The piracy threat in the South China Sea; mitigating the risks


James Wilkes, Managing Director of Gray Page, answers questions about the ongoing piracy risk, put to him by Breakbulk News Editor, Carly Fields.

1. What should operators do to mitigate the growing risks of piracy in the South China Sea?

The most acute piracy threat in the South China Sea is to small – medium size tankers, carrying refined oil cargoes such as gas/diesel oil or gasoline. Here, ships are being hijacked and part or all of their cargoes are stolen. These are cargoes for which there is a black market into which stolen cargoes can be easily sold.

Owners and operators of these types of tankers would be well advised to review the security posture of their ships. By that we would mean putting in place physical security measures that make the perimeter of the ships more difficult to breach; increase the security protection of the superstructure at each deck level and into critical spaces/areas (engine room, bridge, cargo control room etc); as well as creating a safe area (often referred to a citadel) to where the crew can retreat in the event of / prospect of an attack by pirates.

Protecting ships, their crews and cargoes also demands that the crew are always highly vigilant and know what they should do in the event that they identify a threat or perceive a threat to their ship, including the prompt activation of the Ship Security Alert System (SSAS), how to retreat to the ‘citadel’ quickly and safely, and how to maintain control of the vessel from the citadel and remain in contact with the outside world (especially law enforcement and naval agencies who might be in a position to intervene or help them).

It is essential that Owners and operators recognise that there is a substantial piracy threat to tankers carrying clean oil products and, as Owners and operators, they must be determined and committed to doing more to protect their ships and crew, and the cargoes they are carrying.

In addition to this, the information surrounding any particular ship’s voyage and cargo needs to be carefully controlled. Hijacking for cargo theft is not a random act of piracy. These incidents are targeted events. The pirates usually know which ships to go after and what cargoes they will be carrying. It is difficult to accomplish because ship movements and cargo information is shared amongst many parties – agents, charterers, buyers, sellers, shipowners etc. – but, limiting the distribution of information pertaining to ship movements and cargo details is advised.

2. And what about for operations in the Gulf of Guinea?

Hijacking for cargo theft has been a significant manifestation of piratical activity in the Gulf of Guinea since 2011. Shipowners and operators with tonnage in this region should be aware of that by now. The approach to the enhancing the security posture of tankers trading in the Gulf of Guinea carrying clean oil products is the same as that which we would advocate for tankers in the seas of South East Asia.

Kidnapping seafarers from ships is also a feature of piratical activity in the Gulf of Guinea, but more particularly in the waters off the Niger Delta where OSV’s, anchor handling tugs and platform support vessels commonly operate and which have been targeted over the years.

3. Do you think that the employment of armed guards could be the answer in these regions?

Having armed guards aboard ships is an effective deterrent to pirates and it has worked very well for ships transiting the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean range (GoAASIOR). In theory, it could be as effective in protecting ships in the Gulf of Guinea and South East Asia.

However, the problem with armed guarding is not a practical one; it is political. It is difficult to see countries along the coast of West Africa, and the littoral states in South East Asia – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam – permitting ships to sail in their territorial waters carrying privately contracted armed guards.

4. In your view, could the EUNAVFOR model work in the South China Sea?

There are a lot of positive lessons that could be drawn from the participation of EUNAVFOR in the efforts to combat Somalia-based piracy and applied in the Gulf of Guinea and South China Sea region. However, we shouldn’t forget that there was a much broader coalition of naval forces operating in the Gulf of Aden/Arabian Sea/ Indian Ocean range, as well as a greater level of political interest in seeing that these waters – primary international trade routes – remained open to shipping free from the threat of hijacking for ransom by Somali pirates.

There was no single point of effort that you can point to and say confidently that it made all the difference in the fight against Somalia-based piracy. And there is no one thing, no “silver bullet” if you will, that will make all the difference in combating piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and South China Sea region. Combating piracy of this nature requires a combination of many actors working on different levels, and it always will.

5. Do you have any other comments relating to heightened piracy risk?

Piracy (and pirates) succeeds because no one ever sees them coming, literally and metaphorically. Just because pirate gangs in the South China Sea region are targeting refined oil cargoes at the moment, it doesn’t mean that they won’t target other types of cargo in the future, or turn to kidnapping seafarers from ships and holding them to ransom. Just because there is a focus on the South China Sea region or the Gulf of Guinea, it doesn’t mean that piracy will not be an issue somewhere else.

To protect ships properly against piracy we need to start thinking ahead and placing a greater emphasis on taking a holistic approach to security risk management, rather than just being reactive and applying “security patches” in the hope that the risk, wherever it is right now, will go away eventually. It’s not a new message, but it can’t be said enough.

To read the full article ‘Don’t discount ongoing piracy threat’ as it appeared in Breakbulk Magazine (July-August 2015 edition), go to:

This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

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