The Open Seas Are Becoming No-Man's-Land

By Howell, Llewellyn D. | USA TODAY, May 1999 | Go to article overview

The Open Seas Are Becoming No-Man's-Land


Howell, Llewellyn D., USA TODAY


Economic globalization increasingly is invading what were, only recently, sovereign domestic matters of virtually every nation-state. Such matters include everything from economic, political, and social to religious and ethical. Linkages of every imaginable kind are necessarily and irrevocably following the network of economic interdependence.

These new networks are webs of existing social domains. They don't include those vast areas of the Earth where human systems have no roots in landed territory. The seas remain governed by loose treaty arrangements and often-unenforced agreements of international organizations. Among the ongoing disputes and conflicts that already are pervasive, but will continue to grow as human demands on the sea expand, are competition for mineral and natural gas access, challenges on intentional pollution, debates and fears over sea lines of communication (especially for navies), and depletion of fish resources.

If these weren't enough, crime in the form of sea piracy is spreading and on the rise. While many tend to think of pirates as Captain Hooks in an age gone by, few follow the steady flow of reports in commercial journals that reflect the increasing incidents of piracy burdening merchant fleets and their corporations and threatening sea resources and ecologies. Estimates of losses to piracy and maritime fraud run as high as $16,000,000,000 a year. In 1998, 67 seamen were killed by pirates, compared with 51 in 1997 and 26 in 1996.

In the years after the end of the Vietnam conflict, refugees fleeing from communist rule regularly encountered pirates in the South China Sea who robbed the boats' passengers, pulled gold from the teeth of men before throwing them overboard, and raped the women. Following the end of the Vietnam exodus, the South China Sea pirates turned to commercial vessels plying the Asian trading routes or at anchor among the many islands of this maritime world.

During the 1990s, there have been three common strategies in pirate attacks. The first involves simple theft at sea, whereby the pirates board and rob the vessel and its crew, then depart with their loot, much like a typical land robbery. A second approach is targeting the cargo in the ship's hold. This may involve holding the vessel for some time while the cargo is off-loaded or transferred to another ship. A third is to steal the ship itself. Vessels are given new names and flags, then either sold or used to hijack cargo from unsuspecting shippers.

Among the critical Asian pirate targets have been the oil and gas tankers that form the lifeline for Japan and other East Asian states. These large, technically complex ships have small crews whose skills are not directed at repelling invaders. The pirate modus operandi usually is to approach the large ships surreptitiously at night in high-speed small boats, throw a grappling hook over the railing, and board with rope ladders. Often armed with machine guns and grenades, they capture and subdue the crew. After robbing valuables from crew members and the ship's safe, they depart, leaving the crew incapacitated. When the vessel is under way, this action can cause great danger in the shipping lanes. If the ship is an oil tanker, any collision, including with reefs or the shore, could cause a spill with extensive damage to the underwater ecology. …

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