China’s aggressive claims to parts of the South China Sea contested by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei is damaging regional cooperation against piracy, allowing more attacks — 41 so far this year after 30 last year. Naval exercises with the United States this week do include anti-piracy drills but the main aim has become establishing sovereignty.

The lack of hiding and mooring space for large vessels still makes piracy in the region a tough business, but the recent move in Southeast Asia from robbing crews to hijacking vessels is a worrying development.

Although this may simply indicate that pirates have rebuilt their bases after the 2004 tsunami, they are coordinating attacks and moving up from opportunistic robbery.

Piracy in Southeast Asia nearly doubled in May, with 15 incidents — and June looks similar. Currently, attacks in Southeast Asia are lower than those off Somalia but there have recently been a few cases of hijacking and ransom.

In May, eight captured fishing crew in the southern Philippines were released for ransom paid to a local pirate. As Somalia shows, once pirates know their demands can be made without reprisals, the level of hijacking, kidnap and ransom will only increase.

Although the 49 hijacks out of 218 attacks in 2010 from lawless Somalia may not be replicated in Southeast Asia, with better law enforcement, incidents like the Philippines hijack are likely to increase.

Currently, most piracy in the region appears opportunistic, often theft from ships anchored in ports such as Jakarta in Java and Samarinda in Borneo.

The Strait of Singapore and the Strait of Malacca used to be the most heavily attacked area — being among the most important and congested shipping lanes in the world. More than 80,000 ships passed through last year between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Over 30 percent of all oil carried by sea passes through the straits, heading for China, Japan and South Korea. The potential economic damage is huge.

Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia have coordinated piracy patrols since 2004, with 38 attacks that year after a peak of 75 in 2000. They cut this to 10 in 2005 and only a handful since, International Maritime Bureau figures show. But attacks have increased in the South China Sea, with 13 known in 2009, 30 in 2010 and 41 so far this year, they show.

The 11 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) follow the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). Established in 2004 and ratified by 17 countries, the agreement encourages information exchange to fight smuggling, piracy and terrorism at sea.

But ReCAAP is nonbinding. Many, including China and ASEAN members, want a more forceful response. Singapore has supported international assistance against piracy — but Indonesia and Malaysia oppose foreign involvement.

A united ASEAN would be best suited to fight piracy but it faces other problems. The continuing Thai-Cambodia border dispute has damaged relationships because Thailand rejected mediation attempts by Indonesia and the Philippines. Recent fighting in Burma between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has highlighted Burma’s human rights abuses. Burma’s alleged nuclear ambitions are also likely to damage relations with ASEAN. Piracy looks set to remain on the back burner.

Further complicating attempts to tackle piracy are the disputed claims in the South China Sea, including the Spratly and Paracel island groups. Recent spats between China, Vietnam and the Philippines greatly limit the chances of formerly effective cooperation in the disputed waters until this is resolved or eased.

Up until now, the United States has called for greater coordination against piracy but had offered little tangible assistance. Joint naval exercises this month, however, do include training for regional threats such as piracy — but mainly as a show of solidarity against Chinese claims.

The potential for massive reserves of natural gas and oil in the South China Sea fuels the disputes. The littoral states bracketing the 1.3 million square mile body of water will seek alliances both with each other and the U.S. as a counterweight to the rising naval strength of China.

These changing geopolitics threaten broad cooperation, giving room to the pirates who hijack and kidnap.

Brittany Damora is a risk consultant based in Singapore and London. Evan Jendruck is a researcher for international risk analysis and security firm AKE Group.

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