The threat of piracy in Southeast Asian waters is not as worrisome as it appears to be, a locally headquartered anti-piracy watchdog says, but shipowner organisations such as BIMCO disagree.
The world’s largest shipping association has recently sent a letter to ReCAAP, a Singapore-based multinational group that combats piracy, accusing the latter of being uncooperative and downplaying the situation, a source familiar with the matter told Lloyd’s List.
BIMCO declined to disclose the letter, but confirmed that it had addressed the group in a bid to express its worries over the issue, according to BIMCO chief maritime security officer Giles Noakes.
“We have said to them that we have some concerns, we have pointed them out very precisely,” Mr Noakes says.
The number of piracy and armed robbery incidents in the region has risen constantly in recent years. Data even suggests that Asia may have now turned into the most dangerous place for seafarers.
ReCAAP recorded 183 actual and attempted piracy and armed robbery attacks against ships in Asia last year, a 22% increase compared with 2013. The area has also become home to three-quarters of total incidents worldwide, according to the International Maritime Bureau and its global piracy report for 2014.
However, ReCAAP — now co-ordinating with 20 government members to compile incident reports — told Lloyd’s List that the situation was not as bad as it seemed, and the apparent rise in attacks was mainly due to better reporting.
ReCAAP deputy director Nicholas Teo said: “I think over the years, everybody knew of incidents happening, except that there has been lots of underreporting.
“So today the number is getting larger, not because there is a real increase. It’s just now we know what we didn’t know before.”
Mr Teo said that his organisation, established in 2006, had been striving to build up a more comprehensive information-sharing system and encourage piracy reporting over the past years, and had achieved some success. Today, its membership size has almost doubled over the past nine years, from just 11 initial participant states.
As a result, the number of incidents reported in Asian waters is likely to stay high as ReCAAP continues to improve the system, Mr Teo suggests.
“[The number of incidents in] Asia will always be high, it’s one simple reason we are existing.”
However, BIMCO and some other shipowner associations don’t buy the theory.
“They have done a tremendous amount to improve the accuracy of reporting in the region. And they should take credit for that,” Mr Noakes said.
“[But] to say that all the increase in piracy in the last two years is due to reporting might be a little naive.”
Tim Wilkins, Asia-Pacific manager for tanker organisation Intertanko, agreed, saying ReCAAP’s answer did not reflect the full picture.
“The 22% increase from 2013 to 2014 is not insignificant, and certainly something has to be done,” he added.
The suspicions and worries of BIMCO and Intertanko, in particular, stemmed from the escalating frequency of oil or fuel siphoning attacks against tankers. ReCAAP categorises these incidents as “highest significance”.
A total of 15 such incidents, according to the group, were in Asia last year, of which 12 were successful attacks. By contrast, only three were reported, with two successes, in 2013.
The attacks continue, with two already reported this year. In one of the attacks, an Indonesian-flagged chemical tanker that had been carrying 1,100 tons of diesel fuel was discovered grounded in the Philippines in February.
The ship had been hijacked by eight masked men who boarded the ship in late January near Lembeh Island, Indonesia. The robbers seized the ship, bound the crew and smashed the communications equipment and removed the fuel cargo, presumably by ship-to-ship transfer.
The robbers released the 14-strong crew in a life raft, where they were found by a passing ship at the end of January.
BIMCO suspects the oil-siphoning attacks form a frequent enough pattern to be described as a business model that targets small tankers. The majority of tankers attacked are less than 2,000 gt, with others ranging from 2,148 gt to 5,153 gt, according to ReCAAP figures.
The pirates appear to be highly organised and well informed. They often know about the vessel details before launching an attack. Their strategy demands co-ordinating with another ship to come alongside the victim vessel at an opportune time and location for siphoning and transferring fuel oil, according to ReCAAP. Afterwards, the stolen cargo is sold on the black market.
Meanwhile, it is easier for robbers to get access to small tankers, especially product tankers, and conduct ship-to-ship siphoning. It’s a lucrative business — pirates can earn up to $1m or more for each hijacked tanker after selling the stolen bunkers and oil products on the black market without being discovered, says Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur.
In addition, attacking smaller tankers attracts less attention from the international and local communities, hence making it easier for them to get away. “So they are actually being quite clever,” Mr Noakes said.
Earlier this year, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency arrested seven of the nine pirates who hijacked a Malaysian coastal tanker, but that has been the only case ending in arrests among the 17 such hijackings in Southeast Asia since April 2014.
“If the crime is seen to be easy, and you can get away with it, it will be repeated,” Mr Noakes said.
Some are even more concerned, warning that the incidents may escalate in the future if the situation remains unchecked.
“You are going to have big problems once everyone jumps into the business, just like how it happened in Somalia,” Mr Choong said.
Although no Intertanko members have yet directly been involved in the fuel siphoning incidents, Intertanko fears that the pirates may feel tempted to take “slightly smaller steps to go to slightly bigger ships”, according to the its marine director Phillip Belcher.
Those steps to bigger ships would necessarily include the small chemical tankers in Intertanko’s membership. A new phase of attacks would raise the volume of attention on risk in the area and likely make transiting these waters more costly as shipowners, as they adopt security measures similar to those deployed in the Indian Ocean.
Some of Intertanko’s members have considered using private armed security guards on ships when navigating in the area, Mr Belcher says, although none yet have done so.
Gerry Northwood, former UK Counter-Piracy Task Group commander who now works as the chief operating officer for MAST, a private maritime security company, told Lloyd’s List that his clients were concerned about the situation, but so far none of them had requested armed security guard on board.
It may be that owners are simply waiting for the coastal states, each of which has strong anti-piracy laws, to step up enforcement in their own territorial waters.
The wait-and-see approach has been marginally tolerable until now because the attacks against small tankers have not been as severe or violent as those against commercial shipping in the western Indian Ocean or the Gulf of Guinea.
While one Southeast Asian incident resulted in a seafarer’s death, and others have left crew members seriously hurt, security groups tend to regard them as less vicious than the attacks near Africa.
“But that may change some time,” said Mr Northwood, noting that if the business model continued to prove lucrative, some pirates “will want to try to work on developing that model a bit harder”.
Mr Teo says observers should not overstate the situation. He says fuel siphoning is an ongoing criminal trend in Southeast Asia, as proceeds from selling fuel on the black market can be attractive in Singapore’s neighbouring coastal states, where average incomes are typically low. This has fostered a large underground market for fuel trade, or “a whole livelihood trade”.
He believes, as do others with knowledge of the matter,that many of the fuel siphoning as well as other piracy incidents appear to be inside jobs involving collaboration between crew and the robbers.
For example, in some cases the crew cannot describe the colour and shape of the pirates’ ships that took their fuel away, or they were locked up by pirates but with their passports and all personal belongings. “A lot of the stories don’t gel,” Mr Teo said.
Ting Heng Kiong, former chairman of Sarawak Sabah Shipowners’ Association in Malaysia, agreed that at least some of the piracy incidents were related to inside jobs.
The association co-ordinates with 3,000 ships, most of which are small vessels including tugs, bulkers and tankers.
“Some crew members just sell bunker oil from their own ship to make extra money,” he said.
“And some incidents occurred right after new members joined the crew. They use telephone to make contact with the pirates about when and where the ship will pass through.”
As for the most significant tanker hijacking cases, Mr Teo pointed out that out of last year’s 15 attacks, 10 were concentrated on two shipping companies.
One of the companies, which suffered six hits, found that family members of three missing seafarers evacuated their houses several weeks before the incident occurred.
Last year, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency confirmed a tanker hijacking in April as a situation in which crew members had tipped off the robbers.
That said, this is the only incident that has been substantiated by the police to be an inside job in 2014, other than the April hijacking.
“You need evidence. And you can’t say one of the incidents is related to an inside job and [therefore] the rest is the same,” Mr Choong said. “I think that generalisation is wrong.”
In the eyes of BIMCO and other shipping associations whose members have a big stake in the region, putting an emphasis on the insider nature of the incidents merely provides a convenient way of playing down the problem.
Mr Wilkins said: “If they do feel that is insider job, that’s their focus, then they should be doing something about that rather than just telling the industry that actually it’s to blame for this.”
International shipping associations are certainly not happy about what local authorities — and groups such as ReCAAP — have so far achieved.
“Why there is not intelligence in those countries and why they are not controlling their own borders?” asked Kuba Szymanski, secretary general of the shipmanagement trade group InterManager. “I can’t imagine piracy in Belgium or the UK, can you?”
The associations are calling for more action against piracy in Asia, including more police manpower to investigate the incidents, and far more teamwork among the coastal states.
“[They should] start investigations, putting a little bit more time and effort into discovering the source of these networks,” Mr Wilkins said. He would also like to see more prosecutions, saying they served as a deterrent against future incidents.
Some suggest that governments in the region should boost the number of patrols in Malacca Straits.
“When the pirates see law enforcement vessels are acting, then they find it more difficult,” Mr Noakes said.
Mr Szymanski said: “We should get politicians in every country in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and ask them to do what every other countries are doing, deploying a strong coast guard and navy presence.”
Since last June, the Indonesian authorities have established a series of designated areas in which local marine police patrol regularly. This has reduced the number of attacks, according to IMB’s piracy reporting centre.
Mr Choong said a joint patrol with more countries involved could be a good idea. “But that’s a decision the authorities would have to make.”
For a start, ReCAAP could begin co-ordinating with its own neighbours, the industry groups argue. At the current time, Indonesia and Malaysia are not on ReCAAP’s member list.
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