Sunday, May 13, 2001

A Malaysian maritime police officer stands guard in front of
a fishing boat in the Malacca Straits between Indonesia,
Malaysia and Singapore.

Piracy erodes security

By Richard Halloran

THE UNITED STATES NAVY is not much worried about pirates in the South China Sea coming up in speedboats alongside the 98,000 ton aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, tossing up grappling lines, clambering aboard, and taking 5000 American sailors captive.

Adm Dennis Blair, who commands all U.S. military forces in the Pacific and Asia, worries about what he called the "seam of lawlessness" that piracy represents. "This adds to a breakdown in the normal functions of governments and economies," he said in an interview. "Ultimately, it erodes security and economic development for the region."

As the senior American responsible for protecting U.S. security interests from the West Coast to East Africa, Blair lumped piracy with taking hostages, illicit trade in narcotics, terrorism, insurgency, and human smuggling as genuine threats. "It's in nobody's interest," he said, "to have these pockets of lawlessness."


The U.S. Navy distinguishes between two types of criminal attacks on ships: Piracy in which an entire ship is taken over and the crew killed or put over the side and set adrift in small boats and sea robbery in which the thieves board the ship, steal cargo, equipment, money, and even personal belongings, then go over the side to escape in the boats in which they came. "They're both dangerous," Blair said.

Because combatting piracy is primarily the duty of law enforcement agencies and often occurs in the territorial waters of a Southeast Asian nation, there's not much the U.S, Navy can do about it. "It's not our main line of work," the admiral said. The U.S. tries to support operations aimed at pirates with information and suggestions but is careful not to infringe on national sovereignty.

Blair advocates what he calls "cooperative engagement" to foster joint operations among Asian nations but with limited success as the habit of working together is still in its infancy in that region. There have been several meetings among coast guards and other law enforcement agencies to discuss piracy but not much has come of it.

Part of the problem is in governments, particularly those that have suffered revenue losses due to the Asian financial crisis that started in 1997. "When you're not paying sailors and soldiers," Blair said, "that makes it much easier for criminals to buy blind eyes, or worse."

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