Times have changed. It used to be that any young man whose bad manners or unrepentant alcoholism disqualified him from the navy might consider a career as a pirate. Nowadays, the closest most people get to piracy is downloading clips of Family Guy.
Despite their impressive exploits of late—seizing oil platforms off the coast of Nigeria and, memorably, firing rockets at a cruise ship off Somalia—modern maritime pirates have been robbed of the mystique that once made them stars of the criminal underworld. A steady increase over the last decade in the number of thefts, hijackings, and killings at sea, along with a disingenuous PR campaign led by the United States, have put pirates in company with al-Qaida. It's a bum rap. Most pirates today are not wannabe Bin Ladens itching to re-enact the USS Cole bombing.
The forces of law, order, and commercial insurance are kicking pirates when they're down. First there was the 2004 tsunami, which literally wiped out many of them. Then, at the urging of the United States, came stepped-up sea and air patrols by the countries around the Malacca Strait (known as littoral states). In the first quarter of 2006, the International Maritime Bureau reported zero attacks in this traditional pirate's haunt. But in early July, pirates off Indonesia's Aceh coast hit three ships in three days. One was a Japanese carrier, and the other two were United Nations ships loaded with food aid. As targets go, these were unusually high-profile, but the pirates made off only with equipment from the U.N. ships; they were repelled by the Japanese crew before they could board.
After every such incident, scare headlines and reports relay fears of an as-yet-unproved connection between pirates and international terrorist groups. The horror scenarios range from nautical terrorists hijacking and wrecking a tanker in a shallow, high-traffic sea lane—thus disrupting trade and spurring a global recession—to exploding a dirty-bomb-laden vessel in a major harbor. Terrible stuff—and as with any such threat, you can't say it won't happen, because it could. But big-time maritime terrorism is perhaps less likely to occur than, for instance, a run-of-the-mill airplane hijacking, because the sea-terror scenarios rest on a mistaken assumption: that pirates and terrorists share a common objective.
In reality, today's pirates don't pose a DEFCON 1-level threat. Southeast Asia's pirates are far more likely to sneak aboard a merchant or fishing ship and plunder the captain's chest than to attempt suicide terrorism via oil tanker. Their modus operandi is opportunistic robbery. In most reported attacks, the perps are lightly armed with pistols and knives. Commercial mariners and maritime-security experts say that pirates, if spotted on approach, can often be scared away by bringing the crew on deck and taking pictures. Frankly, you'd expect more determination from bloodthirsty Islamofascists. Indeed, a recent piracy crackdown by Somalia's Islamists shows that the interests of the sea bandits and the religious fanatics can, and do, diverge.
The supposed tide of piracy hasn't risen much more than ankle-deep. Each year, more than 50,000 ships pass through the Malacca Strait. In 2005, no more than 12 of them reported piracy attacks to the IMB—down from 38 the previous year. The seas have calmed so much that the IMB asked Lloyd's of London to take Malacca off its high-risk, high-premium "war and terrorism" list (the insurer obliged in August), and Malaysia's maritime police have turned their attention from piracy to illegal fishing methods.
For a moment, though, let's take the nightmare stories at face value. Forget that we are confronted with an infinite number of possible doomsday scenarios. The problem becomes not whether to deal with the threat, but how. And there we find a problem with the Bush administration's characteristically excessive response. Washington wanted to conduct unilateral patrols to combat Malacca piracy, but a U.S. naval presence in the strait might make it moreof a target than a deterrent. A too-strict inspection regime would pose an undue burden on trade. And, so far, the littoral states' own patrols seem to be effective. Most experts say the best defense against pirates is an alert crew. And, as we've heard again and again, the best way to prevent a seaborne nuclear or dirty bomb is to get a handle on loose radioactive materials.
By flogging the pirate threat, American policy-makers are wrapping their realpolitik designs—in particular, the containment of China—in the Jolly Roger.
Back in 2004, Adm. Thomas B. Fargo announced a plan to have U.S. military vessels conduct anti-piracy patrols in the Malacca Strait. The proposal sent littoral states Malaysia and Indonesia into a froth. The two countries feared an incursion upon their already tenuous sovereignty: Malaysia's two land masses are divided by a swath of sea beyond its legal control, and Indonesia's territory encompasses thousands of sometimes secessionary islands. Because so much of Indonesia is water, U.S. naval patrols would feel as intrusive to them as it would to Americans if U.N. blue helmets patrolled our interstates. The United States is already unpopular in both Malaysia and Indonesia, and a visible Yankee naval presence there could rile up the militants. Fargo quickly backtracked from the plan, and American officials now pay lip service to sovereignty concerns. But the pressure is still on the littorals to grant the United States increased access. Donald Rumsfeld made it a key point in his June 2005 tour of Southeast Asia, as did Condoleezza Rice in a visit to Indonesia this March.
Singapore, for one, supports direct U.S. involvement in the region's waters, but a coalition of the willing requires more than two participants. Singapore "is carrying water for the United States," says Hawaii-based maritime analyst Mark J. Valencia. "The U.S. interest is not piracy, it's geopolitics."
Even in this age of asymmetric warfare, nations with armies and fleets are the prime movers of history. Things haven't changed that much since the age of mercantilism. The United States has been the dominant naval power in the Pacific for 60 years, and Pentagon planners want to keep it that way.
Malaysia and Indonesia, both Muslim states wary of the "war on terror," are caught between the competing interests of two great powers. They complain that Washington is blowing the piracy problem out of proportion as an excuse to move into their waters. They're also worried that China will get mad if they grant America access to the Malacca Strait.
Pirates or no pirates, Washington's rapidly growing rival doesn't want too many Yankees floating around its most critical shipping lane. The great majority of China's oil and gas imports pass through Malacca (at least until they get a pipeline through Russia). If the U.S. Navy could stop and inspect any ship in the strait under the pretext of combating piracy and terrorism, it would hold a leash on China's economic growth, because time is money in the shipping business. Control of this geographic choke point would be crucial in the event of a confrontation over, say, Taiwan.
From China's point of view, a U.S. military presence in Malacca would be a provocation. If the strait is quiet this year, credit can go to enhanced patrols by Malaysia and Indonesia. Their success would suggest that the littoral states can indeed police their own waters. But if U.S. pressure for naval access continues despite a decline in piracy, then Chinese leaders may assume that the aggressive American posture has more to do with China's growth than the problem of piracy.
In fairness to the Bush administration, U.S. military doctrine has called for a repositioning of the Navy from the deep blue sea into littoral areas like the strait since 1992. It should be noted, too, that China is no innocent. Authorities there are frequently accused by Western and Southeast Asian governments of sharing in pirate booty. And China's increasingly outward-looking government is expanding the range of its own military fleet. At bottom, the U.S. interest in Malacca signals an attempt to maintain our big-fish status in the Asia-Pacific.
Of course, hegemony doesn't sell. So, what do the war wonks talk about? Pirates. Terror from the sea. Just what's needed to create the "common perception of shared threat," as one think tank advised, and bring cold-footed nations on board. If the leaders of small countries can't stomach the idea of a new, Cold War-style struggle between the United States and China, then our geopolitical maneuverings must be brought under the all-inclusive heading of the global war on terror.