SINGAPORE — The confrontation between foreign warships and well-armed pirates off the coast of lawless Somalia is a dramatic reminder to Asia of the importance of safeguarding busy channels used by international shipping.
This is particularly the case for the straits of Malacca and Singapore. This is the shortest sea route between the energy-rich Persian Gulf and voracious energy consumers in Northeast Asia, especially Japan, China and South Korea, which depend heavily on oil imported from the Middle East. Yet, the deteriorating situation off the Horn of Africa and potential threats to shipping in the Persian Gulf contrast starkly with the improved security in previously pirate-prone Southeast Asian waters.
Reflecting the intensifying fighting and political chaos in Somalia, where the central government collapsed in 1991, piracy directed at ships passing the country with the longest coastline in Africa has worsened. In recent months, more and more vessels have been attacked and hijacked. Using as much as $30 million in ransom money paid this year by ship owners to free their seized vessels and crews, the pirates have bought increasingly sophisticated equipment, including faster attack craft with longer ranges, rocket-propelled grenades, satellite phones and global positioning systems.
This has emboldened them to strike further from shore and move northward into the Gulf of Aden, which links the Red Sea and Suez Canal to the Arabian Sea. If the attacks continue, ships plying between Asia and the Middle East, and Europe and North America, might have to divert around the Cape of Good Hope on the tip of southern Africa, as they did at great expense from 1967 to 1975 when the Arab-Israeli conflict closed the Suez Canal. This would raise the cost of oil and other goods being shipped to the West, worsening the economic recession and financial turmoil gripping Europe and the United States.
Already, insurance rates for ships passing Somalia have skyrocketed, as they did after al-Qaida suicide terrorists drove a small boat packed with explosives into a oil-laden tanker off the coast of nearby Yemen in 2002.
Current international concern was galvanized when Somali pirates captured a Ukrainian freighter, the Faina, on Sept. 25 about 320 km off the coast of Somalia. The ship was heading for Kenya loaded with 33 Soviet-designed T-72 battle tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and other arms. With booty in their hands worth an estimated $30 million, the pirates have demanded $20 million to release the ship and its 20 crew members.
They deny any connection with terrorists. But as of this writing the Faina was anchored off the coast of central Somalia with the crew on board held hostage at gunpoint. A U.S.-led naval flotilla said it would not allow the arms on the Faina to fall into the hands of an al-Qaida linked Islamic movement battling Somalia’s government and forces from neighboring Ethiopia that were sent in to protect it. As a Russian warship steamed toward the crisis zone, the Somali government on Oct. 1 authorized foreign powers to use whatever force is necessary to free the Faina.
The episode shows how a small but well-armed and determined group of pirates from a failed state can menace an important international shipping lane despite the deployment of warships by global powers. The U.S.-led task force patrolling off Somalia says it has deterred 12 pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden since the end of August. But there have been more than 50 attacks around Somalia this year and over 25 have resulted in successful hijackings, according to the anti-piracy arm of the International Chamber of Commerce.
At present, a dozen ships and 259 seafarers are being held hostage, a situation that prompted a call by the global shipping community last month for an effective crackdown by governments and their naval forces.
Around 90 percent of world trade by volume is carried by ships, with some 50,000 merchant vessels trading internationally. They carry everything from steel containers of manufactured goods to bulk commodities like oil, coal and wheat. Although these ships roam the oceans, most of them follow fixed maritime routes that pass through a series of geographic “choke points,” or narrow channels.
Choke points are vital because so much of the world’s trade passes through them, yet they are narrow and could be blocked, at least temporarily, by interstate conflict, terrorism, pirate attacks and shipping accidents.
Among the main choke points for international trade in energy and other goods are the straits of Malacca and Singapore in Southeast Asia, the Hormuz Strait, which is the only way by sea into and out of the Gulf, and the Bab el-Mandab Strait, which connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. About 20,000 ships transit the Gulf of Aden each year, only about one-third of the number using the Malacca Strait.
A United Nations Security Council resolution in June gave permission to nations to send warships into Somalia’s territorial waters to stop piracy and armed robbery at sea, provided such action was taken in cooperation with the beleaguered Somali government in Mogadishu. Several years ago, as international concern mounted over pirate attacks in and around the Malacca Strait, the governments of countries flanking the waterway — Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia — pre-empted any possibility of U.N. or foreign intervention by taking action to reduce piracy and safeguard shipping.
They launched coordinated sea patrols in 2004, combined air patrols a year later, and improved intelligence exchange in 2006. Last month, Thailand became the fourth country to join the Malacca Strait patrols, which are backed by an anti-piracy agreement among regional governments and an associated information-sharing center based in Singapore. There is room for improvement, of course.
Although pirate attacks in Southeast Asian waters are down, they still occur. Recently there have been ship robberies in the South China Sea, not far from the Malaysian resort island of Tioman.
But the Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce, which runs a piracy reporting network for the shipping industry, acknowledges that the number of pirate attacks in the Malacca Strait has dropped because of increased patrolling by the littoral states.
Michael Richardson is an energy and security specialist at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.