Piracy-free oceans - myth or reality?

Updated: 2015-07-30 08:03

By Zhou Bo(China Daily)

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Piracy-free oceans - myth or reality?

A Spanish frigate, Blas De Lezo helicopter fires warning shots in front of a suspected pirate skiff in the Gulf of Aden in this NATO handout file photo made available June 3, 2009. [Photo/Agencies]

Counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden could not have been more successful. No commercial ships have been hijacked since 2013, compared with 46 ships in 2010. At the 18th Plenary Session of Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia at the UN headquarters on July 8, 2015, the European Union reiterated its "two zeros" goal for this year - zero ships and zero seafarers in the hands of Somali pirates.

This raises two questions: Can the international navies operating in the western Indian Ocean withdraw now? Could the lessons learned from the western Indian Ocean be applied to the Gulf of Guinea and Southeast Asia where piracy is on the rise?

On the first question, the fear is piracy will simply reverse should the international navies withdraw. In a country ripped apart by more than 20 years of civil war and plagued by 70 percent unemployment, piracy sounds like gold coins to jobless youths. Two dhows were still hijacked last year. The UN Security Council has been renewing its mandate on counter-piracy in the waters off the Somali coast on a yearly basis since 2008, but whether counter-piracy will continue after 2016 remains unclear.

The real problems are in the Gulf of Guinea and Southeast Asia. In 2011, a Chinese ship, Yue Liang Wan, was boarded by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea but saved by the Nigerian navy. According to Ocean Beyond Piracy, an international maritime watchdog, 67 attacks occurred in the Gulf of Guinea in 2014, and 170 seafarers were detained or held hostage. In Southeast Asia, 185 attacks took place in 2014, with 64 percent of them occurring near the Strait of Malacca or Singapore Strait, five seafarers were killed and 136 detained.

The lessons learned in the Gulf of Aden, such as joint military operation, coordination across stakeholders, regional prosecution and incarceration, are not easy to apply to the Gulf of Guinea or Southeast Asia.

The two regions, however different, have one thing in common: sensitivity to sovereignty. Unlike Somalia, which invites international navies to help fight piracy in its territorial waters, the two regions are opposed to the presence of foreign navies. Most Gulf of Guinea countries even prohibit the posting of international armed guards on ships in their territorial waters for fear of being compared with Somalia and seen as "failed states". Indonesia and Malaysia have specifically rejected the possibility of having Americans patrolling the Strait of Malacca, as proposed by Singapore.

The primary responsibility of counter-piracy lies with the littoral states. They need to first invest more in naval assets. The Nigerian navy, the strongest in the Gulf of Guinea region, has only five light frigates despite having to tackle 60 percent of the piracy incidents in the gulf. The Indonesian navy is the largest in Southeast Asia, but it has to guard an archipelago of 17,000 islands against piracy. Law enforcement is another big problem, especially in the gulf. As many as 70 percent of the attacks there go unreported, and there is little prosecution, and investigation is invariably lengthy.

This demands that the international community continue to help fight piracy in the two regions. Both regions welcome financial and technical support, and training assistance. Britain, France and the US hold irregular patrols in the Gulf of Guinea. In May-June last year, a Chinese naval task force held military exercises with Cameroon and Nigeria, the first time that the Chinese navy appeared in the west coast of Africa. Such patrols and exercises should be encouraged and held more regularly.

Over the years, China has provided naval vessels and associated training to quite a few countries in and near the Gulf of Guinea. These vessels are used mostly to counter pirates and armed robbers. In the Strait of Malacca, China and other trading countries using its waters have been providing funds and working on different projects to make the important channel safer.

Recently, Indonesia proposed that China and ASEAN hold joint patrols in the South China Sea. The proposal, if agreed, could bolster counter-piracy measures in the region. Singapore has Information Fusion Center and ReCAAP (The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia) Information Sharing Center, which monitor the situation at sea. It has been encouraging regional countries and major powers to send liaison officers to work together to deepen information sharing.

The number of piracy attacks in the Strait of Malacca had dropped from 38 in 2004 to zero in 2011. But it is now on the rise and has spread to different parts of South East Asia. This shows how persistent it can be. There is no panacea against this old profession on earth. And a solution has to include, among other things, economic development on land and military operations at sea.

The author is an honorary fellow with the Center of China-American Defense Relations at the Academy of Military Science.