In July, pirates hijacked the Malaysia-flagged oil tanker MT Oriental Glory in the South China Sea, around 44nm northeast of the Indonesian island Pulau Bintan. Twenty-five pirates siphoned 2,500 tons of the fuel cargo, stole crew property and damaged the vessel's communication and location equipment and main engines before leaving. Three crew members were injured during the incident and a Royal Malaysian Navy patrol boat was sent to investigate.
This incident represents the peak of a surge in this type of hijacking and siphoning attack in Southeast Asia. As of 17 October, 17 such incidents had occurred in 2014; in 2011 and 2012 there was only one report of a similar attack each year, and in 2013 it was only two.
Glen Forbes, Royal Navy officer and co-founder of OCEANUSLive, a service that enables maritime vessels to share information about piracy threats, believes there is a common factor to these hijacks.
"In each case the pirates destroyed navigational and communications equipment so the authorities couldn't find them or communicate with them so they couldn't take defensive action in good time," he says.
The pirates use stolen tugs or tankers to chase down the vessels through the South China Sea, and then use them to board and bunker the vessel.
"There are a few vessels that have been reported missing over the years than have never been found because they've changed the name and even the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) number of some of these vessels," Forbes explains.
With seaborne trade widely tipped to expand in the coming decades, marine security is set to assume ever-greater importance.
In one such example, on 9 June 2014, a tug called the Manyplus 12 carrying a barge laden with 138 containers was taken along with eleven crew off the coast of Malaysia. Days later the crew were found adrift at sea in a lifeboat. The barge was found later but the tug has still not been found so, like many others, is almost certainly being used for ongoing attacks.
New focus on oil
So why is oil the new focus for pirates, and why Southeast Asia? As in Nigeria, where the crime has been rife for years, 'bunkering' as it is known is a very lucrative proposition for criminal gangs, and the high prices and taxes on fuel and oil in the region make it a tempting option. Southeast Asia is also a much more poorly defended region.
"The navies in the area are not as well-equipped as they are around Somalia and you don't have that international response as you do in the Horn of Africa; they just don't have as much presence in South East Asia as they do in neighbouring states," says Forbes. "These countries are also all sovereign territories, and they all have their own economic zones around their waters. If a Malaysian vessel disappears in Indonesian waters, Malaysian authorities cannot go in to make an arrest."
Forbes believes that one key to improving matters is to coordinate piracy reporting in Asia. Currently 20 parties have signed up to the Regional Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) including the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, the UK, the US and Australia. Indonesia, Malaysia and East Timor have not signed up.
Another problem is that shipping companies are not allowed to have armed security guards or carry weapons in the region. When a pirate attack occurs, the crews can only send out a Mayday call or activate automatic alarms and try to get hold of any of the authorities, which is not always that easy depending on which jurisdiction they are in.
But bunkering is not an in-and-out operation - to fully siphon a tank can take a good few hours, which offers more evidence that insiders may be involved. In a recent theft, pirates cut off bunkering at three hours despite there being tons of fuel left, allowing time for a getaway before authorities arrived.
"To stop that you'd have to have a vessel in the vicinity, or maritime patrol aircraft or satellite coverage," says Forbes. "That's very difficult to pick up in any area."
The attractions of oil are obvious, but in such a highly-regulated industry, how does stolen oil enter the system undetected? By the time it gets to the refinery - local or even in Europe - it is impossible to tell where the oil originated, and it comes in at regular market price or slightly under, having come through several different companies.
"In West Africa, a huge industry of oil theft happens on the rivers and at sea," says Forbes. "Some of the countries are known for having a bit more oil than they have on their records, but it goes through refineries across the world so you can't track where it came from."
Not only are the attacks growing in frequency, they are also spreading geographically.
"Most of the attacks are in the South China Sea off Indonesia, but it's occurring more than usual up towards Philippines and even towards Vietnam, so it's more widespread than it has been for some time," says Forbes. "Though global piracy attacks are falling quarter on quarter, the last six months have been the worst for some time for the amount of successful hijacks."
Transport union RMT has warned of a growing trend of European shipping companies ‘flagging out’ their fleets in order to avoid paying seafarers minimum wages.
According to Forbes, the area that has seen the most hijacks and approaches has been north to northeast of Bintan Island in Indonesia, and as soon as they started in that area, attacks in the Malacca Straits and Singapore Straits dropped off.
"It's like squeezing a balloon - the more they put pressure on one area, it pops up somewhere else," he explains.
To counter piracy in Southeast Asia, the obvious recommendation would be to adopt the best naval practice that has successfully been developed for East Africa and slightly towards West Africa, but there are no specific procedures for Southeast Asia.
"East and West Africa are industry-led; in Southeast Asia we don't have that kind of international response," says Forbes. "The Asian Shipowners' Forum gives recommendations, but not every state in Southeast Asia is going to go along with that."
Geography adds to the problem; the number of tiny islands in the South China Sea means the stolen tankers can be hidden out of the way of passing sea traffic and repainted if needed. In cases where the crew was taken hostage, they can seldom provide a description of the attacking vessel to authorities.
Evidence is mounting that some of these attacks are done with the cooperation of crew members. The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency investigated one hijacking in which three crew members were initially reported as being kidnapped but it turned out that their passports and personal belongings were taken with them - not something that would have occurred in a standard kidnap.
"There are workers around docks, harbours and ports so low-paid they are happy to participate or sell on information about a shipment," says Forbes.
With so many challenges and drivers, solving the piracy problem falls to the authorities who must harmonise on an agreement to police the seas to attain the same degree of success as has occurred in Africa. For that they need to overcome their differences and work together.