September 9, 2016 8:00 pm JST

Piracy falling fast across Asia, figures show

SIMON ROUGHNEEN, Asia regional correspondent

JAKARTA -- Maritime piracy attacks in Asia fell by more than two-thirds in the first half of 2016 compared to a year ago, suggesting that regional efforts to reduce the number of incidents are making headway amid a global decline in the number of ships seized or ambushed.

Even so, Indonesia remains a hotspot that in the first half of the year saw about one quarter of all piracy attacks reported worldwide take place in its waters. In addition, the waters between Malaysia and Indonesia remain dangerous because of kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, which recently executed two Canadian hostages and is holding at least 10 more for ransom.

"A search on our database shows 141 incidents [worldwide] this year until Sept. 5," said Natasha Brown, an official at the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency. There were 223 incidents in the comparable period of 2015, indicating "a downward year on year trend," Brown told the Nikkei Asian Review.

The International Maritime Bureau, part of the International Chamber of Commerce, also reported that pirate attacks were down significantly in 2016 compared with a year ago, with only 98 attacks worldwide in the first six months of 2016 -- the lowest in 21 years.

"[A] reduction in attacks in the Gulf of Guinea and the continued reduction in attacks off Somalia accounts for this," said IMB director Pottengal Mukundan. After years of kidnappings and hostage-taking by Somali pirates -- in some cases providing material for Hollywood movies -- a NATO-led security operation has resulted in much-reduced levels of piracy around East Africa.

The IMB's Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur, set up in 1992, is often the first to hear of pirate attacks, with a team standing by around the clock to field reports from distressed captains.

"All information received is immediately relayed to the local law enforcement agencies, requesting assistance. Information is also immediately broadcast to all vessels in the ocean region, providing vital intelligence and increasing awareness," the IMB says on its website.

Many of the calls received by the IMB come from vessels passing through strategically and economically-important waters such as the South China Sea and the 900km Straits of Malacca, where pirates have for centuries posed a threat to shipping and commerce.

Other key organizations involved in monitoring piracy have lauded the trends in Asia. Among them is the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, an intergovernmental body representing 20 countries that was set up a decade ago to improve anti-piracy coordination across the continent.

"There has been an improvement in the piracy and armed robbery situation in Asia, with the largest decrease in number of incidents during January-June 2016 compared to the same period in the past four years of 2012-2015," said the organization, which is referred to as Recaap.

"The number of incidents reported during January-June 2016 has decreased by 64% compared to the same period in 2015. A total of 41 incidents were reported during January-June 2016 compared to 114 incidents in 2015," Recaap said.

Piracy attacks increased in Asia from 2014 to 2015, but the data for 2016 suggests a return to a longer-term downward trend in the region.

"In Southeast Asia, increased cooperation between nations for operational patrolling and response, effective prosecution of criminal gangs and industry vigilance appear to have successfully reduced piracy incidents, Oceans Beyond Piracy, a U.S. based private foundation that researches the impact of piracy, said in a 2015 global survey.

The reduction in pirate attacks in Asia this year has been most noticeable in one of the region's most important waterways, the straits of Malacca and Singapore, sometimes referred to as SOMS. The waterway is the conduit for around 40% of world trade each year, including around 3 million barrels of oil a day destined for East Asia.

Recaap said: "The decline in the number of incidents reported during January-June 2016 was most evident in... SOMS. One incident was reported in SOMS during January-June 2016 compared to 55 incidents during the same period in 2015."

Pirate attacks in Asia are usually not as dangerous as those carried out off the coast of Africa, where pirates are often heavily armed and where hostage taking for ransom was a scourge for years prior to NATO's intervention.

Between 2005 and 2012, 61 seafarers were killed as result of piracy and 5,420 were held hostage on some 279 ships hijacked worldwide, according to the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, which points out that piracy also affects humanitarian aid, business supply chains, global production processes, trade, energy security, fisheries, marine resources, the environment and political stability.

The global cost of piracy, which UNCTAD calls "a hidden tax on world trade," remains unclear, although the U.N. agency cites estimates of between $1 billion and $16 billion a year. About 80% of these costs are believed to be borne by the shipping industry, including insurance and the provision of onboard security. The remaining 20% is covered by governments, including the cost of missions such as the NATO deployment off the Horn of Africa, according to UNCTAD.

The reduction in piracy attacks has not yet seen a drop in security overheads for merchant shipping, however.

"There is no real change, the costs are essentially the same, ships still have to take special measures to protect themselves, including armed guards," said Simon Bennett, director of policy and external relations at the International Chamber of Shipping. The ICS is made up of national shipowners' associations in Asia, Europe and the Americas whose member companies operate over 80% of the world's merchant tonnage.

In contrast to the sometimes violent pirate attacks carried out off the coast of Africa in recent years incidents in Asia have tended to involve more lightly armed gangs, often wielding knives rather than firearms, according to incident reports sent to the IMO and IMB.

"Seven pirates armed with knives boarded the ship while enroute to Lanshan. They tied up the master and fled with stolen cash, ship's property and crew personal belongings," reads one IMB incident report, also posted on the IMO's website. The report detailed a July 2016 attack on a Marshall Islands-registered bulk carrier accosted in the South China Sea, 18 nautical miles from the Indonesian island of Pulau Mangkai.

Elsewhere, the waters between Malaysia and the Philippines remain dangerous because of kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, which recently executed two Canadian hostages and is holding at least 10 more for ransom. This is an operating method that echoes the activities of Somali pirates -- some of which had links to terror groups such as al-Shabaab -- several years ago.

"Although it is good that piracy numbers have gone down, it doesn't mean that the problem has gone away," said Bennett.

Together, the territories of Indonesia and the Philippines include about 25,000 islands, offering ample hideaways for pirates. Indonesia and Malaysia have not joined Recaap, undermining the prospects for wiping out piracy from the region, preferring bilateral or trilateral efforts to combat the threat.

"It is important to immediately implement the trilateral cooperation in practical terms on the ground in a coordinated manner," said Indonesian defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, in a Sept. 6 meeting attended by his Malaysian and Philippine counterparts on Bali.

The IMB's half-year data for 2016 shows that around a quarter of the 98 reported attacks worldwide took place in Indonesian waters. However, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have pledged to work together to prevent kidnappings -- Indonesian and Malaysian nationals are among Abu Sayyaf's hostages -- while Jakarta is campaigning to stamp out illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in its waters.

Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said in 2015 that Indonesia wants IUU fishing to be listed as a transnational crime, and the government has been busy capturing and destroying foreign vessels caught fishing illegally in its sovereign waters.

Experts say that some of the Indonesian pirates are likely to be fishermen, their livelihoods possibly undermined by foreign boats fishing illegally. Don Liddick, professor of criminal justice at Penn State Lafayette, said in a 2014 article in the academic journal Trends in Organized Crime that there was a clear "nexus" between IUU fishing and maritime piracy.

"The well-documented incidences of piracy in or near Somali waters seems to have developed within the Somali fishing industry, at least partially as a consequence of illegal fishing. A similar IUU fishing-piracy link has been observed in Southeast Asia," added Liddick.

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