The seas around the Strait of Malacca and Singapore have become safer, a situation experts attribute to increased enforcement against pirates in what is one of the world's busiest trade routes.
There has been just one reported case of piracy or robbery in the Malacca Strait in the first 11 months of this year, according to the latest monthly report of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre.
It is a reversal of the situation last year, when these crimes in the strait shot up to 104, a sharp rise from 48 in 2014.
Almost half the world's total seaborne trade passes through the strait each year. There were, however, 77 piracy or robbery incidents for the whole of Asia in the first 11 months of this year, a 60 per cent annual plunge from 193.
This drop is a five-year low, said ReCAAP's November report, which was released earlier this month.
"The situation of piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia has witnessed continuous improvement," the report said. It also highlighted that there was not a single incident involving the hijacking of tankers for theft of oil last month.
Oil siphoning from vessels had been, until recently, a major issue particularly in the Strait of Malacca, said Dr Collin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies' maritime security programme.
One reason for the plunge in attacks on oil tankers is that both Malaysia and Indonesia have set up special taskforces to tackle such piracy in the Malacca Strait, said Dr Koh.
"Nowadays we see better coordination and co-operation among the littoral states," he added, pointing out that the maritime industry has also adopted security measures.
For instance, some ships place barbed wires along areas where pirates can board easily and brief crew to be more vigilant when sailing through danger areas, he said.
But the ReCAAP report flagged increasing cases of crew kidnappings in the Sulu-Celebes Sea, off eastern Sabah, as a major concern.
It cited one attack on Nov 11, when 10 armed pirates boarded a Vietnam-registered bulk carrier, the Royal 16, on the high seas, abducting six crew members and fleeing in a speedboat. This is the ninth case since March, the report said, adding that there were four failed attempts last month.
The ReCAAP urges ships to re-route from the area where possible, and also notes that pirates have been targeting ships of larger tonnage like the Royal 16 since October. Previously, they would go after smaller vessels such as tugboats and fishing trawlers.
The situation in the Sulu-Celebes Sea is "alarming", it said, adding that increased patrols are needed to tackle the problem of crew abduction.
It needs to be addressed in a timely manner as there is significant seaborne trade between ASEAN countries passing through that waterway, said Dr Koh. He added: "The Malacca Strait might be more important compared to the Sulu Sea in the eyes of the international community, but this is not the case for the ASEAN countries."
This article was first published on Dec 23, 2016.
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