New world shapes up off Somalia

January 9, 2009

The Somali pirates who released a Saudi supertanker got a $3 million reward, according to their associates. Good money in one of the world’s poorest and most war-blighted corners.But the waters off Somalia are getting ever more crowded with foreign ships trying to stop the pirates. As well as potentially making life more difficult for the hijackers, it has become a real illustration of the much talked about global power shift from West to East in terms of military might as well as economic strength.This raises a question as to whether this will lead to close cooperation, rivalry or something altogether more unpredictable.This week the United States said it planned to launch a specific anti-piracy force, an offshoot of a coalition naval force already in the region since the start of the U.S. “War on Terror” in Afghanistan in 2001.It wasn’t clear just what this would mean in practical terms since U.S. ships were already part of the forces trying to stop the modern day buccaneers, equipped with speedboats and rocket-propelled grenades. It was also unclear which countries would be joining the U.S.-led force rather than operating under their own mandates.The U.S. announcement came two days after Chinese ships started an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. This is the first time Chinese warships have sailed to Africa, barring goodwill visits, since Ming Dynasty eunuch Admiral Zheng commanded an armada 600 years ago.As my colleague Sanjeev Miglani wrote last month, the Chinese deployment was being scrutinised by the strategic community from New Delhi to Washington.The Chinese had actually been catching up to other Asian countries. India already had ships in the region. So did Malaysia, whose navy foiled at least one pirate attack this month. Reasserting its might, Russia had sent a warship after the big surge in piracy in the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen. The European Union has a mission there.For Asian countries there is good reason to send warships. This is the main trade route to markets in Europe and their ships have been seized. Attacks on shipping push up insurance rates and force some vessels to use more fuel on the longer, safer route around Africa instead of taking the Suez Canal.But there certainly appears to be evidence too to back up the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends 2025” report late last year that highlighted the relative decline in Washington’s long term influence in the face of the rise of China and India.As well as being a chance for the world’s old and new powers to show their strength in terms of numbers, the anti-piracy operations off Somalia could prove something of a test of effectiveness.While the hardware the navies have will always outclass that of the pirates, the new powers may have an advantage in more robust rules of engagement. That might lead to mistakes, however. In November, India trumpted its success in sinking a pirate “mother ship”. It later turned out that a Thai ship carrying fishing equipment had been sunk while it was being hijacked. Most of the crew were reported lost.There is a lot of sea to cover, one of the reasons why naval forces have had so much difficulty in stopping the hijackings, but the presence of so many navies in the same area at the same time must raise questions over how well they are going to work together.Will this become a model for cooperation in a new world order? Or are there dangers? Might this also end up being a display of how little either East or West can do in the face of attacks by armed groups from a failed state with which nobody from outside seems prepared to come to grips? What do you think?(Picture: Commanding officer of a U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser monitors the pirated ship off Somalia REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout)(Picture: Forces from French naval vessel “Jean de Vienne”, seen in this January 4, 2009 photo, capture 19 Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. REUTERS/French Navy/handout)

6 comments

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Hard to believe that a bunch of crack heads can hold the world hostage…The U>N> is too incompetent, the U.S. is to worried about being loved by every one…perhaps the Chinese have the guts to kill the pirates off.

Posted by old ewok | Report as abusive

The fact is South-East-Asia has always been the hot spot of Piracy/still is I believe.“One of the most recent attacks involved a bulk carrier sailing in the South China Sea. All 23 crew members were killed and their bodies weighted and thrown overboard. Days later they became snagged in fishermen’s nets… the waters off Indonesia, one of the countries worst affected by the regional economic downturn, saw about 30% of the nearly 200 reported attacks last year. “sources: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pa cific/271329.stmIn Somalia on the other hand, there were 60 to 80 attacks in 2008, highest year ever; and you have all the navies in the world congregating in the area, stimulating discussions about whether it will better or worsen east and west relationship!The fact is there is no need to spend millions of dollars to bring all of these navies mostly from the most powerful countries in the world to Somalia to fight offshore pirates, when they can spend less money to help the country to end its onshore political crisis, which is the source.The other thing the international navies must do is stop the fishing boats that are looting the country’s marine resources and companies that made Somalia’s shores the dumping ground for their industrial and medical toxic wastes for almost two decades, whom are all from their countries.More responsible way to address the issue is needed.

Posted by mahad | Report as abusive

I think you are perhaps making too much of too little. The “pirate navies” will only be dismantled by destroying their support on land. As you said, there is too much territory to cover without serious action, including satellite tracking of ships and the reestablishment of a real government in Somalia, something the US will be loathe to attempt. All we are seeing are knee-jerk reactions and attempts to save face at this point. The US only want to make a show. The UN is distracted elsewhere. Russia could make some attempt, probably more to remind the rest of the world that their military still exists and poses a threat. It would make a good opportunity for India to make their international debut, so to speak. Most likely it will fall to China to clean up this problem, if anyone does.My own opinion is that it would very much be in China’s best interests, and not economically. The pirates haven’t really pushed the envelope so far to make it economically feasible for a major military assault, but it would be an excellent opportunity for China to flex their muscles outside of Asia. Few governments consider China to be an international threat in a military sense beyond their own continent, not the way that they have the US or the USSR. On the other hand, China probably lacks the naval capabilities required of such an undertaking.

Posted by ADLarsen | Report as abusive

How nice it would be to have such a simplistic view of the world: UN incompetent, US wimpy, China courageous. But nice based on ignorance never lasts — note what the nice ignorance of George Bush did to this country.The Chinese will be no more successful in going it alone than the US has been. I think this does offer an opportunity for international cooperation, since everyone seems to have the same interests, but we’ll have to see how this unfolds.

Posted by Stewart Nusbaumer | Report as abusive

It is amazing how the world continues to treat the symptoms rather than dealing with the route causes every time we are faced with a major problem. In my opinion the international efforts and resources being spent on the piracy problem in Somali waters should rather be coordinated and directed towards correcting the failed state. Obviously, it is necessary to deal with the immediate problem but this will only make sense if concurrently a remedy to the route cause of the problem is being sought.

Posted by Kawooya | Report as abusive

Well you have to understand since the collapse of Somalia’s government alot of European countries have been dumping chemical wastes in Somalia while Asian countries have been fishing in our waters illegally so that’s okay with you but when we hijack two ships you all go crazy and blame us?You have to understand what is motivating the pirates do do this, and thats Europeans bringing all their rubbish to us and we will not tolerate this.We don’t care if the world sends their navies and their latest ships to our coast, we don’t fear them at all we are so used to beating them up.England learned its lesson when it was the world super power, remember it was the only African country the British empire used fighter jets against and still lost the war.Portugal the same.France the same.And US hasn’t still got over Black Hawk Down.We are not concern at all we will welcome China to our ports and coast and use them against the others, we know how to play.Eventually they will all go back to wherever they came from defeated and embarrassed as usual.You might have hi-tech but Somalis have a heart.