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It seems hard to believe, but pirates still roam the seas. The International Chamber of Commerce reported 285 attacks on ships in 1999, up from 42 in 1991, but even that statistic is assumed to be a fraction of the actual number. Nearly three-quarters of the attacks occur in Southeast Asian waters. A solution to the problem will require vigilance and cooperation among all nations of the region.

To step up the fight against modern buccaneers, Tokyo last week hosted a two-day conference on international piracy. Fifteen governments attended the meeting, the first ever. They adopted the “Asia Anti-Piracy Challenges 2000” and the “Mode Action Plan” to promote cooperation and coordination.

For Japan, the issue is especially important. This country depends on shipping for its very survival. Not surprisingly, a large number of attacks involve Japanese ships: 34, or more than 10 percent, in 1999. That is why former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi proposed such a conference last year, and why his successor, Mr. Yoshiro Mori, has embraced the cause.

Two problems in particular have blocked a crackdown on pirates. The first is a failure of will. There are reports that pirates sometimes wear the uniforms of various national militaries, or operate under the protection of local bosses. The failure of national authorities to end this corruption will cripple attempts to halt piracy.

The second problem is a lack of preparation and coordination. For example, it is almost impossible to patrol Indonesia’s thousands of islands, even in the best of times. When the central government is weak, as it is now, the difficulties are compounded. Inadequate skills and a lack of coordination among national maritime agencies region add to the challenge.

Japan has offered training and equipment to countries that need assistance. Most were happy to accept. China, by contrast, denied any need to take part in joint exercises. Given its long coastline, and Beijing’s spotty record in fighting piracy, that is a shame. Unless all governments work together, piracy will be with us for a good deal longer.

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