Old-fashioned, high-seas piracy has made a dramatic return in recent years - most notably in Southeast Asia. This problem presents severe commercial consequences for the region, and demands a more concerted response from all affected parties, including the United States.
According to a report by the International Maritime Bureau, a branch of the International Chamber of Commerce, pirate attacks rose by more than 63 percent worldwide in the first nine months of this year. More than two-thirds of pirate attacks occur in Asian waters, with most taking place in Indonesia's sea lanes. In fact, pirate attacks in Indonesian waters alone outnumber all attacks in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America combined.
With 90 percent of world trade moving by ship, and 33 percent of all shipping moving through Southeast Asia's waters, this disturbing trend poses significant economic and security challenges for both Southeast Asian and world commerce.
More than 600 vessels a day, many of them oil tankers and cargo ships, pass through the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea. This area has become a favorite hunting ground for modern-day pirates. Shipping is a highly competitive market, and so ship owners and captains are reluctant to report attacks, as they fear a rise in insurance rates and don't want to be perceived as unreliable freight carriers. As a result, many pirate attacks go unrecorded. Although estimates are difficult to calculate, it is believed financial losses from maritime crime are as high as $16 billion per year.
The Asian financial crisis has made it tough for Southeast Asian nations to combat piracy. Currency devaluations and significant cuts in defense spending have curtailed maritime patrolling. Consequently, piracy is rising in Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Burma.
The situation in Indonesia is particularly acute: Defense spending there has decreased by 65 percent, and maritime forces are already stretched thin because of communal and ethnic unrest in the Moluccas, Irian Jaya, and Aceh.
Greater poverty and higher unemployment have helped make piracy an attractive source of income for an increasing number of Southeast Asians. Pirates in the region range from opportunistic fishermen and common criminals to members of sophisticated Asian crime syndicates.
Corruption among poorly paid maritime officials and port workers is also a factor; pirates appear to be well informed about movements of ships and the composition of their cargo. Maritime security forces are increasingly proving to be no match for well-organized pirates, who use radar to locate vessels, gather intelligence from radio transmissions and informers, carry out their attacks using motorized boats and automatic weapons, and easily escape in boats that blend in with the hundreds of small ships sailing in Southeast Asian waters.
Pirates are becoming increasingly violent, yet few ever wind up behind bars. The International Maritime Bureau says all but one of the 67 people murdered at sea in 1998 were killed in Southeast Asia.
Nonetheless, many countries in the region are unwilling to prosecute pirates in their own territorial waters for acts of piracy committed under another country's jurisdiction. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) policy of "noninterference" in the domestic affairs of member states has hindered any coordinated efforts to combat piracy. Many member countries prefer to deport pirates rather than prosecute them.
ASEAN would best be served by putting this topic on its policy agenda. This is a significant regional problem that deserves a regional solution at the highest level.
One way to accomplish this would be for all members of ASEAN to sign the UN International Maritime Organization's 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.
Ratification of the convention will make it easier for ASEAN governments to prosecute pirates, because it gives signatory governments the power to prosecute pirates caught in their own territorial waters for acts of piracy committed under another country's jurisdiction. In Asia, only China and Japan are signatories to this convention.
The US can also play an important role by providing assistance to the newly established ASEAN Center for Trans-national Crime and helping it develop concrete measures to fight piracy. In addition, the US could help by allowing the Coast Guard to train various ASEAN maritime security forces how to determine and implement the most appropriate measures to combat piracy.
Such assistance would send a signal to Southeast Asia that the US is committed to the region's security and economic well-being.
John J. Brandon is the assistant director for international relations for The Asia Foundation. The views expressed here are his own.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society