Piracy Shifts from Malacca Strait to South China Sea
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Stronger regional cooperation has reduced piracy in the Malacca Strait over the past five years, new figures show.
According to the figures, just released by the London-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the number of actual and attempted piracy attacks in the Malacca Strait dropped from 11 in 2006 to two in 2010.
The main reason for the drop was a coordinated effort by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand to patrol the area and tighten security in their respective territorial waters, said Ian Storey, a security specialist at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Part of the success is due to the Eye in the Sky program, a shared aerial reconnaissance and surveillance effort by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. The effort began in 2005; Thailand joined the program in 2006. The result was a significant drop in piracy in the Malacca Strait.
“By 2009, Southeast Asia accounted for 45 out of 406 incidents globally, or 11 percent,” said Carl Thayer, a defense analyst on Southeast Asia for the Australian Defence Force Academy. “This demonstrated that regional states were capable of combining and addressing a major transnational security challenge without the assistance of external powers” like the United States.
However, Storey warns that the “geographical focus of the problem has shifted eastward into the South China Sea, where the number of attacks is up, especially around the Natuna Islands,” which are Indonesia’s responsibility. Indonesia has been struggling with limited resources to control the problem.
According to the IMB report, the number of attacks in the South China Sea jumped from only one in 2006 to more than 30 in 2010. There has been a “dramatic increase off the Anambas and Natuna Islands in the Indonesian waters,” said Eric Frecon, a maritime piracy analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
This type of piracy is akin to “sea guerrilla” tactics, he said. Though the Eye in the Sky program has been effective in the sea lanes of the Malacca Strait, areas now hit by piracy are not conducive to warships, which are “too big to track and follow the pirates among islets and mangroves,” and most pirates attack at night when there are not a lot of aircraft and warship patrols.
Another reason piracy has increased in these waters is the dropoff in international shipping because of the economic downturn.
“This has had the effect of freighters weighing anchor in Southeast Asian ports or in the South China Sea waiting on new contracts,” Thayer said. The result is that the ships have fallen victim to pirate attacks more easily.
Part of the problem also has to do with the “roots of this crime” in Indonesia, where the pirates come from, Frecon said. The “coastal ghettos” where pirates live are “gray areas” for Indonesian law enforcement authorities, who now have to deal with new autonomy laws arising from the creation of an independent East Timor in 2002.