Repelling Asia's maritime pirates
Amid the doom and gloom in the news out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the anxiety over the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, and the struggle in the 'war on terror', there is a ray of sunlight: maritime piracy is down in Southeast and South Asia.
The International Maritime Bureau in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, says in a fresh report that the number of pirate attacks in Asia plunged to 17 in the first quarter of this year, from 68 in the comparable period last year. The bureau, which tracks pirate assaults around the globe, also reported a worldwide downward slide, to 239 attacks last year, from 445 in 2003.
The threat of economic disruption due to trouble in the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea - through which more ships move each year than through the Panama and Suez canals combined - has diminished. Much of the imported oil in Japan, China and other Asian economies, for instance, is shipped through those waters. Equally important, the possibility of a devastating teaming up of pirates and terrorists in that part of the world has lessened.
The bureau attributed the drop in piracy to ship's masters and crews 'taking more precautions during their transits through the hot-spot areas'. Ship owners had adopted 'more stringent rules and regulations', it said. The bureau noted: 'The increase in co-operation between governments and local law enforcement agencies has proved to be successful in curbing the enthusiasm of the pirates.'
An obstacle to co-operation has been the legacy of anti-colonialism. Asian nations, having rid themselves of western colonial rulers after the second world war, have been reluctant to engage in operations that might seem to infringe on their sovereignty, such as allowing ships of a neighbouring nation to enter their waters during police missions.
Malaysian Defence Minister Najib Razak was quoted in the report as pointing to more co-ordination among his nation, Singapore and Indonesia. 'The formation of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and the increase in co-ordinated patrols among the authorities of the littoral states has proved most effective in securing the straits,' Mr Najib said.
On a naval base in Singapore, the government is building the Changi Command and Control Centre, to be operational in 2009 in co-ordinating manoeuvres against pirates and terrorists.
Singaporean Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean said: 'The trans-boundary nature of maritime crime and terrorism, coupled with the limited resources of states, demand that security and enforcement agencies, port authorities and shipping associations, come together to co-operate.'
The International Maritime Bureau, however, injected two notes of caution. Every attempt at piracy may not be reported and thus the problem may be worse than the figures suggest. Moreover, the reduction in cases 'should not induce complacency'. Vigilance, it said, had always been the best defence.
Almost as if on cue after the report was published, four pirates boarded a chemical tanker at anchor in the Singapore Strait. The crew tried to stop them, but failed: the armed robbers broke into the engine room, stole valuable spare parts and fled.
Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington