Most people associate piracy with the likes of swashbuckling Captain Jack Sparrow, but the reality is much darker — and much less suited for a Disney family film.
In its annual report, Oceans Beyond Piracy estimates more than 5,500 seafarers and crewmembers were affected by piracy and armed robbery, including kidnapping, hostage-taking, and death in 2017.
Add in an estimated $6 billion in lost revenue due to higher insurance rates, disrupted logistics, longer shipping times, and other inefficiencies, and modern-day piracy is a very real issue for the international maritime community.
And while most news stories focus on hijacked ships along the Somalian coast of East Africa, the area with the most pirate attacks in the last few years has been the South China Sea, the marine highway of the Green Corridor.
The South China Sea averages 150 reported piracy incidents annually but has seen as many as 550 in recent years.
Even that higher number may be vastly underreported.
“The exact numbers are hard to decipher because victims want to avoid time-consuming investigations, bad publicity, accusations of lax security, and higher insurance premiums,” explains Morgan Deane in an Epoch Times report.
The area is a popular region for piracy for several reasons:
- High traffic. $5.3 trillion of trade annually — 30 per cent of the worldwide maritime traffic — passes through the South China Sea, including all European goods to China and nearly all oil being transported from the Persian Gulf to Southeast Asia. More traffic means more potential piracy targets
- Geography. Myriad tiny islands, plenty of narrow channels, and ample hiding places make effective policing difficult.
- Unresolved territorial issues. Increased conflict over China’s presence in the South China Sea, rising in part from China’s creation of 1200 hectares of man-made land mass, has threatened the stability of the region. More conflict leads to less cooperation and more opportunity for piracy. All global actors need to understand the importance of cooperation and collaboration that can lead to positive solutions to a dangerous dilemma.
- Unemployment and poverty. Piracy is rarely someone’s lifelong ambition; instead, it’s a means to an end, with that end being survival.
“The ransoms for captured crew members or profits from black market sales become a vital part of economies that are often in shambles and provide steady pay checks for youths that have few other options to support themselves and their families,” Mr Deane wrote.
Add in the large increase in global shipping in recent years, coupled with the overall reduction in the number of crew needed to man even large vessels, and it’s clear to see why eradicating piracy will continue to be a priority.
In particular, Australia’s economy relies heavily on maritime trade, and as such the country is extremely concerned about activity in the South China Sea.
Other countries with a vested interest in securing sea trade in the area, including India, Japan, and the United States, join Australia in looking for solutions.
Known as “The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue,” or simply “The Quad,” these countries have made strides in combating piracy around the globe through greater private security measures, increased anti-piracy exercises, shared information, and increased military presence and surveillance.
But to truly make progress against the scourge of piracy in the South China Sea, an even greater international response is needed. And that means eyes are turning to China.
Experts agree that to effectively address piracy in the area, multilateral support is crucial. Many potential solutions exist, such as a joint coast guard system with common patrols, stricter laws and enforcement, and humanitarian assistance to address the economic issues driving individuals to piracy.
For instance, China’s disputed land masses could be put to a positive international purpose and be used for bases for fighting crime including piracy, human smuggling, drug trade, and more. “Additionally, such joint/combined bases could be used as forward staging areas for conducting humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations,” suggests John Powers in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Such joint efforts would be great proof points to back up China’s claims that it wants greater cooperation with Australia and the rest of the world.
“The failure to resolve numerous and overlapping disputes has turned the South China Sea into a zone of anarchy,” writes Dana R. Dillon in The China Challenge
China’s cooperation is needed to move the area beyond anarchy and toward a more secure trade corridor, the Green Corridor, to the benefit of all.