Ship attacks in Asian waters up in 2017 as significant incidents fall

Masafumi Kuroki, executive director of ReCAAP ISC. Credit: IHS Markit

Following a sharp decline in 2016, the number of ship attacks in Asian waters were up by 19% to 101 in 2017, according to data from the Regional Co-operation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre (ISC).

Of the 101 incidents, 89 were actual attacks while 12 were attempted attacks. Sixty-eight of the incidents were on ships that were anchored or berthed, and the remaining 33 cases happened on sailing vessels.

However, a closer look at the data shows that the number of significant incidents – rated CAT 1 and CAT 2 by ReCAAP ISC – has actually fallen. There were six CAT 1 and eight CAT 2 incidents in 2017, down from 13 and 10 such incidents in 2016, and 12 and 24 in 2015. The increase came mostly from CAT 3 incidents – 28 in 2017, up from eight in 2016 but significantly below 42 in 2015 – while there were 47 CAT 4 incidents in 2017, from 45 in 2016 and 112 in 2015.

“While the number of incidents in 2017 continue to be among the lowest in the past decade, the increase that occurred over the last year is a reminder that there is no room for complacency in the fight against piracy and armed robbery against ships, and underscores the need for enhanced vigilance among all stakeholders,” said Masafumi Kuroki, ReCAAP ISC’s executive director.

The centre evaluates the significance of each incident based on the violence factor – type of weapons used, treatment of the crew, and the number of perpetrators involved in the attack – as well as the economic loss in each case. Incidents that are very significant or moderately significant are rated CAT 1 and CAT 2, respectively; less significant ones or those involving petty theft are considered CAT 3 and CAT 4, respectively.

Meanwhile, ReCAAP ISC reiterated its warnings about the Sulu-Celebes Seas. In 2017, there were three actual incidents and four attempted incidents of abduction of crew from sailing ships. The last actual incident reported occurred on board the Super Shuttle Tug 1 on 23 March 2017, while the last attempted incident reported involved Dona Annabel on 18 April 2017.

According to ReCAAP ISC’s data, a total of 59 crew were abducted from the region between March 2016 and December 2017. Twenty-eight of them have been released while 15 were rescued; seven were killed and nine are still held captive.

The abductions have been mostly linked to the Abu Sayyaf group, a militant group operating out of the southern Philippines. The ReCAAP ISC said that the Philippine authorities continued to conduct pursuit operations and intensity its military operations to rescue the abducted crew and neutralise the militant group involved.

ReCAAP ISC commended efforts by the three littoral states – the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia – to address the issue of piracy, armed robbery against ships, abduction of crew at sea, and other transnational crime along their shared borders.

A Trilateral Co-operative Mechanism (TCM) has been set up for co-ordinated maritime and air patrol, as well as intelligence-sharing for maritime security. Three maritime command centres were established, at Bongao in the Philippines, Tawau in Malaysia, and Taranakan in West Kalimantan of Indonesia. The TCM is currently working to establish the standard operating procedures, as well as rules and regulations.

The issue of hijacking for oil cargo theft seemed to have returned in 2017, during which there were three such incidents. In line with lower oil benchmarks, the number of such cases had been falling, from a peak of 15 in 2014.

In all cases, the perpetrators were interested in the oil cargo, with no intention to hijack the ships or kidnap the crew. The ships were boarded during hours of darkness and far from coast, with no report of violence against crew members.

Kuroki noted that higher oil prices may have factored into the return of such incidents and reiterated the centre’s advice that vessels carrying oil cargo should exercise vigilance and adopt precautionary measures.

Some other trends also emerged from the full-year statistics.

Of the 89 actual attacks reported to ReCAAP ISC, 31 occurred on board tankers, carrying either crude oil, refined oil products, chemicals, LPG, or LNG. Twenty-two incidents took place on board bulk carriers, 13 on container ships, 12 on tug boats, six onboard offshore supply vessels, as well as one each of the following five vessel types: fishing trawler, general cargo ship, heavy transport vessel, research ship, and a supply vessel.

Of the 11 incidents reported in the South China Sea, 10 involved tankers; two of the 10 involved oil cargo theft while the other eight were victims of theft. ReCAAP ISC advised master and crew on board tankers to exercise extra vigilance, enhance security watch, and deploy protective measures when transiting the South China Sea.

ReCAAP ISC also pointed out that there were 10 incidents involving container ships reported in the Philippines, all of which happened at Manilla anchorage. Likewise, all seven incidents involving tankers occurred at Batangas anchorage, Philippines.

However, ReCAAP ISC noted there was insufficient evidence to suggest that perpetrators target a specific type of ship to board.

“It is more likely that a certain type of ship visits a port due to the facilities available at the ports, hence the probability of them being boarded is higher.”

Contact Simin Ngai at and follow her on Twitter: @SiminNgai

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