Amid all the gloom and doom in the news coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the anxiety over the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, and the struggle in the war on terror, comes a ray of sunlight: Piracy is down in Southeast and South Asia.
The International Maritime Bureau in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, says in a fresh report that the number of pirate attacks in Asia plunged to 17 in the first quarter of this year from 68 in the comparable period last year. The bureau, which tracks pirate assaults around the globe, also reported a worldwide downward slide to 239 attacks last year from 445 in 2003.
The threat of economic disruption due to trouble in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, through which move more ships each year than through the Panama and Suez Canals combined, has diminished. Much of the imported oil in Japan, China, and other Asian economies, for instance, is shipped through those waters.
Equally important, the possibility of a potentially devastating lash-up between pirates and terrorists in that part of the world has lessened.
"Our greatest fears are the possible nexus between terrorists and weapons of mass destruction and the use of a large commercial vessel as a weapon," retired Admiral Thomas Fargo said in 2005.
The former commander of US forces in the Pacific told a conference on maritime security in Honolulu: "Armed with these weapons, undeterrable, unaccountable enemies could inflict enormous damage without warning. If pirates or sea robbers can board a ship, what is achievable by a trained terrorist willing to give up his life?"
On terror in Southeast Asia, the State Department last week expressed guarded optimism in a report saying: "The Jemaah Islamiya regional terrorist network remained a serious threat to Western and regional interests, particularly in Indonesia and the Southern Philippines, although its capabilities were degraded due in large part to regional counterterrorism successes in 2005-2006."
The International Maritime Bureau attributed the drop in piracy to ship masters and crews "taking more precautions during their transits through the hot spot areas."
The bureau said that ship owners had adopted "more stringent rules and regulations for their ships."
The report was not specific but presumably countermeasures included more lookouts and perhaps armed guards. The bureau noted: "The increase in cooperation between governments and local law enforcement agencies has proved to be successful in curbing the enthusiasm of the pirates."
Admiral Fargo and his successor, Admiral William Fallon, had urged Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and other nations to police their own and international waters in that region.
A spokesman for the Pacific Command, which controls US military operations in Southeast Asia, agreed with the bureau.
"The continued coordination and cooperation within and between nations is probably the biggest contributor to the positive trend," the spokesman said.
The command has fostered "dialogue with the nations in the region by providing ideas to enhance coordination," he said.
An obstacle to cooperation has been the legacy of anti-colonialism. Asian nations, having rid themselves of Western colonial rulers have been reluctant to engage in operations that might seem to infringe on their sovereignty, such as allowing ships of a neighboring nation enter their waters in hot pursuit on police missions.
Malaysian Defense Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, was quoted in the report as pointing to more coordination between his nation, Singapore and Indonesia.
"The formation of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and the increase in coordinated patrols among the authorities of the littoral states has proved most effective in securing the straits." he said.
At a naval base in Singapore, the government is building the Changi Command and Control Center, to be operational in 2009 to coordinate operations against pirates and terrorists.
"The trans-boundary nature of maritime crime and terrorism," Singaporean Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean (
The International Maritime Bureau, however, injected two notes of caution. Every attempt at piracy may not be reported and thus it may be worse than calculated. Moreover, the downturn "should not induce complacency." Vigilance, the bureau said, has always been the best defense.
As if on cue after the bureau report was published, four pirates boarded a chemical tanker at anchor in the Singapore Straits. The armed robbers broke into the engine room, stole valuable spare parts, and escaped.
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
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