A recent piece by Elliot Brennan (Southeast Asia: Here be Pirates) misrepresents the piracy situation in Southeast Asia. It follows media reports claiming Southeast Asia is now the main global 'hot spot' for global piracy and sea robbery. That may be true in absolute numbers of reported attacks, but before making broad statements about piracy in the region and the counter-measures required, it's necessary to look more closely at the figures.


Map courtesy of the ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre.

Realistic assessments of the piracy threat require analysis of the reported attacks in terms of their seriousness, the types and sizes of vessels attacked, and whether ships were proceeding slowly or stopped at anchor or in port at the time of the attack. Any ship at all may be attacked while stopped or proceeding slowly if appropriate precautions are not taken and vigilance exercised.

Brennan relies on piracy data from the Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). This is a private sector organisation funded by shipping interests, particularly the insurance sector. Its reports suffer from the major drawback that they deal only in absolute numbers, counting an incident of petty theft from a ship at anchor as equivalent to a major incident of ship hijacking. Since the greater majority of incidents in the region are relatively minor, the PRC's reports can exaggerate the threat.

Reports from the Information Sharing Centre (ISC) established by the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) provide a more informed picture. These reports classify each incident of piracy and sea robbery according to level of violence and economic loss. This supports ReCAAP's role as a government-to-government organisation tasked with providing authoritative advice to governments and industry on actions necessary to counter the threat.

As shown by ReCAAP's report for the first half of 2015, the apparent increase in the number of attacks in this period over the same period in previous years was due largely to two factors: increased attacks in the eastbound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) through Singapore Straits (50 of the 90-odd attacks in the region during the period), and increased attacks in Vietnamese ports and anchorages (13 of the 90 attacks).

Ships invariably slow down when passing through the TSS and become vulnerable to 'hit and run' raids of petty theft. This phenomenon is not new but has been a feature of the region for many years, surging up and down from one year to the next depending on the level of policing (mainly onshore) to stamp it out. With the eastbound lane passing through Indonesia's territorial sea, the responsibility for dealing with these attacks rests primarily with Indonesia.

I take issue with two other points in Brennan's piece. First, it is far-fetched to suggest that increased attacks in Southeast Asia could lead to terrorist links similar to those between Somali pirates and Al-Shabaad. The situation in the two regions is quite different. Possible links between pirates and terrorists in Southeast Asia have been disproved many times over.

Ample evidence exists to show that even the more serious incidents in Southeast Asia of fuel siphoning from small tankers are purely criminal acts. The economic costs of these incidents is minor compared with the costs imposed by the Somali pirates when they were operating at their peak. The Somali pirates also enjoyed a business model whereby they were able to hold a vessel securely, possibly for months, while they negotiated a ransom for the ship and her crew. Nowhere is this possible in Southeast Asia.

My second issue with Brennan's piece is the notion that fears about provoking China prevent regional countries instituting more sea and air patrols to counter piracy. These fears have arisen in the context of patrols in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, but not with countering piracy. According to the IMB, no attacks at all occurred in the South China Sea in the first half of 2015.

Undoubtedly, China as a major ship-owning nation would fully support measures to counter the current types of attack occurring in Southeast Asia. China already contributes to safety in the Malacca and Singapore Straits with significant funding support for projects under the Cooperative Mechanism for Safety and Environmental Protection in the Straits.

There is always scope to improve maritime cooperation, but it's important to be conscious of costs and ensure the best use of limited national capacities. More sea and air patrols, as suggested by Brennan, are not the main requirement at present. Rather it's enhanced security in the TSS through Singapore Straits, and greater security in those regional ports and anchorages prone to attacks. In this regard, recent initiatives by Indonesia, including designating recommended anchorage areas off key ports that are more actively patrolled, are to be welcomed. Vietnam might now adopt similar arrangements.