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Combating Piracy and Terror in the Pacific

By Richard Halloran

Far from the political upheaval in Washington and the continuing carnage in Iraq, the navies of the Pacific are girding themselves to provide more of the maritime security that is vital to their expanding economies.

In particular, the U.S. and Asian navies are seeking to prevent the terror that has been spreading on land in Asia from moving to sea where it would threaten the lifelines of all but the landlocked nations of the region.

These navies, however, are not doing so well in working together to prevent the shipment of nuclear weapons and missiles from North Korea to terrorists in Southeast Asia or elsewhere. Led by South Korea, which has been seeking an accommodation with North Korea, several navies have balked at searching North Korean ships on the high seas.

A U.S. naval intelligence report on terror in Asia says: "The number and lethality of attacks are growing as smaller, decentralized jihadist groups increase the violence against local political, security, and communal targets." Many assaults occurred in the Philippines and southern Thailand.

In 2006, the report said, 1015 people have been killed in 491 attacks, compared with 880 killed in 373 assaults last year. Safe havens for terrorists have been discovered in Bangladesh, the site of much civil strife, in Burma, Laos, and Papua New Guinea.

Both U.S. naval intelligence and the International Maritime Bureau in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which tracks piracy worldwide, reported a decline in sea robbery as navies and coast guards have gone on the offensive. Piracy around Indonesia dropped to 40 incidents in the Jan-Sept period, compared with 61 in the same time last year. Even so, Indonesia still had the world's worst record for piracy.

The potential for a link-up between pirates and terrorists remains, the intelligence report says. Some 70,000 ships pass through the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea every year carrying half of the world's oil and a third of its commerce. A ship scuttled or blown up in those sea-lanes would cause unpredictable economic and political disruption.

The U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Mullen, told a recent naval symposium in Honolulu: "These ideologues, pirates, proliferators, criminals, and terrorists are prevalent throughout the coastal regions that we are all obligated to protect." He asserted: "Without maritime cooperation, we cannot hope to effectively battle these forces of instability."

The U.S. Navy, however, has urged other navies to take on the greater share of responsibility for countering those predators. In Asia, colonialism ended only a few decades ago and Asians are sensitive to anything that they perceive encroaches on their sovereignty.

Aware of that, Admiral Gary Roughead, who commands the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told the conference: "I made it clear that I don't want to be patrolling in other people's waters." Similarly, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral William Fallon, told Indonesian officers last February: "It's your neighborhood, you should do it yourself."

Mullen, Roughead, and leaders of 15 other navies gathered in Honolulu behind closed doors earlier this month for the annual Western Pacific Naval Symposium. A U.S. Navy spokesman said the Proliferation Security Initiative, which President George Bush said in Singapore was intended to halt the seaborne spread of nuclear materiel, was not discussed.

To combat piracy and terror, the U.S. for several years has advocated having the world's 90,000 ships emulate aircraft, almost every one of which is monitored whenever it is in the air. Requiring ships to transmit an automatic identification system and having that information fed into collecting points would be critical.

Then, if a ship started to sail off its plotted track, a navy, coast guard, or law enforcement vessel--or aircraft--would check it out. Admiral Roughead said some nations, such as Singapore, now require every ship that enters its waters have such a system. Since pirates usually use high-speed boats displacing less than 300 tons, Roughead said they should be included in any monitoring system.

The main task before the navy leaders here was to find ways to gather and move information faster than pirates or terrorists could make decisions. The technology exists and much of the discussion centered on methods of communicating quickly.

When Admiral Mullen was asked whether this effort would be a distraction from the U.S. Navy's main mission of fighting wars, he was emphatic: "No, you pay me not to go to war. You pay me to prevent war. This is all part of the deterrence of war."

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at oranhall@hawaii.rr.com

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