Fighting Piracy: Is a Grand Asian Strategy Possible?

A region-wide approach will be needed to effectively tackle a growing menace.

By Nilanthan Niruthan

The vastness (of the ocean) and the resultant challenges make it mandatory for each nation to work in close collaboration to ensure security in the maritime domain. Therefore, we need to work on broadly shared objectives.” So said Rear Admiral DMB Waththewa of the Sri Lankan Navy, speaking to representatives from 34 countries several weeks ago, at the fifth annual Defense Seminar hosted in Colombo. Throughout his presentation – in which he shared his thoughts on how traditional and emerging maritime threats ought to be confronted – Waththewa emphasized the need for naval cooperation between states in the region. Analysts would do well to keep his words in mind when they study the Asia-Pacific, which is overwhelmingly reliant on stable seas for its economic prosperity and security.

Piracy was once dismissed in most circles as a relic of the past, a threat that was of no real concern in the modern age. This attitude has seen a dramatic reversal in recent years, largely as a result of the Somali piracy that wreaked havoc in the Gulf of Aden and disrupted vital trade routes, making the phenomenon an issue of public interest once again. It is estimated that dealing with piracy along the Somali coast in 2011 alone, cost nearly $7 billion. A coordinated regional effort has now managed to bring the situation under control, but the trend has led to a resurgence of piracy in other parts of the world, most notably in Asia, which has become the dominant arena for such activities. The region accounted for an overwhelming number of all piracy attacks in 2014, with 183 out of 245 such incidents worldwide.

While there have been concerted efforts by key nations to boost their maritime security, a grand naval strategy that could effectively eliminate this threat on a pan-Asian level is yet to materialize. This is hardly surprising, given the geopolitical web of rivalries that permeate the region. China has been active in combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden, but most of its efforts have been unilateral operations, rather than a campaign in conjunction with international efforts. In the South China Sea, regional tensions between the Asian giant and emerging economies like Vietnam and Indonesia prevent a naval alliance of any sort.  As a matter of fact, an equally important security concern for Indonesia, Asia’s biggest victim of piracy, is securing the resource-rich Natuna islands from alleged Chinese naval ambitions, ruling out the possibility of an overarching military partnership.

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