U.S. moving against pirates on high seas
By Richard Halloran
In ordering a U.S. destroyer to capture and board a suspected pirate ship on the high seas in the Indian Ocean, the United States has fired a warning shot across the bow of would-be terrorists who might lash up with pirates in Asia and the Pacific.
The destroyer, the USS Winston S. Churchill, was ordered to intercept the suspect ship on Jan. 21 after the U.S. Central Command, from its forward headquarters in Bahrain, was contacted by the International Maritime Bureau, based in Malaysia. The bureau monitors piracy all over the world, but especially in Asia.
It took the U.S. warship several hours of maneuvering and firing warning shots to induce the smaller vessel to surrender. The Navy boarding party then disarmed the ship, confiscating a cache of small arms, before sending it on its way.
"This was a maritime security operation," said a Navy officer informed of the events. Maritime security, broadly defined, includes tracking thousands of ships, much as aircraft are monitored, knowing what cargoes the ships are carrying, driving off pirates when they attack a ship, or recovering the ship if it is seized.
For several years, leaders of maritime nations in the region, from India and Sri Lanka in South Asia to Singapore and Australia in Southeast Asia, and South Korea and Japan in Northeast Asia, have worried that terrorists would seek alliances with pirates, particularly those operating in the South China Sea.
Through that sea lane passes more international shipping each year than through the Suez and Panama canals combined. Terrorists who might seize, for instance, a large oil tanker and scuttle the vessel in the Straits of Malacca between Singapore and Indonesia would wreak economic, political, military and environmental havoc.
Until now, the U.S. Navy has been reluctant to engage pirates because the service is stretched out with other duties. Many warships are supporting the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The operating tempo of the warships has forced sailors to be gone from home ports for many months, and ship maintenance and repairs have been put off.
In the Pacific Command, with headquarters in Hawai'i, staffs have been order to prepare for hostilities between China and Taiwan, and North and South Korea. Intelligence gathering and analysis has been given a high priority. Working to maintain military relations with Japan, Thailand and other nations consumes much time.
The issue is politically sensitive because leaders of Asian maritime nations have asserted that they do not want outside powers, notably the United States, operating in their sovereign waters, where many pirate assaults occur. Many Asian naval officers argue that combating piracy is the job of law enforcement, not navies.
Many U.S. Navy officers agree, but they assert that some Asian nations lack the proper ships — small, fast and adequately armed — to defeat or capture pirates. Moreover, coordination and intelligence-sharing among the maritime nations has not been fully developed.
On the other hand, President Bush's war against terrorism is where much of the action is today, and many U.S. Navy officers contend that their service needs to be involved, if for no other reason than to preserve its standing among the U.S. armed forces.
Thus, said a Navy officer, maritime security operations are intended to "deny international terrorists use of the maritime environment as a venue for attack or to transport personnel, weapons, or other material."
The incidence of piracy in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia, where the recent episode took place, is among the highest in the world. Somalia is a poor nation with ineffective government, and it may be easier for Somalis to steal from ships at sea than to earn a living wage on land.
Piracy off the coast of Indonesia, which lies along the southern edge of the South China Sea, is even worse. The maritime bureau reported 71 incidents in Indonesian waters and the Strait of Malacca during three quarters of 2005, the most in the world.
If ever there was a country made for piracy, Indonesia is it. The archipelago has 17,500 islands, of which 11,000 are uninhabited, and 32,800 miles of coastline. Its law enforcement people are poorly trained and ill equipped.
One bright spot, the maritime bureau reports, is that Indonesia has begun a maritime security operation named "Gurita 2005" to combat the pirates who are operating ever farther out to sea, and who have become increasingly violent. How effective it will be, however, remains to be seen.
Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia.