VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — After dark on April 21, two boats carrying 20 pirates armed with cudgels and metal rods slipped up alongside a Russian freighter called Forest-1 in the port of Chittagong, Bangladesh.
The ship was carrying a load of coconut — something that might not seem especially attractive to a band of cutthroats — but the pirates, who had apparently paid off the Bengali watchmen, clambered on board anyway, said Natalia Khomenko, spokeswoman for Primorsk Shipping Company, a Russian Far Eastern firm that owns the vessel.
Someone awoke and sounded the alarm, and the Russian sailors fought back with spades, steel rods or simply their fists. For 10 minutes a hand-to-hand battle roiled across the decks. The sailors beat back their attackers, heaving some of them overboard, Russian papers reported.
A crew of husky sailors fighting off pirates in a distant port hardly ranks as a major international incident, but this one happened to come at an appropriate moment: a week before a multinational conference on sea piracy opened in Tokyo. Coast guard officials and maritime policymakers from 16 Asian countries met for the Regional Conference on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships.
Among them were maritime safety officials from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, which face the dangerous Malacca Strait. They were seeking to deal with a growing problem: Last year, pirate attacks worldwide surged nearly 40 percent, to 285, from 1998, and almost tripled compared with 1991.
The piracy conference may have a broader significance, however, for those who say entry into the World Trade Organization will help moderate Beijing’s behavior at home and abroad, forcing it to play by the rules. Perhaps this is true, but China’s behavior at this conference, at least, doesn’t bode well. The event opened a row between China and most of its neighbors.
Beijing, criticized in the past for letting a band of pirates go scot-free, resisted a Japanese proposal for joint exercises and patrols by national coast guards to halt armed attacks on ships, Agence France Presse reported.
“We clearly don’t need joint exercises with other countries,” said Li Ding, a senior border-security official from the Public Security Ministry. “We already have an assured ability to investigate piracy crimes ourselves, which this conference is aiming for.”
The stand flabbergasted some other nations, which naively thought they were meeting in order to take a common stand on a serious problem. India, for one, attacked China’s stand.
“The most important thing is building cooperation,” said Indian Coast Guard Director General John DeSilva. “In this first step, if we cannot cooperate, then we can’t go ahead further.”
China has given mixed signals on piracy in the past. Last year, the International Maritime Bureau accused the nation of failing to prosecute pirates it caught after an attack on a Malaysian tanker in 1998. Perhaps smarting from that sanction, in January China executed 13 pirates, among them the gang leader Weng Siliang, convicted of massacring 23 crewmen on the Hong Kong-owned Cheung Son in November 1998.
Beijing’s reluctance to join in joint patrols may have its roots in any number of factors. China has a historical distrust of Japan, which it still regards as a dangerous power. It may be reluctant to cooperate with India, with which it has territorial differences.
But more menacingly, China has made sweeping claims in the South China Sea, perhaps even regarding the entire sea as its own territorial waters. This would mean that China, whose coastline skirts the northern edge of the sea, claims waters that extends far south of Vietnam and the Philippines, right to the edge of Malaysian territory. In 1992, it forbade innocent passage to foreign warships passing through the sea, and demanded that submarines surface. China has not tried to enforce the demands.
Go-it-alone bluster is hardly kind of thing that win a nation friends (as the United States itself often takes pride in demonstrating). Representatives from Indonesia, which has the most crime-ridden waters in the world, pressed home the point in Tokyo that piracy is economically destructive.
China isn’t the only country that has a spotted record on the issue of piracy. Khomenko, the spokeswoman for the Primorsk Shipping Company, said that the company has complained many times about the attempts by criminals to get on ships and steal whatever they can, and the officials in Bangladesh keep shrugging off the problem.
A few years ago, one of the company’s tankers encountered pirates in the Malacca Strait. At night a motorboat sped up to a tanker, preparing to board it. The crew noticed the pirates and directed all its spotlights on the boat. The pirates turned and fled.
Compared to the murder of an entire crew, such incidents are merely nuisances for sailors. But it illustrates the danger ships live within Southeast Asia’s seas. Until all the players agree to cooperate, sailors will continue to sleep with a gun or a metal rod at hand. It’s every man for himself.
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