The world's eyes are on the Middle East, but due south, in the Horn of Africa,
Somalia is flaring up once again. The good news is that Somali pirates, who had
given the world's navies a lesson in intransigence after brazenly attacking 111
merchant vessels in 2008, have released a Japanese-operated South Korean-owned
bulk carrier, as well as a three other ships this week.
The bad news is that the root causes of the piracy - severe political
instability and a humanitarian crisis - remain. Whether pushing for political
cohesion in Mogadishu or safety at sea, the international community will have
its hands full with Somalia in 2009.
Few can argue that Somalia is the world's most failed state. Without a
functioning government since 1991, and now without a
leader after president Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed fled office on December 29, 2008,
Somalia will soon collapse into the hands of an Islamist insurgency. Worse,
Ethiopia recently announced it will call home some 3,000 troops that had been
repelling the Islamist takeover since 2006.
The international community failed to solidify the feeble transitional
government in Somalia. This week at the United Nations, the United States
quietly circulated a Security Council resolution calling for a peacekeeping
force. The fifth resolution on Somalia in nearly as many months is the most
ambitious yet, but it stops short of specifics, and just says the council will
bring up the matter within six months.
Just a few weeks ago, the idea of a peacekeeping force was anathema to many
council members. While the US, China and African countries lobbied for UN
troops, other countries flat out rejected the idea. At a visit to the Security
Council in mid-December, alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and
Chinese Foreign Minister He Yafei, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said,
"We cannot get into a situation in which a security vacuum is left in Somalia.
That would not be a good situation to find ourselves in." That ghastly scenario
is exactly what is happening today.
For as disunited and ambivalent as countries were about more robust action on
the ground in Somalia, the response at sea has been the opposite. Another
December Security Council resolution authorizing member states to fight pirates
on land, sea and air was a deft move by the Security Council. Naval units from
around the world have taken up the fight against piracy with alacrity, as about
20 countries, including China, Pakistan, Malaysia and India, are currently
patrolling the waters.
The Gulf of Aden is of immense strategic and economic importance. Waters off
Somalia's 1,800-mile coast connect the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, and it's
one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, with 20,000 vessels passing through
yearly. China alone sent 1,265 commercial ships through, or about three to four
ships per day, according to China's Foreign Ministry. India estimates that
about US$250 billion in Indian merchandise is transported through the gulf
The vast area of water and bounty of large, slow-moving freighters makes piracy
a lucrative industry in Somalia. For most of 2008, the satellite phone-carrying
and speedboat-bound buccaneers attacked boldly and indiscriminately. Of the
total number of Chinese boats passing through last year, a staggering 20% were
attacked, and two were hijacked.
The pirates looted with impunity until the world's focus turned to Somalia in
late September, when a Ukrainian ship loaded with $30 million in tanks and
ammunition was seized. The next major hijacking was in early November, this
time a Saudi-owned supertanker carrying 2 million barrels of crude oil (valued
at $100 million).
All in all, in 2008 pirates hijacked 40 ships, and about 10 ships are still
being held, including the following:
Tainyu 8, a Chinese fishing boat with a crew of 15 Chinese, one Taiwanese, one
Japanese, three Filipinos, and four Vietnamese. It was seized on November 13.
Chemsta Venus, an Indonesian tanker with a crew of 18 Filipinos and five South
MV Biscagalia, a Hong Kong-registered chemical tanker with 25 Indians, three
Britons and two Bangladeshis on board.
On the bright side, this week's release of four vessels is a sign that the
vigorous international naval effort has been effective. Also, no major
hijackings have been reported yet in 2009 and many attacks have been thwarted.
In mid-December the Indian warship Mysore captured a pirate skiff and arrested
23 suspects. A month prior, an Indian naval frigate sunk a pirate base ship.
Also in mid-December, nine pirates attacked Zhenhua 4, a cargo ship owned by
the China Communications Construction Company. Soon after the attack, Malaysia
dispatched an armed helicopter to foil the attempt, reported China's Foreign
The ongoing catastrophe that has terrified shipping companies has inspired
landmark cooperation among militaries, particularly between China and its
allies, as the superpower takes on a new naval security role. The Chinese naval
destroyer Wuhan recently escorted a Taiwanese oil tanker 553 nautical miles
through the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, Xinhua News Agency said. The Chinese
navy ship will be soon joined by another destroyer, Haikou, a supply ship, and
two helicopters. The destroyers are the most sophisticated of China's navy, and
will carry about 800 crewmen.
Even pacifistic Japan is considering dispatching forces. According to the
Japanese government, Prime Minister Taro Aso called Defense Minister Yasukazu
Hamada to expedite the logistics of a naval operation. This comes as news in
Japan is dominated by the recent release of Japanese doctor Keiko Akahane, who
was kidnapped in Ethiopia and held in Mogadishu for four months.
The latest news from the flotilla of international navies navigating the Gulf
of Aden is that the US Navy is forming a new international naval coalition. The
navies of 20 countries will be led by US Admiral Terence McKnight. So it seems
that while diplomats fret over watered-down resolutions in capitals, on the
pirate-infested waters, new naval alliances are being forged.
Still, don't expect a UN peacekeeping force in Somalia any time soon. And with
fire raging in Mogadishu, it's unlikely the pirates will return to working as