06.05.2023 Author: Leonid Gladchenko

Maritime piracy: the present state of the factors of the age-old threat in the seas of Southeast Asia

Maritime piracy: the present state of the factors of the age-old threat in the seas of Southeast Asia

The issue of maritime piracy has always occupied a niche on the “dark” side of the mosaic and the multidimensional image of the modern world. History bears witness to the fact that every new stage of economic and commercial development of sea and ocean expanses, and the establishment of regular navigation, as a rule, has been accompanied by the emergence of pirate centers in the coastal areas.

The state of affairs at the forefront of the fight against this criminal practice is characterized by remarkable changes at the present stage. After the last period of sharp rise, which coincided with the “blossoming” phase of Somali piracy in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, a steady decline has been observed in recent years. While in the “record-breaking” year of 2011, 439 “acts of boarding with the intent to commit a robbery or other crime involving the use or threat of force” were recorded, the figure was almost four times lower in 2022. The 115 pirate attacks officially recorded during the period in question are considered to be “the lowest annual rate of pirate activity in the world over the past thirty years”.

A number of individual regional piracy hotspots have also recently seen a positive trend. For example, the number of attacks in the waters of the Gulf of Guinea, which has been the leading indicator in recent years, has almost halved (from 35 in 2021 to 19 in 2022). And in the Horn of Africa, until recently considered a “high-risk area,” there have been no attacks by Somali pirates in the past year.

However, it is still premature to talk about a turning point in the international community’s historic confrontation with piracy. Even today pirates are in no hurry to throw out their boarding hooks and retreat into the realm of history, literature and cinematography.

The noted decrease in pirate activity is paid for at a high price, and the international community has to pay it. The size of the so-called “piracy tax”, an aggregate indicator of parameters of economic damage from this criminal activity, includes the cost of payment of ransoms to pirates, maintenance of international naval forces to conduct anti-piracy operations, forced deployment of ships to bypass “high risk zones”, equipment of commercial vessels with modern means of protection against pirate attacks, fees for security services, expenses on legal proceedings and imprisonment of captured pirates. Even more impressive is the growth of macroeconomic costs associated with losses in fishing, tourism and other sectors of the economy of countries located in zones of pirate activity, as well as direct losses incurred by entities of international commerce as a result of pirate activities. The total amount of financial losses from pirate practices varies in different sources in the range from 7 to 12 billion dollars per year. This, in particular, is the reason for the inclusion of this long-standing problem in the number of modern non-traditional threats to international security.

Today, maritime pirates continue to challenge the international community in various parts of the oceans. One of the key epicenters of criminal practice today is located in Southeast Asia. According to the findings of the recent report of the Information Center for Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery in Asia, an authoritative source of operational information and analytics on this region, by the end of 2022, Southeast Asian countries accounted for a significant part of all pirate attacks in the world.  With India and Vietnam’s relatively stable offshore waters, and some reduction in piracy in the archipelagic waters of Indonesia and the Philippines, the Strait of Singapore has emerged as the epicenter of piracy, with nearly half the global total for the period under review.

The importance of combating piracy in the area goes far beyond the regional scope of this subregion. Suffice it to say that the Strait is a major maritime artery. Between 150 and 200 ships pass through its waters every day, over 60% of which are oil tankers. In terms of a year, it makes over 30% of the world’s trade tonnage and about 50% of sea transportation of oil products. The fact that the main types of vessels which became targets of piracy were dry-cargo ships and oil tankers (over 65% of the established cases) testifies to the continuing high level of security threat on the most important world route of energy carriers’ transportation from the Persian Gulf to the Asia-Pacific countries.

An important element of global piracy practice remains the taking of hostages from among the crew members of ships for ransom. In Southeast Asia, this practice has become widespread in the so-called “Sulawesi-Mindanao Arc,” the junction of the territories and territorial waters of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, which has long been a hub of criminal activity in this region. Pirate methods of hostage-taking were also widely borrowed by terrorist organizations operating in the “three-border” zone. The Philippine terrorist group Abu Sayyaf was particularly active in this regard, for which ransom payments for captured sailors have for many years been a significant source of funding for its criminal activities.

When considering ways to eliminate the long-standing pirate threat, foreign experts state that positive results in this confrontation have been achieved mainly in those areas of the world’s oceans, where the necessary level of interaction and coordination of international efforts has been achieved. Pirate activity in Southeast Asian waters has given a strong impetus to regional international cooperation on rapid response and countering pirate attacks. Since 2006, a regional organization to combat piracy in the region, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), has been active. It was the first international structure of its kind and today unites 21 states in its ranks.

ASEAN member states traditionally play a key role in combating piracy in Asian waters. The naval forces of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines jointly patrol the region’s “piracy-prone” waters. A concrete result of joint efforts has been a noticeable improvement in the crime situation in the “three-border” area, where since 2020 no new hostage-takings have been registered. However, experts conclude that while some progress has been made against maritime piracy in Southeast Asia, any reduction in the level of overall repression of piracy “risks the recurrence of a new round of this criminal practice”.

Proceeding from this, in the current turbulent international situation in the direction of combating piracy of the situation in Southeast Asia, it is of great importance to preserve the existing formats and increase the achieved level of international cooperation and interaction in the fight against piracy.

A new practical step in this direction is intended to be the large-scale Komodo naval exercises organized at the initiative of Indonesia in June 2023 near the South Sulawesi Island in order to work out the issues of coordinating actions to ensure security on sea routes. Russia has been invited to participate among 47 nations.

Leonid Gladchenko, expert political analyst and member of the “Analitika” Association, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook.

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