters rarely involve the hijacking and violence seen closer to Africa, where 27 hijackings took place from January to June, according to the International Maritime Bureau, the only group that tracks pirate attacks worldwide.
The stark differences in at-sea crime rates between Africa and Asia are partly due to geography. In Asia, shipping canals flow through straits that prove easier to monitor. Ships sailing around Somalia must make it across a million square miles of ocean where pirates attack more brazenly in plain sight.
But Asia’s anti-piracy strategy is about much more than narrow sea lanes. The region has the political will to work together — and the financial backing of the United States — to go after suspected pirates in the Malacca and Singapore Straits, says Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies who studies piracy.
Six years ago, the U.S. military approached Indonesia and Malaysia to offer help at sea. The countries, which border the Strait of Malacca, declined the offer, according to Storey. They worried about sovereignty issues and thought U.S. Navy ships might draw the attention of terrorists as well, Storey wrote last year in the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Bulletin.
But the countries found another way to accept help and by 2006 were cashing checks from the U.S. Department of State for training, equipment and support to fuel anti-piracy efforts in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. To date, the money has added up to about $50 million in support, according to Storey.
“This has been done very quietly,” Storey said in a phone interview from Singapore earlier this month. “It’s been phenomenally successful.”
Overall, the Straits had only 11 attacks in all of 2009, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
It clearly helps, too, that the Asian countries have working navies and structured governments. Pirates off Somalia find a safe harbor in a land that has no rule of law.
“That’s a big problem,” the bureau’s Noel Choong said earlier this month. “If Somolia had a central government, the pirates wouldn’t be able to spend their money and come back to land.”
Worldwide, pirate attacks are down so far this year, with a total of 196 incidents reported in the first six months of this year, according to the International Maritime Bureau. There were 240 incidents in the same period last year.
The bureau said the South China Sea remains a small sore spot in Asia, in part because no one country has taken the lead in patrolling the larger body of water.
And there may be more attacks than the bureau records. To report a pirate attack, ship crews or governments must contact the bureau on a certain radio frequency and communicate in English, Storey says. It’s unclear if all attacks or attempted attacks get recorded.
Piracy remains a crime of opportunity. As long as Indonesia and others keep up their efforts, Choong said, the criminals will stay away.
“So far, so good,” he said. “As long as they maintain, it will be good.”