CHIANG MAI, Thailand — For years now piracy in the Malacca Strait has been one of the top problems facing the Asian region. A recent Japan Times editorial very succinctly dealt with the potential dangers that it presents, especially with regard to Japan. My purpose here is to consider possible ways to minimize the threat.
While visiting the famous Hyundai Shipyards in Ulsan, South Korea, I was surrounded by dozens of people in the shipping industry: shipowners, shipbuilders, merchant-marine financiers, insurers, mariners and others.
I asked one seasoned tanker skipper how he and his crews felt when passing through the Malacca Strait. He answered by telling me a long story of how once while asleep in his cabin he was awakened by a menacing pirate who was holding a sharp knife to his neck! In the same incident, other members of his crew were treated equally brutally.
Luckily for everybody, the captain managed somehow to escape and raise the alarm, alerting the local authorities. The pirates opted to run rather than cause further havoc, but my interlocutor still has nightmares of that ordeal.
This story sounds as if it could be taken straight out of one of those frightening movies that we all have seen in our youth, but it was all too real for the skipper and his crew.
How best can this scourge be tackled? Many observers have rightly pointed out the difficulty of accommodating regional sensitivities. The United States would be the logical choice to add muscle to efforts to better police the region, but its participation is not welcome by governments there.
Such sentiment, however, may change in the future because of the successful, high-profile American relief effort in Aceh in the wake of the Dec. 26 tsunami and ongoing improvements in Washington-Jakarta relations, particularly on defense issues. (A visit by an Indonesian defense minister to Washington might have been unthinkable until now.)
Japan should take more concrete initiatives. Perhaps this can be done hand in hand with China as both consider their involvement in Southeast Asian developments within the ASEAN-Plus-Three (Japan, China and South Korea) framework as well as their mutual economic and other stakes that would be threatened should piracy take a turn for the worse in the Malacca Strait.
One Thai academic in Bangkok believes that the region is “comfortable with Japan’s role in the security situation [there],” and that China could use this issue to improve its regional profile.
Members of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations could also take steps to better combat piracy in the Malacca Strait. For example, Singapore could better coordinate its naval activities with Malaysia and Indonesia. The apparent inability of some of the group’s most prominent members to contain this threat in their own backyard is making other ASEAN members uneasy.
We do not know exactly how much the ASEAN Regional Forum has invested in dealing with the issue of maritime terrorism. Perhaps more can be done there as well, as ARF needs to show that it can move beyond deliberations and specify recommendations, which in turn could be approved and subsequently implemented by the group’s members.
To outside observers, it must look rather odd that so many governments bordering one of the world’s most vital sea lanes are still unable or unwilling to take the necessary measures to restore calm and safety to the area.
It is equally odd that a few criminals are able to take advantage of regional misunderstandings, national pride and sensitivities to revive a bygone era of perilous seafaring.
The fact that pirates can easily establish refuges and bases in the region demonstrates that a devastating terrorist attack could also be launched there. Asia should demonstrate that it is capable and willing to eradicate a plague that threatens its most vital interests.
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