All Hands on Deck
In lieu of a concerted international effort to combat piracy, Norwegian ships should prepare for increased attacks in Southeast Asian waters with a slew of countermeasures.
Norwegian- flagged ships that travel to Asia face an increasing risk of piracy, a danger that is exacerbated by the South China Sea conflict, where several countries have competing territorial claims over a vast swath of open ocean.
Though piracy in Somalia received most of the recent headlines, including a Hollywood movie about hijacking a ship, the maritime industry and several militaries took countermeasures that reduced reported piracy there to almost zero.
In contrast, the International Maritime Bureau reports since 2010, attacks on ships in Southeast Asian waters have more than doubled, from 70 to 141, and in 2014 they accounted for nearly 75% of all sea crimes worldwide.
Piracy tends to happen at choke points, narrow sea lanes that shippers must use, reported marketwatch.com. Criminals take advantage of these points to strike. Roughly one-third of global trade passes through Southeast Asia’s shipping lanes.
Singapore and the Strait of Malacca are key maritime hubs in this region, including for Norwegian vessels. Nearly half of the world’s oil and many of the energy products bound for China and Japan go through these waters. Pirates are usually after these energy products, specifically oil, with Oceans Beyond Piracy estimating the value of stolen oil in 2015 at USD 5 million.
While pirates in the Indian Ocean often hijacked ships and wanted to ransom the crew and vessels, in Southeast Asia they mainly go after fuel and then leave ships quickly, smashing communication devices before they can be caught, said marketwatch.com. The oil can be sold quickly on the black market for a high return on investment, potentially making millions of dollars, instead of waiting for a long period of time for a ransom, said Matt Walje of Oceans Beyond Piracy.
Part of the problem is tactics that worked in the Gulf of Aden don’t work in East Asia because of complicated territorial claims.
With Somali pirates, governments and multilateral organisations mustered naval forces and patrol boats to blanket the area while shipowners used barbed wire, water cannons and armed guards to deter criminals.
Complicated or overlapping territorial claims in Asia, including in the South China Sea, allow pirates to board a ship in one country’s waters and move it to another’s territory, slowing the response from authorities, said Mr Walje. Another burden is armed guards are not allowed to operate in territorial waters, said Arild Nodland, founder of Bergen Risk Solutions, a Norwegian intelligence firm that assists ships through high-risk waters.
The International Law of the Sea allows ships to travel freely in open waters, but many of Asia’s shipping lanes cross through waters claimed by countries. Not only does a highly tense, fractious environment in the South China Sea make shipping slower, but pirates can take advantage of the ban on use of armed guards to attack at choke points. Yet armed guards have been described as a critical success factor in halting piracy by Mr Nodland.
To fight against this criminal activity in Asia, a Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery (ReCAAP) was formed in 2006. Some 20 countries including Norway are signatories, and the goal is sharing information and intelligence, promoting regional cooperation and convening groups to discuss regional tactics.
Unfortunately, Indonesia and Malaysia, two of the hotspots for piracy in the region, have not joined ReCAAP and the organisation lacks a clear line of communication, said marketwatch.com.
The Norwegian Maritime Authority as well as the United Kingdom Marine Trade Operations have direct reporting centres that can respond to an attack and these have proven useful in the Gulf of Aden.
In July 2015 the navies of ASEAN agreed to band together to fight piracy in the Malacca Strait, the first agreement of its kind in Southeast Asia. The key to reducing sea crimes in the region is governments working together on direct responses, prosecution and imprisonment of pirates, said marketwatch.com.
The South China Sea dispute has been called intractable by Stein Tønnesson, a Norwegian professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines,
Malaysia and Brunei all claim sovereignty to some portion of the islands or sea in this large area, mainly because economic benefits. The area comprises a large area for fishing and there are suspected oil and natural gas deposits under the sea.
The most hotly contested areas include the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands, and Chinese building in the area is considered sabre-rattling by many of its neighbours. In fact, China has built man-made islands near the Spratly Islands and conducted sea and air patrols around them. And the country built a fuel filling station in the Paracels to enable larger civilian control.