China’s strategic investment in an oil transhipment terminal on the Myanmar coast at Kyaukphyu and a 900-kilometre pipeline to Yunnan could soon be justified by a surge in piracy in the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia.
Attacks around the knot of islands and jungle coastline where Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore meet rose nearly 25 percent last year over 2012, to 128, and are growing at a similar pace this year. There have been 11 attacks since April, show figures from the International Maritime Bureau.
Threats to shipping in the bottleneck through which more than 70 percent of China’s imported crude oil passes is a recurring nightmare in Beijing and was dubbed by former President Hu Jintao as “the Malacca dilemma”.
The potential threat to Chinese shipping, especially crude oil supertankers, passing through the Malacca Strait is the main reason why China invested more than US$1.5 billion in the Kyaukphyu terminal and oil pipeline.
The threat was perceived as being either piracy or a blockade by naval forces from other countries during an international political crisis.
The resurgence in attacks follows a decline in piracy after Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore intensified joint naval patrols for several years, but they have since been reduced.
The prospect of easy pickings appears to be attracting organised criminal syndicates with a ready market for diesel and petrol, say anti-piracy experts.
“Everybody is concerned about these latest attacks because they know it will worsen,” Noel Choong, the head of the IMB’s piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur, told AFP on June 18. “It will become rampant again and you will have a hard time stopping it; that’s how [piracy off] Somalia got started,” Mr Choong said.
The most recent attack was in mid-June when a tanker was hijacked west of Singapore and almost half its 1,500 tonnes of oil was siphoned off by a highly organised gang using high-speed pursuit craft and a small tanker.
The crew of the Honduras-registered vessel was overpowered, locked up and the ship’s communications equipment disabled, said the Singapore-based Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, known as ReCAAP, a group comprising 19 member nations, including Myanmar.
On May 28, a Thai oil tanker was hijacked near Indonesia’s Bintan Island, close to Singapore, in a carbon copy raid. Most of its 3,700 tonne cargo was siphoned off.
There has been no record of an attack on Chinese vessels or ships carrying oil to Chinese ports, but an industry expert told Mizzima Business Weekly that Beijing was concerned about the spike in pirate attacks.
“The Chinese government is talking with officials in the three countries [Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia] which are supposed to be maintaining navy patrols to stop this banditry,” said Lin Boqiang, the director of the China Centre for Energy Economic Research.
“Here in China we are watching the situation with some rising concerns,” Mr Lin said.
“[Former] President Hu Jintao used to speak of our Malacca dilemma bringing so much of our oil through that strait,” he said. “It is good we now have the Myanmar route to help. It is not the full solution nevertheless.”
Work on the US$1 billion 900-kilometre pipeline built by the China National Petroleum Corporation from Kyaukphyu to southwest China is almost complete. Linked with the transhipment terminal at Kyaukphyu, it will enable huge volumes of crude oil from the Middle East and West Africa to be supplied to China without having to pass through the Malacca Strait.
The pipeline, which is still being tested, will have an annual capacity 22 million tonnes a year when fully operational, CNPC has said.
Some international agencies trying to coordinate action against pirates in the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea believe that attacks on big crude oil tankers are beyond the capability of the seaborne thieves, but others see signs of growing sophistication in their methods.
“The pirates are not only boarding vessels to rob crew and ship of valuables and cash; they are actually siphoning fuel cargoes,” a spokesman for a state maritime security agency in Singapore told Mizzima Business Weekly on condition of anonymity.
“They might not target VLCCs [very large crude carriers] to steal cargo; on the other hand such a prize could make a lucrative ransom object,” he said.
“There are more than enough isolated jungle inlets where a tanker could be hidden. VLCCs have been successfully taken by Somali pirates in the recent past.”
Some analysts believe the new wave of piracy is exploiting national sea boundaries which for politically sensitive reasons limit the effectiveness of naval activity.
A security specialist at the Indonesian Defense University, Bantarto Bandoro, said international coordination is insufficient to deal with increasingly sophisticated gangs.
“[The pirates] have good information on who is being monitored, where the sea is being monitored, their intelligence gathering is improving,” Mr Bandoro told the China Post.
Some Western experts in anti-piracy tactics urge the use of private armed security firms by tanker operators.
“Pirates have yet to successfully attack a single vessel protected by armed security guards,” Dave Yonkman of US security firm AdvanFort wrote in an analysis for Piracy Daily.
” Now that they have largely succeeded in the Gulf of Aden, private maritime security companies are necessarily shifting their business focus to a large degree on the emerging new ‘markets’ in West Africa and the Malacca Strait,” Mr Yonkman said.
“Counter-piracy measures are nearly non-existent in these areas, despite the rapidly increasing risks to safe passage and potentially devastating effect on economic prosperity in the regions,” he said.
Armed guards on ships are banned in Malaysian and Indonesian waters.
“The law on the sea, coupled with the reluctance of the littoral states to allow foreign patrols, has made prevention efforts very difficult,” Eric Frecon, a professor at the French Naval Academy, wrote in Singapore’s Straits Times on June 18.
Mr Frecon said a lack of reliable military equipment, especially in Indonesia, was not helping efforts to deter and prevent pirate attacks.
The possible involvement of Chinese naval vessels in any international protective force is fraught with political problems, not least because of China’s increasingly strident territorial claims to parts of the South China Sea also claimed by five members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations.
However, China’s credibility as a responsible maritime power has received a major boost with its participation for the first time this year in the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises hosted by the United States. The navies from 22 nations bordering the Pacific Ocean are taking part in the exercises, being held off Hawaii from June 26 to August 1.
“China’s Naval Research Institute stated that RIMPAC would allow the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Navy to call into service capabilities related to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, search and rescue, and anti-piracy operations,” said an assessment by the EastWest Institute.
China wants to show RIMPAC that it is a “serious regional maritime and political power … and to burnish its credentials on cooperation and confidence-building,” the New York-based institute said.
Perhaps the pirates lurking in isolated corners of Indonesia’s western archipelago are smart enough to avoid attacking a Chinese oil tanker, otherwise they might incur the wrath of the PLA and exacerbate the tensions over the disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea.