The attack on a Japanese tugboat Monday in the Strait of Malacca has underlined the threats posed by piracy in that waterway. These incidents are increasing, and the possibility that terrorists might use a hijacked vessel for a high-profile attack is real. An effective response requires a coordinated effort among littoral states and other affected countries. Fighting these pirates is a serious challenge that is made even more difficult by the need to tread softly on regional sensitivities. It is an effort that Japan is well suited to lead.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Strait of Malacca. Each year, more than 60,000 ships traverse the strait. It is estimated that half the world’s oil passes through it as well as one-third of global trade. Japan has a particular concern for the safety of shipping there. Eighty percent of the oil that Japan (and South Korea) gets passes through the strait. In addition to the lifeline that the strait provides for Japan, Japanese companies own about 20 percent of the ships passing through it.

The high volume of ships and the relatively narrow passage have made the waterway a magnet for pirates. According to the International Maritime Bureau, there were 37 pirate attacks in the Malacca Strait last year. Although piracy fell worldwide, the number of violent incidents in the strait rose. When counting all attacks that occurred in Indonesian waters, the number of piracy incidents rose to 93, more than one-quarter of the 325 attacks reported worldwide in 2004.

In most cases, the pirates seize the vessel, kidnap and later ransom the captain and some of the crew; sometimes the cargo is kept. That appears to be the case in the most recent incident. The tugboat Idaten, Japanese-owned and -registered, was seized by pirates who abducted the captain, chief engineer (both of whom are Japanese) and a Filipino deckhand. The vessel itself was released. No ransom demand has been reported yet, although that is believed to be the motive for the attack.

While piracy is the primary concern, there is a rising fear that terrorists may launch a large-scale attack in the Strait. Some worry that terrorists might try to sink a vessel to block shipping: at its narrowest point, the Strait is only 2.4 km wide; it is considered by many to be a chokepoint of international trade. (Some say that threat is overblown; if a ship were sunk, shipping would reroute, adding time and some costs, but not a significant amount.) Another scenario has terrorists hijacking a tanker laden with oil or natural gas and using it like a bomb to disrupt the port of Singapore or oil refineries in the area. The prospect is not far-fetched: Last weekend, pirates seized an Indonesian vessel carrying methane gas. The ship was released after the hijackers kidnapped the captain and chief engineer. Other similar incidents have been reported in the past.

Japan has established a crisis task force headed by Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura to oversee efforts to get the Idaten hostages back. In fact, however, the primary actors in this drama are Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the littoral states bordering the Malacca Strait. While Japan remains ready to assist in whatever way possible, those three are responsible for ensuring the security of shipping through the waterway.

The rising number of such attacks is proof that more should be done. At the same time, however, concerned governments must be sensitive to the pride of the countries directly involved. At every opportunity, regional militaries stress that outside powers are not needed or wanted. Last year, the United States said it was prepared to provide forces to help combat piracy and managed only to irritate regional governments who denounced the U.S. for threatening their sovereignty.

Regional sensitivities mean well-intentioned governments must go slow. Coordinated patrols and improved information and intelligence sharing will be better received and more effective. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi proposed a Regional Cooperation Agreement on Anti-Piracy that would do just that at the November 2001 ASEAN-Plus-Three (Japan, China and South Korea) summit. Japan should speed up the pace of implementation and push for similar action by ASEAN nations.

Success also requires recognizing that while these acts take place at sea, they are part of a much larger criminal network that operates on land, too. Law enforcement needs to be integrated into this effort to attack the pirates’ bases and chip away at the infrastructure that is instrumental in getting ransoms paid and hostages returned. In all these endeavors, caution, patience and a sensitivity to national prerogatives is vital. Japan’s diplomatic style is well suited for this important endeavor. Leading the fight against piracy provides this country with yet another opportunity to help promote peace and security in Asia and beyond.

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