You are here

Tough times driving growth in sea piracy

Tough times driving growth in sea piracy
August 15, 2022

THE Philippines should monitor a report saying that piracy and sea robberies in Southeast Asia are growing. Earlier this month, the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore reported that poor people were being pushed to criminality because of the economic downturn caused by global events, particularly the Russian war against Ukraine and the lingering Covid-19 pandemic.

To be precise, the report focused on the Singapore Strait, which is bounded by Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. That is a valuable waterway used by ships ferrying billions of dollars worth of cargo, which are tempting targets for pirates.

But the institute also mentioned that maritime security was a concern in the Sulu and Celebes Seas that connect the Philippines with Indonesia and Malaysia. Maritime safety there has been improving in recent years, thanks to the cooperation among those three countries. But the institute added that they should remain vigilant, not only against piracy but also on kidnapping and terrorism.

Even if the growing piracy hot spot was in the Singapore Strait, the Philippines should be concerned. Filipinos account for about 25 percent of seafarers worldwide, meaning they are likely to be victims of piracy and sea robbery that happen anywhere. Incidentally, those two terms are differentiated only by where the crime takes place. Sea robbery is the term used for "piracy" that happens within 12 nautical miles of the coast.

Both those maritime threats not only disrupt international trade. They also hamper the movement of goods and people within the archipelagic states like the Philippines. According to the institute, "Poor socioeconomic conditions in coastal communities often lead locals to turn to crime to make ends meet, especially during economic downturns."

The economic fallout, if severe enough, could also fuel political instability and derail rural development. As everyone knows, poverty is the root cause of many problems in the Philippines.

Fisheries agreement

In a story about the report on piracy, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post said that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea may be exacerbating the problem. That paper referred to Indonesia's dispute with China, which claims nearly all of the South China Sea with its "nine-dash line" border claim. Of course, the Philippines, along with others in Southeast Asia, also has a similar issue with China that impacts maritime security.

In a previous commentary some time ago, Rafael "Raffy" Alunan 3rd pointed out the link between fishing rights and maritime security. He was formerly interior secretary during the Ramos administration and was chairman of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations.

The point is that security threats and economic problems can result from diplomatic policy failures. Filipino fisherfolk are already the poorest of the poor in the country. And disrupting their livelihood because of competing claims in the South China Sea may push some of them to crime, because they lack options.

The competing claims may be a complex problem with no easy fix. But there should be some understanding between the Philippines and China on protecting the poorest of the poor. The government should push for a fisheries agreement that can protect Filipino fishermen, not only from the Chinese coast guard but also from large fishing boats that crowd out those in outriggers from fishing grounds.

Also, the fishermen's welfare is not without a larger public interest. Consumers are also affected when local fish supplies become limited. Importing fish to serve demand can be an option, but not without added costs to consumers who are already struggling with inflation.

A fisheries agreement seems consistent with the government's foreign policy. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has said that under his leadership, the Philippines will be a friend to all and an enemy to no one. But it remains to be seen whether China will reciprocate.

Without relief from the impact of the Ukraine-Russia war and from Covid-19, policymakers are left with few options to address problems on the home front. The agreement suggested here can be initiated by the Philippines, and that can possibly mitigate the problems created by external headwinds. Given the link to regional maritime security, a pact protecting fishing will benefit more than just poor Filipinos.