Active role for PLA
PIRACY attacks reported in this area in the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) annual report have increased more than fivefold. This is cold comfort to crews, shippers and owners operating in the South China Sea. These are some of the busiest waters in the world, used by traffic between Asia, the Americas and Europe as well as intra-Asian shipping. Yet if the latest statistics are to be believed, they are also some of the most dangerous.
There is some feeling in the shipping world that the statistics may reflect only a growth in the number of reports of piracy, not the number of attacks. The Regional Piracy Centre in Kuala Lumpur has only relatively recently begun to win the trust of the industry, and this is reflected in the growth of its database. And while in some regions the attacks have become more ferocious - as the report suggests - the majority of those in Hong Kong appear to have been cases of petty theft while the vessel was in port, not armed piracy on the high seas.
The lawlessness off the coasts of China and a number of other nations in the region has not so far disrupted trade to any substantial extent. Nor has it noticeably driven up insurance rates, since it tends to be small cargoes and crews' own belongings which are stolen, not container loads which the pirates would find harder to handle. Nevertheless, the hijacking last year of the bulk cargo carrier Anna Sierra and the sale of its cargo of 12,000 tonnes of sugar to a Chinese company is hardly reassuring.
The offer by Australia's opposition Liberal Party yesterday to help Southeast Asian nations crack down on piracy, possibly using Australian warships, deserves attention, although it is, as yet, just an election ploy.
Hong Kong, as the world's busiest container port, and with some of its most modern facilities, cannot afford to allow the security of its shipping lanes to be threatened by this almost-medieval form of brigandage. The departure of the British navy in 1997 should not leave the territory without resources against pirates in and around its waters. With the handover of coastal patrols to the Hong Kong Marine Police in recent years and the stationing of Chinese naval vessels here after the change of sovereignty, ship-owners should be assured of adequate protection.
While the Chinese soldiers may be confined to barracks for much of their stay here, their naval counterparts will have an active role to perform which they should relish: China has an interest in maintaining the security of Hong Kong shipping lanes. The IMB report hardly leaves room for complacency but it need not be the cause of panic that the sudden increase in documented piracy reports might otherwise appear to justify.