From Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean to Latin America and the Caribbean, the developing world is paying a price for maritime piracy and pilfering. Southeast Asia was home to two-fifths of the world’s pirate attacks between 1995 and 2013, while the waters off Africa remain a watery version of the Wild West.
To put things into perspective, Somali pirates cost East Africa more than US$24 billion between 2010 and 2017, the Horn of Africa remains a pirate hotspot, and West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea has witnessed an explosion in hostage-takings and kidnappings.
Meanwhile, Africa’s fishermen are being overwhelmed by sophisticated fleets from China, Russia and Europe, creating added incentive for piracy at a time when global economic growth is projected to decline. Of 130 vessels licensed for tuna fishing in Mozambique’s waters, only one boat is Mozambican.
A recent haul by a Chinese fleet highlighted the country’s foray into fishing on a global scale. As one East African fisherman framed things, “Illegal fishing and extreme poverty are the main factors that made fishermen and youths get involved in piracy as an alternative way of getting their daily bread.”
But the developing world’s headaches don’t end there. Throw in trade tensions between the US and China, and the war in Yemen, and what comes next is even murkier. Yet the situation remains potentially containable if prior experiences are a guide.
Concerted and collective efforts have paid demonstrable dividends. For example, Southeast Asia has witnessed an 80% drop in maritime kidnappings and a decrease in incidents because of “effective cooperation by regional law-enforcement actors.”
Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines successfully established joint naval and air patrols and command centers to curb kidnappings and to keep armed pirates in check. The three countries also enlisted the assistance of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) members Australia, Singapore, Japan and Australia. In a sense, Southeast Asia presents a practical template for combating piracy and maintaining freedom of navigation.
To be sure, this is not a one-size-fits-all model. Rather, this combined effort demonstrates that vigilance can work. It is worth remembering that earlier in the decade, South Africa and Mozambique embarked on a plan of joint patrols to keep pirates away from Mozambique’s 2,460-kilometer-long coastline. More recently, the two countries conducted a joint operation to fight drug, arms and human trafficking, as well as illegal fishing.
The US Navy has embraced Operation Cutlass Express to combat “illegal fishing, trafficking of weapons, narcotics and people, and the ongoing threat of piracy.” Still, more needs to be done.
Last year, piracy increased, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau. A recent UN Security Council report identified “increased piracy off the coasts of Somalia and Mozambique and the movement of terrorists across unprotected borders.” In 2018, there was an armed robbery attempt in Mozambique’s port of Nacala. Mozambique bought and received an entire coastal patrol system a few years ago, but never used it. Against this backdrop, Mozambique’s decision to abate the growth of its fleet is disappointing.
Even as East Africa has receded from the headlines, the waters between Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo have emerged as a danger zone. Fortunately, piracy was down in the first quarter of 2019. For the first time since early 1994, no hijackings were reported, anywhere, and Asia saw a continued decline in maritime incidents. The Somali coast was relatively tranquil, with a lone incident reported in April.
But alas, nothing lasts forever. In early May, a tanker was hijacked off of Nigeria. The world’s waters still roil.