Safeguarding the Vital Links in Sea Trade

Nothing encapsulates, and perhaps embodies, the spirit of globalisation better than world trade, most of which is carried out via the medium of the sea. Maritime trade can thus be said to be the pivot around which the global economy as well as our collective social well-being actually revolves. The enormous natural resources on land, coupled with a matching industrial capacity for value-addition, are not worth much were it not for a corresponding ability to trade freely over a terrain which, despite being used for common benefit, is still vulnerable to hybrid criminal threats.

The advent of steamships and the construction of the Suez Canal in particular revolutionised commercial maritime connectivity. The biggest breakthrough by far occurred in 1957 when the first dedicated container-carrying vessel put to sea. It made an indelible and immediate impact on world trade by not only making transoceanic trade profitable but by completely transforming a system that was seen as slow and unwieldy into an efficient one. More than 90% of general cargo is currently being transported in containers.

As maritime trade flourishes, it is but natural for challenges to crop up in its wake. These take the form of piracy, poaching, environmental degradation, narco-smuggling, gun-running and human trafficking, and extends all the way to terrorism at sea, which despite being a relatively recent phenomenon, is potentially the most destructive and disruptive.

It is apparent that most of these threats, when taken singly, with the possible exception of terrorism, don’t actually pose a direct existential threat to global trade. Though they fall under the broad category of illegal activities at sea, with varying strains of criminality, they generate far greater ripples of high-end insecurity in a volatile maritime environment when they tend to complement or facilitate each other. And whenever and wherever opportunities present themselves for making huge sums of ill-gotten money, organised crime, with its overt reliance on corruption, can never be far behind.

The modus operandi of criminal syndicates is to preferably avoid direct confrontation with law enforcement agencies by working under the radar in a medium so vast that it makes effective policing difficult anyway. It is however no secret that proceeds so generated through illegal activities at sea can and do find their way into funding terrorism. Of all the threats, this is the one most difficult to counter as it is not only unpredictable but operates with the singular objective of wreaking maximum havoc. It finds a fertile hunting ground in the field of maritime transportation as it is subjected to far fewer checks than seen on land.

The 1985 hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean along with the senseless killing of an aged passenger sent shock waves through the maritime community. The ensuing deliberations led to the adoption of the UN Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts(SUA) against the Safety of Maritime Navigation in 1988.

The SUA Convention served the international maritime community well till the magnitude of the 9/11 terrorist attacks took everyone by surprise and ushered in its wake the stark realisation that any similar attack on any major maritime hub could very well cause a sizeable dent in the global economy. Security measures in ports, off the coast and on the high seas were indeed so lax at the time that such a scenario wasn’t entirely unimaginable. The US felt particularly vulnerable as it had some 361 odd ports to protect and although some 14 agencies were involved in the process, not one counted it amongst its major mission.

The Container Security Initiative(CSI) was launched within four months of the 9/11 attacks, the underlying idea being to focus on the ocean-going containers(through which the bulk of the world trade is being conducted) as well as on the top 20 ports which were handling over two-thirds of the container volume to the US. The CBPs Automated Targeting System(ATS) pre-screens every arriving shipment to assign a level of risk for terrorism, which in turn enables all high-risk containers to be set aside for closer inspection through non-intrusive means.

By far the greatest breakthrough in strengthening maritime security occurred in December 2002 at an IMO-sponsored conference, where the new international Ship and Port Facility Security Code was tabled as an amendment to the existing Safety of Life at Sea(SOLAS) Convention(1974/88) and its compliance became mandatory for the 148 contracting parties to SOLAS. The ISPS Code provides mandatory requirement for governments, port authorities and shipping companies, as well as guidance for implementation.

During the period 2005 to 2012, piracy off Somalia posed the predominant threat to world shipping. What started off as a local endeavour to curb the rampant poaching and dumping of toxic waste in lawless Somali waters grew into a full-blown piratical enterprise. Incidents of piracy rose seven fold to 35 in 2005, prior declining briefly the next year, and then from 31 pirate attacks in 2007, the problem literally exploded in 2008, when fabulous sums of money were raked in as ransom for captured vessels, cargo and crew. In 2010 alone, pirates seized close to 50 vessels, taking nearly 1200 seamen as hostages. And from this peak, piracy dwindled gradually in 2011 and more rapidly the next. In figurative terms, successful seizures went down from 49 in 2010 to 28 in 2011 and only 13 in 2012. Despite a large number of warships being employed in the area to thwart piracy, what caused piracy to flourish was a belated and disjointed international response. A large number of warships did converge on to the high-risk or vulnerable areas by 2009, either as part of international groupings like the EUs Operstion Atalanta, NATOs Operation Ocean Shield or the international coalition’s CTF 151, or as individual units, in order to protect their country’s national interests. At the end of the day, piracy off Somalia, which had spread its tentacles to the furthest reaches of the western Indian Ocean, was brought under control through a series of coordinated steps:

  • Broad-based UN resolutions authorising the international community to tackle the threat in a collaborative manner by targeting the planners, facilitators and perpetrators of piracy, not only within Somali waters but also within its land territory if required.
  • Preparation, dissemination and updating of an industry backed initiative outlining the Best Management Practises to deter piracy.
  • Authorizing merchantmen traversing the area to carry armed guards for protection.
  • Imposition of banking curbs on UK banks in particular, to complicate the issue of ransom payments.
  • Setting up of a task force aimed at targeting the organisers, financiers and negotiators behind the piracy enterprise.
  • Encouraging the collaborative capacity-building of regional states.

Compared to Somali piracy in its heyday, piracy incidents in the Malacca Straits, the South China Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Guinea are mere pinpricks. Piracy in the Malacca Straits has been kept in check through effective coordination between the three major countries straddling the waterway, namely Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, by the setting up of ReCAAP and instituting the joint Malacca Straits patrol. The only major flashpoint at the moment is the Gulf of Guinea, where the principal regional player, Nigeria, needs to spearhead a similar initiative. The G8++ Friends of the Gulf of Guinea(FOGG) group tries to help out with the capacity-building of the regional states.

Ensuring complete security of the global commons is indeed a tall order. Implicit in this statement is a recognition that it is certainly beyond the power of any single maritime force. A coordinated and cooperative effort across the spectrum of intelligence gathering, surveillance, policing and information sharing amongst all the shareholders is vital to its success. It simply cannot be accomplished through the military instrument alone. The first step is the identification of weak links in the entire chain of the global maritime trading system. There are around 4000 ports worldwide from whereh maritime trade originates and ends, with the top 30 accounting for nearly 50% of all container shipments. Their security is obviously important but what needs equal attention is the ability to track each container from the moment it is packed till its offloading at its final inland destination. The security equation is compounded by the fact that containers tend to take the most convenient route, which is not necessarily a direct one, by virtue of transshipment through maritime hub ports. An unintended consequence of containerised trade is that nearly 20% of the containers perforce remain idle at any one time. Maritime trade is at present conducted through around 45000 merchant vessels, the major bulk of which being container carriers. With containers having reduced the handling and turnaround time in port, most of these ships would be plying on the sea at any one time. Now just imagine such a large number of ships cross-crossing the oceans of the world at all times of the day and night, and the problems of affording them foolproof protection become apparent. Shipping routes in general are dictated by market forces, more appropriately world trade flows, being most dense where demand is the greatest. Apart from the trans-Atlantic trade flow between Europe and the US east coast and the trans-Pacific trade between the countries straddling the South China Sea and the US west coast, the bulk of the world’s maritime trade is carried out through a limited number of international straits and artificial canals, where they are most significantly at risk, but can best be protected at the same time through a collaborative approach.

In this age of global linkages and connectivity, where awareness about security at sea is gradually embedding itself in the public imagination, prospects for collaboration and cooperation in tackling common threats couldn’t be brighter, in theory at least. Progress towards this end is however hampered by factors as basic as overlapping maritime interests, conflicting national priorities, inadequate maritime security legislation and plain, simple mistrust.

So while formulating a broad framework for moving towards an ideal where operations at sea can be undertaken in perfect unison, ways can and should be found along the way to first skirt and then move on to progressively overcome the constraints that stand in its way. This may not prove so simple as it seems, as can be seen from the contrasting approaches on display in the South East Asian region. On the one hand is the South China Sea arena, where regional tensions, geopolitical rivalry and maritime boundary disputes preclude an effective regional maritime alliance of any sort. On the other hand, we have the example of the Malacca Straits patrol, a trilateral coordinated policing scheme involving the navies of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, which succeeded in drastically curtailing the crime rate in the waterway by nearly 70% in five years.

Since Singapore has the greatest stake in ensuring the safety of the Sea Lines of Communication on which it is overtly dependent, it correctly assessed that external maritime threats cannot be effectively tackled without setting one’s own house in order. It accordingly has in place a Maritime Security Committee(MSC), a Maritime and Port Security Working Group(MPSWG), a Maritime Security Centre(SMSC) and a Maritime Security Task Force(MSTF) which ensure effective coordination, information management and timely responses through cross-ministerial and inter-agency linkages. Another notable initiative chalked up by the Republic of Singapore Navy is the setting up of the Information Centre(IFC) at Changi in April 2009, which hosts International Liaison Officers as well as maritime information sharing portals such as the ASEAN portal and the Regional Maritime Information Exchange(ReMIX).

One of the biggest problems that Pakistan faced was a near total lack of coordination between the various public sector agencies charged with maritime responsibilities and which ultimately had an adverse impact on safety and security issues. Pakistan Navy was finally forced to take the initiative of setting up a Joint Maritime Information Coordination Centre(JMICC) under the auspices of Coastal Command Headquarters in 2013, which helped foster interagency coordination and joint decision making in matters involving two or more agencies. Apart from developing a local tactical picture, JMICC enhanced this coverage by entering into strategic linkages with other info sharing portals like Information Fusion Centre of Singapore and Virtual Regional Maritime Traffic Centre of Italy. Owing to its greater reach and mobility, the Pakistan Navy endeavours to supplement the efforts of the Maritime Security Agency in maintaining order at sea within the country’s maritime zones.

Many industry backed initiatives like the ICCs International Maritime Bureau and its Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, EU NAVFORs Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa, UKs Marine Trade Operations(UKMTO) office in Dubai and the Maritime Trade Information Sharing Centre(MTISC) for the Gulf of Guinea have helped considerably in strengthening the maritime security chain.

While the WPNS, Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre, the ICCs International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre, UKMTO, EUs MSCHOA, IONS and the US-led Combined Task Forces are laudable achievements, the fact remains that the effective policing of such a vast area that constitutes the global maritime commons can only be done through a unified multilateral approach in terms of surveillance, intelligence gathering, collation, dissemination and sharing of information and above all, well-coordinated and timely responses to all emerging threats. The only way a consensus can be forged is by sidestepping continental fault lines and perceived national interests in favour of a collective regional and global maritime security template, and by extending regional linkages into a wider capacity-building, info sharing and enforcement network. A Common Information Sharing Environment(CISE), which offers real time situational awareness to the maritime fraternity through an inter-linked maritime surveillance network is an essential tool in the battle against the dark forces of the sea. The evolution and utilisation of technology has been crucial in strengthening all tiers of maritime security. If ever it wil be needed more than ever, it is possibly in countering the sophisticated cyber crimes of the future. Almost all countries have a vital stake in preserving the freedom of the seas, and it is thus in their common interest to join hands in clamping down on all illegal activities at sea of every shade.

Note: This is the script of a presentation delivered at the Sea Power and Security Symposium 2016 organised by the Turkish Naval War College at Istanbul on 13/14 April 2016. It is included in the proceedings of the aforementioned symposium.

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