Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 1

By David G. Wiencek

Maritime piracy is a security threat well known in Asia, where pirates have been active throughout history along the coast of China and in the seas of Southeast Asia. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, international attention was drawn to pirates who preyed on the so-called “boat people,” refugees escaping from Vietnam after the war. Since then, there has been an upsurge in worldwide piracy. Indeed, the number of attacks has dramatically increased. In 2000, the International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, recorded 469 international pirate attacks-the highest level in ten years of IMB/PRC reporting. Many additional attacks are never reported.

Today, the majority of all piracy incidents occur in Asian waters. Pirates are also active to a lesser extent off the coasts of Ecuador and Nigeria, and in the Red Sea. The main danger area today is Indonesia, with 119 incidents reported in 2000. Many Indonesian pirate attacks are the result of harsh economic conditions, weak law enforcement capabilities, and the natural cover afforded by the country’s many islands. The critical Malaccan Straits also has experienced an upsurge in piracy, with seventy-five attacks perpetrated in 2000, up from just two in 1999. This change suggests the shifting nature of piracy. In the early 1990s, for example, the so-called “Hong Kong-Luzon-Hainan” triangle, a zone bounded by these three islands, was one of the world’s main hotspots. Incidents there have now tapered off completely. The current spate of attacks in Indonesia, meanwhile, can be traced back to the onset of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

The cost of piracy cannot be precisely known. In 1996, one reliable source estimated the worldwide total to be at least US$300-450 million per year. A more recent estimate put the commercial losses from piracy at US$16 billion.