Piracy in Straits Highlights Need for Maritime Security
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
The Straits of Malacca is a maritime choke point for ships going from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. Asian defense experts examined the problem here today at the Asia Security Conference, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
A story in a recent Straits Times detailed a pirate boarding of a Thai ship. Pirates - armed to the teeth - boarded the ship, kidnapped the captain and a crewman and took the vessel's trading documents. All will be held for ransom, which the article said will be paid.
More than 50,000 ships per year pass through the straits, piracy is increasing. The worry among defense experts in the region is that a terrorist group may affiliate with a pirate and attempt to close the waterway.
The countries of the region understand the danger piracy poses, and are beginning to work together to confront the threat. Pacific nations - including the United States - are encouraging a more regional approach to the problem.
About one-third of all goods shipped in the world pass through the Straits of Malacca. More than 600 miles long, the Straits of Malacca is the preferred path for Middle East oil to travel to Japan and China. Indian merchantmen use the straits to transit to the American West Coast. European goods travel through the straits to reach the Far East, and vice versa.
Three nations control the straits: Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. In the straits are some narrow channels and shallow reefs that slow the speed of ocean-going ships, and it is dotted with thousands of islands that offer pirates refuge.
All states that use the straits agree that maritime security should be a regional priority, but steps for a regional solution have been slow, officials said.
Part of the reason is that the nations don't really agree on the nature of the threat. Singapore, for example, equates piracy with terrorism. Singapore's defense minister, Teo Chee Hean, called the pirates "maritime terrorists" and said Singapore would act on them as it would any terrorist group.
Malaysia, while agreeing more needs to be done, sees pirates as common criminals. "Our view is that we have yet to find a credible link between terrorists - those who commit acts of aggression for a political motive - and modern-day pirates, whose primary aim is to derive commercial benefit from their acts," said Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Yab Dato Sri Najib Tun Razak.
The threat has become such that merchantmen transiting the straits have defensive weapons, and some shippers have even placed security teams aboard their ships.
The absolute bedrock of the effort is that the states of the area have the responsibility to police them. It is a sovereignty issue, said a U.S. defense official. "It's their waters," he said. "While they will accept help, anything that is done will ultimately lie with them."
In July 2004, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore began coordinated patrols to combat piracy in the straits. Adm. William Fallon, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said this is a great step. He said his command will help the nations in their maritime security efforts.
One major problem is surveillance. Fallon said there is a better picture of air and ground traffic than on the sea. He called the oceans a "vast ungoverned or weakly controlled space." He said pirates and terrorists use the seams in the region to operate.
The defense official said that one problem is when the countries operate in their national zones. "If they find a pirate, they don't do hot pursuit," the official said. A pirate only has to dodge across an international boundary to be safe.
Developing a common operating picture would go a long way toward solving this problem, Fallon said in a speech here. He said affordable technologies could be in place that would give maritime forces the ability to share information across national lines.
The navies and coast guards of the littoral states are not used to operating together. This interoperability gap also causes problems. Fallon said that with due respect for national sovereignty, "organizational and operational issues should be priority issues for agreement and exercises" should begin as soon as possible. Fallon was very careful to avoid putting a U.S. solution forward. Rather, he said, the United States is willing to work with the nations of the region to fashion a local solution.
This cooperation should include information sharing, he said. A priority is information exchange to build situational awareness. This would "illuminate the shadowy world of the criminal as well as terrorist activities," Fallon said.
Defense officials said the problem in the straits really cries for an Asian-Pacific solution. Japan, China, India, Thailand, the Philippines, the United States and the Middle East all have stakes in keeping the straits open and safe. These states should join with the littoral states to craft a solution, U.S. officials said.
Another problem is the relative effectiveness of the navies and coast guards involved. Officials rate the Singaporean and Malaysian maritime efforts as good. But the Indonesian maritime forces have resource problems. Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world. It is a nation with 17,000 islands, 1,000 of them permanently inhabited. The navy - not large by any means - is stretched. But a lot could be done with a minimal investment, said defense officials.
Training and nonlethal equipment purchases could help the Indonesian navy modernize, officials said. Confidence-building measures also could help the Indonesians as they cooperate with neighbors and friends in the region, they added.
Whatever is done in the maritime security area in the region depends on the littoral states. "It is crucial for countries to recognize that littoral states will have to remain in the driver's seat and retain primary responsibility for implementation of measures designed to strengthen security and safe passage in the straits," said Malaysia's Razak.
The problem, ultimately, must have a local solution, he said.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|