The recent increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia has caused what has typically been considered a pre-industrial and romantic swashbuckling profession, to be launched into the current awareness. As we look to understand this modern-day AK-47 toting corsair, it is of great use to look at the geography of the issue, the economics behind the booty, and the politics of the impoverished nations along whose coasts the incidents mainly occur; or in short, understand the geopolitics of piracy.
Above is a map showing shipping traffic (http://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/GlobaMarine/impacts) and below are two maps from the International Maritime Bureau, showing the location of every reported incident of piracy in 2008 (the portion of the world omitted in the first map did not have any incidents). In the second map below, I show a blow-up of the Indian Ocean region so one can better see the distribution of attacks in that area.
By looking at these maps we can easily make a number of observations:
1. Piracy occurs near to land
2. Piracy is virtually absent in shipping lanes alongside first-world countries
3. The greatest concentrations of piracy are in the Gulf of Aden and greater Somalia waters, near the Straight of Malacca (off of Singapore), and near to Nigeria, specifically Lagos and points west. Also scattered piracy near India and Indonesia
4. Piracy is notably absent in the major shipping lanes running along the coast of West Africa from Liberia through Western Sahara.
Piracy, like any other gainful crime, relies on either stealing money or ransoming something of value to turn a large profit. For the buccaneers of old it was ships laden with gold bullion and other treasures which were captured. Today, electronic transfers of money has largely put that type of piracy out of business, leaving capturing and then ransoming of ship and crew they way to make money. The cargo on a container ship, though rather valuable, hardly presents itself as an easy sale. Unloading an 18-wheeler's worth of DVD players on ebay is one thing; selling 50,000 Toshiba 19" televisions from a liar in Mogadishu an entirely different proposition. With manufacturing companies and their insurers hardly having policies of, "not negotiating with terrorist," or private armies and navies to enforce their will in lawless waters, the pirates can capture and ransom with relative impunity.
And those lawless waters in conjunction with safe havens on land are the political basis for modern-day piracy: the first provides a window of opportunity and the second a backdoor escape route. This commandeering window is open wherever ships sail as it is virtually impossible to police every shipping lane of the world; conversely, the getaway portal is shut in many parts of the world as the political stability of the nearby country often means that the state has both military and police resources to go after the stolen boat and/or the thieves once they attempt to launder and spend the proceeds on shore. In areas such as the Gulf of Aden, various militaries are patrolling the water. Two days ago an Indian patrol boat fired on a pirate vessel. It is acts like these which raise the stakes for the pirates while at sea. On land though the pirates are able to spend with impunity, as Somalia has few resources to enforce the laws and go after crooks. Evidence of this is seen in Mogadishu and elsewhere with certain individuals building larger houses and fancier cars while the rest of the population lives in squalor.
To combat piracy we can focus on any of the three categories above. Geographically, although we can not change where there is land and where there is water, we can alter the route a ship takes. At least one such company has done so and restricted their 100 boat fleet from passing through the Gulf of Aden. Economically, the manufacturing and insurance companies could stop paying the ransoms; this option is highly unlikely for a number of reasons though. As private companies do not operate security forces, ransom is their only bargaining chip (besides getting the security apparatus of a state involved). Further, if non-payment of ransoms is to be a deterrent, there needs to be a concerted effort between companies to do so. Politically, the window and back door can be nearly shut, something even the best geographic and economic policies can not do unless international commerce is to grind to a halt. Off the coast of Somalia foreign nations are attempting to shut the window with "political" naval power. This effort, though of use, is hardly effective with the limited warships in what is millions of square miles of water and unclear international laws specifying military use against non-state combatants. Ultimately, success in defeating piracy hinges on the elimination of safe havens. In Somalia this simply means development in the country which has been ranked the number one failed state in the world; specifically development in the area of law and law enforcement.
Fully explaining the existence of piracy in the Straight of Malacca and off of Ghana and lack thereof along the coast of West Africa is both beyond the scope of this blog entry and my expertise. A geopolitical analysis similar to above does offer some insight though. The Straight of Malacca (with about one-fourth the attacks off the Gulf), an area bordered by Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, is hardly an area of politically failed states; geographically though, the passage is the main thoroughfare for traffic between the Pacific and Indian Ocean, and has numerous small islands in the area where pirates can hide. Additionally, this strait is one historically known for piracy so there is likely some past inertia at work. The piracy around Nigeria and lack thereof elsewhere is an oddity; geography again does offer some insight though. About half the incidents in the greater region occurred within 15 miles of the port in Lagos. In contrast, as the cargo ships sail around west Africa to points west and north, they typically travel farther from shore.
This geopolitical analysis of piracy does well to explain its general existence in various parts of the world, with politics and geography being the two most important determining factors. As you sail around the world now or in the future and look to predict trends in piracy, these basic tools will be the building block to any detailed analysis.