It is not just children who play pirate these days. The International Maritime Bureau reports that there were 469 attacks on ships last year, a 56 percent increase over 1999. That number has increased throughout the last decade; without concerted action by governments — and especially those in Southeast Asia — it will continue to climb.

Piracy is a deadly business. Last year, 72 seafarers were killed and 99 injured; the year before, only three died and 24 were injured. A U.S. think tank estimated the economic losses at $16 billion a year. All figures and estimates are probably low, since many, if not most, attacks go unreported.

Southeast Asian waters are probably the most dangerous in the world. By one estimate, half of all attacks and most of the fatalities occur there. According to the IMB, the Malacca Straits has seen the fastest rise in piracy: The number of reported incidents rose from two in 1999 to 75 in 2000.

Asia’s economic ills have been a major cause of the rising frequency of attacks. More people are unemployed and desperate to support themselves and their families. Economic problems have also forced governments to cut maritime-safety budgets. Corruption is another factor: When coast guard or naval personnel themselves are not pirates, payoffs can encourage them to look the other way during attacks. Finally, Indonesia’s political chaos has distracted authorities there.

Piracy may sound quaint, but it carries big risks. A number of governments have staked claims to Southeast Asian waters, and many of those overlap. That means any attempt to stop piracy must be a cooperative one. It also means a risk of conflict if a navy pursues pirates into another nation’s waters.

Japan, reliant on shipping through those waters, has taken the lead in trying to organize a response to the problem. It has hosted conferences and given funds to local governments to help them fight the menace. China, another key player, has been less responsive. Beijing’s reluctance has two sources: its unwillingness to prejudice any claim to contested seas and fear of encouraging Japan to play a larger role in regional defense. Both guarantee that piracy will continue to plague the region.

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