Sam Bateman wrote on the EastAsia Forum: While frequently lobbying for increased efforts by governments, the shipping industry might also do more itself to ensure that ships are not successfully attacked. There are still many sub-standard ships at sea, and some ships are not following best management practice guidelines and recommended procedures for countering piracy. Well-operated and maintained vessels with well-trained and efficient crews are much more likely to take all the proper precautions against attack. Also, some shipowners faced with increasing costs and lower revenues due to the global financial crisis have cut the size and wages of crews, failing to recognise that underpaid and over-worked crews are not conducive to maritime security.

Apart from the direct threat of piracy to shipping, there is also a wider strategic context. Piracy has served the broader strategic interests of the rising powers of Asia — China, India and Japan. All three countries have sought to play a role in anti-piracy operations both off Somalia and in Southeast Asia, but so far an element of strategic competition has been evident in their initiatives. They have all deployed warships to Somalia and have provided capacity building assistance to local security forces both in the Indian Ocean and in Southeast Asia. These actions may be as much about regional power and influence as about countering piracy.

Authorities estimate that only 10 percent to 30 percent of pirate attacks are reported. To report a pirate attack, ship crews or governments must contact the IMB on a certain radio frequency and communicate in English. Many times pirates get away because reports are not filed soon enough for authorities. In other cases a great deal of resources can be spent pursuing pirates. In one case he Indian coast guard chased a ship for 3½ week, with the chase ending when the pirates set fire to the ship and all its documents.

Noel Choong, head of the IMB’s Piracy Reporting Centre, estimates that half of all pirate attacks go unreported. “In some cases the ship’s owners dissuade the captain from reporting an attack,” he told National Geographic. “They don’t want bad publicity or the ship to be delayed by an investigation.”

Carolin Liss of Murdoch University wrote on the Nautilus Institute website: Many small time attacks on fishermen and small vessels “are not reported to local authorities or the IMB, either out of fear of revenge by the pirates, because of a lack of education, or because the fishers concerned believe that reporting an attack would be of no real advantage to them. Further, fishermen may be reluctant to report an attack that occurred in waters where they were not allowed to fish, such as national marine parks or inside a foreign country’s waters.” [Source: Carolin Liss of Murdoch University, Nautilus Institute website]

Defenses Against Pirate Attacks

The Piracy Reporting Center issues daily reports on pirating information. “Pirates and Armed Robber: A Master's Guide” recommend the use of fire hoses to halt boarding pirates but advises "Don't be heroic?[they] may be armed." Ships in dangerous waters are advised to flood the area around the ship with lights and move in a zigzag pattern. When in dangerous waters one shipping company executive told the Washington Post, “It’s like traveling in bad neighborhoods: you go fast and don’t stop for anything.”

In London, a company was set up to deter attacks by outfitting ships with armed guards and satellite warning systems and arming crew members with automatic weapons. There are also groups made up of former commandos use a corporate jet quickly fly to the place a ships has been hijacked and track down the ship by keeping an eye for reports of discounted raw materials. If they find a ship they often plant a tracking device on it and seize it when it enters the waters of one country.

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Shippers have retaliated: In the Strait of Malacca, vessels use powerful water hoses to blast would-be boarders off the deck or to swamp the boats below. Some post mannequins dressed in overalls and hard hats to give the impression of a larger crew. Captains of smaller boats spread carpet tacks on their decks at night, hoping to slow pirates, who often attack barefoot to give themselves a better grip and to minimize sound. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2006]

Bigger boats illuminate decks with floodlights and travel in a zigzag to create a wake to sink small boats. Day and night, the more watchful captains use closed-circuit TV to monitor the water around them. Some hire armed commandos for security, because in the anarchy and take-care-of-your-own credo of the high seas, isolated ships in jeopardy know they cannot expect help from another unarmed craft.

Patrick Winn wrote in Global Post, “Piracy along the Malacca Strait route should be easier to fight than in Somalia. All of the nations patrolling the strait have functioning governments, committed to fighting the problem, and are financially incentivized to maintain a bandit-free trade route. [Source: Patrick Winn, GlobalPost, March 27, 2014]

Lax Efforts to Combat Piracy in the Malacca Strait

Junichi Fukazawa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Coast guard authorities of nations in the area around the Strait of Malacca are ill-equipped to fight sea piracy. In addition, shipping companies distrust naval authorities, instead seeking to resolve piracy cases through negotiations and paying ransom. Many of the firms are insured against such cases. In a fishing village in Perak Province, in northwestern Malaysia a fisherman said boats belonging to his fellow fishermen have often been attacked by pirates. One company owner said: "It has become more frequent that fishermen are robbed, crew members are kidnapped and companies pay ransom. Malacca has become more dangerous."[Source: Junichi Fukazawa, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 24, 2005]

A local source close to the maritime affairs said: "The naval police of coastal countries are only pretending they're patrolling the Strait of Malacca. Pirates have rocket-propelled grenades. The police are afraid of counterattacks, so they never arrest them." The head of a company whose boats frequently pass through the strait said: "If police were able to arrive immediately at the scene of an attack, pirates would try to complete their job as soon as possible--which may end up in the deaths or injury of crew members."

"Police believe companies will negotiate with pirates if crew members are kidnapped. Companies, police and pirates are equally balanced, unfortunately."Some major shipping companies have signed up for kidnap and ransom insurance policies, according to a Japanese shipping company official. The premium is high, but it reduces the damage to companies if their boats are attacked. However, small and midsize companies cannot afford such expensive insurance.

Choong said, "Antipiracy measures will not be effective unless Indonesia gets really committed." The problem is that the Indonesian police, which patrol a wide area of water, are underequipped to fight piracy. A senior Malaysian naval police official said, "It's really difficult to find a pirate boat out of 60,000 ships that pass the area every year." An expert said: "If a country informs another country that a pirate ship escaped in the other's territorial waters, it's up to the other country to decide whether to dispatch its naval police. Quite a few cases must have been missed."

Japan and Combating Piracy

Sam Bateman wrote on the EastAsia Forum: “Japan is heavily involved in global efforts to counter sea piracy. Japan has actively used the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) for building local capacity to counter piracy in Southeast Asian waters. The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) would be unacceptable for this activity both for Japan constitutionally and for regional countries. [Source: Sam Bateman, EastAsia Forum, February 10, 2011. Bateman is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong, and a Senior Fellow and Adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore]

Japan is also instrumental in other important initiatives to improve regional maritime security. These include establishing the Heads of Asian Coast Guard Agencies (HACGA) meetings, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), and the Cooperative Mechanism for Maritime Safety and Environmental Protection in the Malacca and Singapore Straits. HACGA meetings are a very useful, if under-appreciated, forum for regional maritime security cooperation and confidence-building. The last HACGA meeting, held in Shanghai last October, saw a significant relaxation of the freeze on high level military exchanges between India and China, with the attendance of the chief of the Indian Coast Guard.

Piracy off Somalia was a critical turning point for the Japanese constitutionality of overseas military deployments. After increasing attacks on Japanese ships and following the example of China, Japan decided to deploy JMSDF ships and aircraft to protect Japanese shipping off Somalia. Japan now plans to open its first overseas military base during 2011 in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, to provide an airfield for maritime patrol aircraft and a permanent port facility for warships.

Combating Piracy in Southeast Asia

Efforts to combat piracy and address the threat of terrorism in the Strait of Malacca has been hampered by equipment shortages, lack of cooperation, national rivalries, sovereignty issues, particularly with Malaysia and Indonesia in regard to their territorial waters, and objections to United States offers to help. Most countries lack the money, patrol boats and manpower to do an adequate job combating piracy. In some cases, different countries have failed to work together.

Indonesia has said it doesn’t do more because it lacks speedboats and high-tech gear but refuses to let Japanese patrol boat in its waters. Malaysia and Indonesia have rejected offs by the United States to help patrol the Malacca Straits to fend off possible terrorist or pirate attacks

Malaysia is probably do more than anyone else in Southeast Asia to combat piracy. Ithas about 50 patrol boats at any one time there are about 10 in the water. They cruise the Malacca Strait searching suspicious ships suspected of harboring pirates, pirated goods or smuggled people. During the searches machine guns and M-16 are points at the boat being searched,

Other measures taken to combat a possible terrorist attack in the Malacca Straits includes requiring oil tankers and other vessels at risk give 24-hours notice of the arrival and follow designated routes, avoiding sensitive locations and being tracked using high-tech identification systems.

Some progress is being made. In June 2004, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore agreed to set up joint naval patrols in the Malacca Straits and Singapore carried out an exercise for a potential terrorist attack at sea. In September 2005, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore agreed to two donate two aircraft each for the “Eyes in the Sky” program of air patrols to watch over the Malacca Straits. The patrols are not conducted very frequently. Some people want to employ drones like those used strike terrorist targets in Pakistan.

The United States proposed sending troops to protect the Malacca Strait but the offer was rejected by Indonesia and Malaysia. Japan has also call for increased patrolling and tighter security in the Malacca but was also rebuffed, in part because of an unwillingness to accept help from outsiders. Sometimes strained relations between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore has made it difficult for them to coordinate their efforts against pirayc.

Combating Piracy in Indonesia

In 2009, the BBC reported: Indonesia and its neighbours began joint patrols of the international waterways here. Around the same time, the US injected several million dollars to pay for high speed patrol boats and training for Indonesia's marine police. Japan provided more patrol boats, and radars to help detect attacks. A senior US official involved in the process says that initial investment led to a 300 percent rise in seizures in the first year, which recouped more than twice the initial investment. [Source: Lucy Williamson, BBC, April 23, 2009]

Patrolling Indonesia's vast snaking coastline is expensive, and with the military budget spent before it even hits the kitty, Indonesia needs international help in tackling piracy almost as much as East Africa does. But there is one thing Indonesia has which Somalia doesn't, and it is crucial: a well-functioning state. "We believe there's no other answer," Capt Pottengal Mukundan, a spokesman at IMB headquarters in London told me. "Not private security firms or whatever - it's up to the governments to deal with it." He said: "The US and Japan provided assets to beef up operations, but ultimately it's Indonesian and Malaysian actions which have brought about that change [in the region] - and that's something they don't get enough credit for."

The US says that this kind of result would not have been possible without a huge amount of political will from Indonesia and its neighbours. A top US official told me: "Quality leadership [in key positions] has really changed things." So has a new joint security body, which brings together Indonesia's navy, marine police, fisheries, transport and immigration officials to patrol the country's waterways. "Fighting piracy has been our biggest success story," said Chandra Motik, a special adviser to the Navy chief of staff.

Greater port security and monitoring of vessels has made it harder to simply repaint a ship and pull into a port to sell its cargo, Burnette says.

International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) is part of the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce, whose fight against piracy is mandated by the United Nations. It has office in London and operates the world's only pirate reporting and rescue center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Describing it Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “If you enter an anonymous office 35 floors above Kuala Lumpur's lush tropical streets and pass through a secured door, you will come to a small room dominated by maps of the world taped onto two of the walls. This is the IMB's Piracy Reporting Centre, which operates round-the-clock. When pirates attack anywhere in the world, this office almost always receives the first report of it and radios out the first alert. Tens of thousands of vessels depend on the IMB's information. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, August 2007]

Red pins mark the latest attacks. On the day I visited, the pins looked like a rash covering much of the world. Another wall was covered with thank-you plaques from the admirals of many nations, including the United States. Noel Choong, who ushered me through this command center, spent more than ten years on oceangoing ships as a mariner. Now, in a dark suit, the soft-spoken Choong looked more like a corporate middle manager than a supersleuth of the seas.

Because much of Choong's work is under cover, and because he's been the target of assassination threats, he's careful to protect his anonymity. He has a wide network of informants — usually members of pirate gangs or corrupt government officials looking for a fat payoff — and when a big ship goes missing, he will jet to distant cities at short notice to launch recovery operations. The pirates' going rate for the return of a hijacked ship, he said, is about $800,000. "If I can get it back by paying an informant a fraction of that, then the owners and underwriters are happy."

Recently, an informant called Choong's cellphone to say he knew where pirates were holding a hijacked ship. The next day Choong flew to Bangkok and, in the bar of an airport hotel, listened to the man's offer: the ship's whereabouts in exchange for $50,000. Choong forwarded the offer to Chinese authorities, who found the ship at anchor in the South China Sea, sporting fresh paint, a new name and a fake registration. After the ship was in hand — Choong said he never pays without results — he arranged a $50,000 deposit to an account the informant kept under a false name. The entire transaction — from phone call to payoff — took no more than a week. But Choong doubted that the man got to enjoy his loot. "I heard he was murdered by the gang not long after," he said.

Between rounds of whiskey in a plush Kuala Lumpur bar, a ship broker who asked not to be named because of security concerns told me that besides buying and selling ships for his clients, he sometimes arranges ransoms to get their vessels back from hijackers, for about the same sum that Choong had mentioned. "The owners usually pay up without question," he said. Bringing in the authorities "might tie up the ship for weeks, even months, at a port while they investigate the crime. That could lose them millions of dollars."

Pirate Czar Noel Choong at Work

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Noel Choong was working late the night he got the distress call: Just off the Malaysian coast in the darkness, a Japanese tugboat and barge were being attacked by a dozen pirates armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers. The 154-man crew aboard the barge Kuroshio was frantic. As the vessel churned slowly northward through choppy waters of the Strait of Malacca, headed for Myanmar, it had suddenly been surrounded by three fishing boats. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2006]

The armed men stormed the little tug. Shots were fired. The captain and two others were taken hostage. The desperate barge crew plotted a rescue mission to free their shipmates, who were being held with guns to their heads...Choong urged the crew not to try anything stupid. "The pirates had high-powered weapons," he said later. "We told them: 'You're unarmed. You can't fight guns.' "

As his staff radioed for help from Malaysian marine police, Choong stayed on the phone with the terrified seamen. Pirates may be oceangoing desperadoes driven by poverty or greed, he assured them, but they usually are not killers. Unless, that is, they were cornered or provoked. "For that crew, this was a night from hell," Choong recalled. "I was just trying to be their friendly voice of reason."

Choong's purview is worldwide, from the troubled waters off Somalia and Bangladesh to the ungoverned South China Sea, but the Strait of Malacca is his most constant headache. His role is not to make arrests or conduct criminal post-mortems after attacks. Rather, he runs a sort of 911 service for seaborne vessels under siege. Through daily situation reports, his agency offers vessels an early-warning system, giving crews a heads-up that they are entering waters with recent pirate activity.

He has also developed a network of informants, shipyard workers and fishermen who peddle tips to help track down hijacked ships. Many contacts are criminals, so Choong takes precautions: He's never photographed. Some family members do not know his job. He changes his route to work. In delving into Asian organized crime syndicates, he and his team meet shadowy characters in big-city airports and dense jungles. He wants information and he's willing to pay, money that comes from ship owners and insurers. "We tell our informants we can't guarantee their safety -- and some do get killed. There's nothing we can do about that," he said. "We don't get personal with them. That way we can live with it if they die."

Choong has been threatened. One source told him he could have anyone killed for $500. "I knew what he meant, and it scared me," he said. "But I tell these people that if you kill us, new people will be hired. If you bomb our headquarters, a new one will be built. You can't close us down." Despite such threats, Choong's war against piracy goes on. Some battles end better than others.

On that night in March 2005, when bandits attacked the Japanese tugboat Idaten and its construction barge, the Kuroshio, Choong urged the barge crew by phone to take pictures of the pirate vessels for evidence. For nearly an hour, the pirates held the tugboat's captain, chief engineer and a crewman at gunpoint. Then, sometime before midnight, the armed invaders fled with the three men. As Malaysian marine police escorted the tug and barge to port, Choong alerted the ship owner to begin the delicate task of negotiating the release of the hostages.

Over the next few days, the owners, along with Japanese government officials, kept up a dialogue with the pirates. Meanwhile, the hostages were spirited among fishing boats, and finally taken to the jungles of southern Thailand. After the ship owners paid an undisclosed ransom that Choong described as "way above market value," the men were released, but the pirates escaped. The saga made headlines -- with scant mention of Choong. And that's the way he likes it. "This time nobody died," he said. "Still, it's a dangerous game."

Capture of a Pirated Ship in the Malacca Strait

Describing the capture of pirated ship in 2005, Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times: Malaysian commandos have stormed and recaptured a freighter after a 17-hour sea chase in the Strait of Malacca. Abdul Rahman Ahmad, the commander of Malaysia's marine police, said special operations commandos and the marine police recovered a vessel early Tuesday that had disappeared and been reported hijacked nearly three years ago. After initially sailing on in defiance of orders to stop, the crew of 20 Chinese nationals aboard surrendered without a fight when the commandos boarded the freighter from police vessels that had pulled alongside, he said. [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, August 25, 2005]

Choong said that the Paulijing, the ship intercepted by the Malaysian authorities this week, was actually the Natris, a Malaysian-owned freighter hijacked off an Indonesian island near the southern end of the strait. After undergoing minor repairs at Batam Island, he said, the Natris had been riding at anchor when pirates seized it on Nov. 17, 2002, put the crew ashore and sailed off. The International Maritime Bureau began tracking the vessel six months ago after becoming aware that it had been repainted and was calling on ports in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

In 1998, the Thai Navy arrested 11 pirates who had seized an oil taker. In 2000, 13 pirates were executed on the mainland China.

Success Combating Piracy in Southeast Asia

In 2010 Stars and Stripes reported: 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. [Source: Teri Weaver, Stars and Stripes, July 24, 2010]

In 2004, 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 Somalia had a central government, the pirates wouldn’t be able to spend their money and come back to land.”

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. 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.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014

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