- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

While piracy rages in the Gulf of Aden and in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia, attacks on the other side of the ocean in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea have steadily dwindled, largely because Southeast Asian nations have banded together to fight back.

During the first quarter of 2009, attacks in Southeast Asian waters were down to nine, compared with 41 during the same period of 2004, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

The IMB, with headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said pirates attacked 63 ships off Somalia or in the Gulf of Aden in this period.

Dozens more pirate attacks were reported last month, including the April 8 attack on the Maersk Alabama, captained by Richard Phillips.

IMB Director Pottengal Mukundan said this surge of piracy off Somalia was worrisome “principally because attacks have taken place many hundreds of miles off the country’s coastline. The problem of Somali piracy has now spilled over to neighboring countries, threatening trade routes into their ports.”

In contrast, only one incident has been reported so far this quarter in the Malacca Strait. A seagoing Singaporean tug towing a barge was boarded by 12 pirates with rifles who stole navigation and communications equipment, plus money and personal belongings of the crew.

The pirates kidnapped the tug’s master and first officer and fled. The two were later freed after the owner paid a ransom.

The IMB, in its quarterly report, said: “The littoral states should be complimented for their continued efforts in maintaining and securing the safety of this strategic trade route. This has been the result of increased vigilance and patrolling by the littoral states and the continued precautionary measures on board ships.”

The differences between Southeast Asia and Somalia are striking. Governments in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam are functioning and can crack down on pirates; Somalia is a lawless, failed state.

Geography favors Southeast Asia, as the South China Sea is a big lake, and the straits in and out are easier to control than the wide Indian Ocean.

Joint “eyes in the sky” patrols, coordinated naval patrols, sharing of intelligence and command centers that communicate with each other have helped. So has getting agencies within a government to work together. Indonesia, for instance, has 13 agencies involved in maritime security.

Not all is well, however. Some pirate attacks go unreported because ship owners find it cheaper to suffer the loss of cargo and equipment, and even pay ransom, than to pay higher insurance premiums.

Nor do they want to pay to arm and train merchant seamen to ward off pirates, and they are less than eager to hire guards to defend their ships.

Even so, the U.S. has helped Southeast Asia protect the vital sea lanes through which more ships pass every year than through the Panama and Suez canals combined.

For the U.S. Navy, which has been shifting its weight from the Atlantic into the Pacific and Indian oceans, this passage is essential to sailing warships between the two oceans.

The U.S. has funded radar stations, command and communication centers, and patrol boats, and has encouraged Southeast Asian nations to work together.

When Adm. William J. Fallon, then commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, was in Indonesia to discuss piracy and terror three years ago, an Indonesia officer told him: “This is our problem and, with our neighbors in Singapore and Malaysia, we can take care of it.”

Adm. Fallon was clearly pleased. “It’s your neighborhood,” he replied, “and you should do it yourselves. If we can help, please let me know.”

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