October 8, 2014 7:00 pm JST

Maritime piracy on the rise in Southeast Asia

RINA TAKAHASHI, Nikkei staff writer

A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force member aboard the escort ship Inazuma, in the Gulf of Aden, is shown in this photo taken in May.

TOKYO -- Maritime piracy continues to be a major threat to global supply chains, though the pirates have moved to different oceans.

     The number of pirate attacks has declined sharply in waters off Somalia as countermeasures taken by Japan, China, South Korea and other countries have paid off.

     But piracy is becoming increasingly rampant in waters around Southeast Asia, where surveillance activities against them are lax. The region's countries will have to cooperate and take effective measures if this new wave of piracy is to be defeated.

Off Somalia

In a coordinated effort, the naval forces of Japan, China, India and South Korea are protecting merchant vessels in the Gulf of Aden. The four Asian countries' naval escort ships lead merchant vessels while watching for suspicious vessels. Shipping companies pay nothing for these escorts.

     In addition to escorting individual merchant vessels, Japanese and other naval forces are engaged in "zone defense" surveillance activities, with each deploying one ship to a certain zone to watch for suspicious vessels.

     Three organizations are in charge of surveillance in the region: a NATO force; CTF 151, a multinational force led by the U.S. navy; and EU Navfor, a force made up of naval troops from European Union member countries.

     According to the International Maritime Bureau, the number of piracy incidents in waters off Somalia has declined from a peak of 237 in 2011 to 15 in 2013. As of September, this year's number stood at 14.

     The international community kicked off anti-piracy surveillance activities in waters off Somalia in 2008. The U.N. also set up a new group in 2009 to combat piracy in the region, creating a framework for international cooperation. More than 20 countries have participated in surveillance activities there.

     The mobilization of multiple naval forces has brought significant results. Pirates are armed, but their resistance usually melts away as soon as they see a naval ship.

     In one case that took place in the eastern part of the Gulf of Aden in January, French naval troops approached a suspicious vessel, and five Somalis, believed to be pirates, reportedly threw arms overboard, then surrendered.

     The Gulf of Aden is a narrow straight between Yemen, on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, and Somalia, along the northeastern rim of Africa.

     For Japan, the strait is part of a major shipping route through which its vital energy supplies and other resources pass. About 2,000 Japan-related merchant ships annually pass through the gulf. The country relies on maritime traffic for more than 99% of its trade.

     Civilian ships sailing through the area also take measures to defend themselves, including hiring armed guards.

Southeast Asia

But pirates appear to have found more bountiful seas. The number of piracy incidents in waters surrounding Indonesia surged 31% in 2013, to 106. These are now the world's most pirate-infested waters. Piracy also takes pace in waters off India, Bangladesh and Singapore.

     In late August, a Thai-registered tanker carrying oil products was attacked by a group of six armed pirates near Tioman Island, off the east coast of the Malay Peninsula.

     The pirates boarded the oil tanker from the stern, locked the crew in the engine room and transferred the oil products to two other tankers 10 nautical miles (about 18.5km) away.

     The pirates also destroyed the Thai-registered ship's nautical instruments and telecommunications equipment as well as robbed the crew members of their personal effects. They fled the following morning.

      Pirates operating in Southeast Asia are suspected to be selling their booty on the black market.

     "The number of hijacking cases, especially those targeting lubricant oil and fuel oil, are increasing," said Toshihiro Tanaka, head of the Japanese Shipowners' Association's maritime division.

     The Indonesian and other navies have begun addressing the problem, but with little success.

     Unlike Somalia, which does not have a functioning navy, countries in Southeast Asia do not allow foreign naval forces to operate in their territorial waters or armed guards to be deployed aboard merchant vessels, Tanaka said.

     International cooperation is much more difficult in Southeast Asian waters than it is off Somalia -- but just as necessary.

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