Threats Decline in the Malacca Strait - International Military Cooperation Curtails Piracy
By WENDELL MINNICK, SINGAPORE
When it comes to security in the Malacca and Singapore Straits, it’s not hard to find doomsayers with apocalyptic scenarios.
At the Global Security Asia International Exhibition & Conference on Homeland Security here on March 27-29, delegates and speakers talked at length about piracy and terrorism, homebrew naval mines and how a chemical tanker could be hijacked to ram an oil loading facility.
But despite all this handwringing about these strategic waterways, piracy and terrorism are actually waning in the region.
“Please, please, please don’t use the phrase ‘pirate-infested waters of the Malacca Strait’ in your story,” said Ian Storey, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies here. “With less than 10 attacks last year, it hardly deserves that accolade. More than 65,000 ships transit through the Strait every year, so the chances of being attacked by pirates are less than 0.01 percent. Moreover, pirates in general attack coastal feeder vessels and tugs — not the big, ocean-going tankers and container ships which have speed and size on their side.”
Incidents of piracy or attempted piracy in the straits declined from 46 in 2004 to 19 in 2005 and 16 last year, according to Joshua Ho, who coordinates the Maritime Security Program at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, here.
Storey and other regional experts are especially frustrated by U.S. officials and others who say there is a connection between pirates and terrorists.
“The possible nexus between piracy and terrorism has been overplayed. Pirates and terrorists have very different modus operandi — pirates need international trade to continue and don’t seek to draw attention to themselves; terrorists want to disrupt trade and seek maximum publicity,” Storey said.
Zara Raymond, an analyst at the Control Risks office here, agrees.
“There has been absolutely no link between terrorists and pirates,” she said. “No evidence. Media hype was out of control, pressure from Washington, and worries that terrorist threats to shipping drove regional countries to step up measures against piracy.”
Raymond cited a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office study that suggested an explosion from a liquid natural gas (LNG) tanker could burn people up to a mile away. Saying no LNG tanker has ever been attacked by terrorists or suffered such a catastrophic accident, Raymond called the report “speculation” and part of a post-9/11 obsession in Washington to find the next threat.
Scary, Unlikely Scenarios
A maritime security expert, in fact, regards most scenarios involving terrorists and pirates as unlikely, if not impossible.
“It is not difficult to dream up dramatic scenarios for a terrorist attack at sea,” said Sam Bateman, a senior fellow in the Maritime Security Program, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies here.
“These include a ship carrying a dangerous cargo being hijacked and used as a floating bomb to destroy a port, or a large vessel being sunk to block a narrow chokepoint for shipping. However, these are low-probability, high-consequence scenarios.”
Scenarios include terrorists or pirates sinking a ship to block the straits of Malacca and Singapore, but the width of the straits makes it virtually impossible. The narrowest point is off One Fathom Bank, 0.6 nautical miles wide, Bateman argued. “Even the most competent terrorists could not be confident that an attack of this nature would be successful.”
He also dismissed the idea of turning a ship with hazardous cargo into a floating bomb.
“Crude oil is not very flammable, and while liquefied natural gas is more so, LNG tankers tend to be robustly constructed,” said Storey.
Added Bateman, “Missile attacks on tankers during the tanker war of the 1980s [in the Arabian Gulf] showed how difficult it is to ignite a fire on a tanker.”
Even more credible scenarios — a bomb attack on a cruise liner or passenger ferry, a suicide attack by a small boat, a few mines in a chokepoint — might briefly disrupt traffic in the straits, but are not much of a threat to petrochemical shipping or large cargo ships, Bateman said.
“Arguably, the small suicide boat attack is the most credible of the scenarios,” said Bateman. “It is unpredictable and only defeated by good intelligence and tight waterfront and port security.”
“There is a lot of concern in Singapore about terrorist mining in the straits, as well as the use of chemical or oil tankers as a floating bomb,” Ho said. “Definitely, mining is a real possibility as the Tamil Tigers [a Sri Lanka terrorist group] have been known to use mines for their activities, so it is not too far-fetched that mines could be released in the straits to deter shipping from using the straits.”
Maritime Security Improves
Ho said there are numerous reasons for the decline in piracy incidents, including the implementation of the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, which came into effect in 2004 and requires both ports and ships to have security officers.
Ho also said that increased air and sea patrols in the region have been successful. These include “sea patrols conducted by Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore on a 24/7 basis and the ‘Eye in the Sky’ initiative, where the three countries conduct maritime air patrols of the Malacca and Singapore straits with up to two sorties each per week,” Ho said.
The tri-nation cooperation began in 2004, after several years of increasing incidents of piracy and attempted piracy. Since then, such incidents have declined.
Singapore has been the most aggressive in fighting piracy and terrorism threats in the region. Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakurmar told delegates at the Global Security conference that maritime border security had been enhanced with the use of transponders on ships.
“Another example of how border security could be further enhanced by common technological standards is the International Maritime Organization requirement to install identifying transponders on ocean-going vessels above 300 [metric] tons,” Jayakurmar said. “Singapore was among the first to comply with this requirement.”
“Apart from larger vessels, numerous smaller craft also operate in our waters as well,” he said. “In this regard, we have established the Harbor Craft Transponder Systems [HARTS] to monitor and track the movements of small harbor and pleasure craft in our waters. To date, about 2,800 craft have been fitted with a HARTS transponder.”
An Uncertain Future
Some Singapore experts believe that the straits could yet become an area of instability if Indonesia or Malaysia turned to a radical Islamic government with anti-Western and anti-Singaporean agendas. The vision is of a Southeast Asian version of a militant Iran-like state that might cause problems in the straits.
But Storey said the real maritime problem has shifted to the Philippines.
“Piracy in the Strait of Malacca is under control now, thanks to the efforts of the littoral states,” he said. “The real problem now lies in the Sulu Sea, where the Philippines Navy is incapable of monitoring the sea lanes between the south of the country and Borneo. This is where the international community needs to focus its attention now.”