Hong Kong's shipping chief yesterday warned that the carrying of weapons on merchant ships would escalate pirate attacks and place crew at greater risk - even as he attempted to justify such actions.
Director of Marine Roger Tupper also told a regional seamen's union conference in Mong Kok that international navies should take tougher action against the mother ships now giving Somali pirates expanded reach across the vital Indian Ocean shipping lanes linking Asia to Europe. Noting the vastness of the ocean distances now involved, he said more 'proactive' rules of engagement were needed 'such that pirate mothers can be intercepted when detection is easiest - as they enter international waters after leaving their bases in Somalia'.
Ship masters and owners 'cannot rely on rapid naval response to attacks in the open ocean as is the case in the Gulf of Aden,' Tupper told the 28th Asian Seafarers' Summit.
'In principle, the Marine Department does not encourage the carriage of weapons ... as we believe their use will lead to an escalation of the situation and greater risk to the crew.
'However, in the absence of stepped-up naval action, [we have advised] that where ships are passing through known piracy areas with no naval protection, in the interests of ... security, weapons may be carried for protection'.
Tupper's comments come as the shipping industry braces for a surge in attacks by Somali pirates in the autumn calms - attacks which appear to be growing more violent.
Both Hong Kong and mainland shipowners have joined international counterparts in showing a greater willingness to used armed force - mainly via private security complements - when plying pirate-infested waters.
Reverend Stephen Miller, senior chaplain at the Mission to Seafarers in Hong Kong, said the initial objection to having armed guards on board was that it would lead to an escalation of violence. But he said violence against seafarers had already escalated: around 480 cases have been reported of seamen being tortured as their captors waited on ransom payments.
Peter Cremers, chief executive of Anglo-Eastern Ship Management, had been against the use of armed guards, but changed his mind due to pirates roaming over wider areas and becoming more willing to hurt seamen. Cremers, who manages about 350 ships on behalf of ship owners, said Anglo-Eastern 'strongly recommended' that owners use 'armed guards on high risk ships transiting the piracy-prone areas.'
Cosco Shipping said it will spend some US$12 million (HK$94 million) this year on armed guards and other measures to protect its ships and crews.
The Marine Department issued guidelines back in February detailing the need for due diligence of firms offering armed services, sound legal advice and clear rules of engagement.
Tupper also noted that the UN's International Maritime Organisation had issued detailed guidance on the use of armed guards 'whilst maintaining its stance, as we do, that this is not a real solution'.
Captain Tao Weigong, who co-ordinates the PLA navy's escorts of commercial shipping off the Horn of Africa, told the conference that since China started its deployments in 2008, no ship under escort had been successfully attacked.