Piracy in Straits Highlights Need for Maritime Security
Piracy in Straits Highlights Need for Maritime Security
By Jim Garamone, American Forces Press Service.
Singapore -- (AFPS) June 5, 2005 – In this part of the world, piracy is a real
and deadly peril.
Photo by Tech. Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby,
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
Part of the reason is that the nations don't really agree on the nature of the
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.