The South China Sea has become safer for merchant vessels with no reported hijackings or attacks in the first three months of this year, figures from a Singapore-based anti-piracy agency show.
The Regional Co-operation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, which comprises 17 states, also said there was not a single hijacking in Asian waters in the first quarter, compared with one last year.
But despite the apparent improvement, Lee Yin Mui, the agency's assistant director of research, said the overall number of incidents in Asia was still higher this year than during the same periods between 2008 and 2010.
She said there were 35 actual and attempted attacks in the first three months of this year, against 37 during the first quarter of last year.
Figures from the group, a government-to-government initiative to combat attacks on ships in the region, showed there were 21 incidents in the first quarter of 2010, 14 in 2009 and 15 in 2008.
Half of the incidents occurred at ports and anchorages, Lee told a group of about 300 maritime executives, police and naval personnel at an agency conference on piracy and sea robbery yesterday.
The figures prompted Yuichi Sonoda, secretary general of the Asian Shipowners' Forum, to say that the situation in Asia had not improved.
'There is a clear indication that there was an escalation' between 2010 and 2011, and the figures in 2012 were similar to last year.
'This is not acceptable to us,' Sonoda said. The forum represents shipowner groups throughout Asia, including shipowner associations in Hong Kong, the mainland and Taiwan.
He said it was particularly worrying that most of the attacks took place at ports rather than while ships were under way.
He highlighted Indonesia and Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam as particularly risky areas.
Sonoda called on authorities, including port officials, marine police, coastguards and navies, to improve security and increase patrols. 'They have to do more,' he said.
Lee said the decline in the number of incidents in the South China Sea from six last year to zero this year was due to increased patrols and surveillance by coastguard and naval personnel.
At the same conference, Torben Skaanild, secretary general of the Baltic and International Maritime Council, warned of copycat attacks by bandits amid an escalation in the number of incidents in Africa.