The coronavirus pandemic took a heavy toll on the maritime industry, including a prolonged crew turnover crisis, the reverberations of which are still evident today. Among other things, at its outset in March 2020, there were fears that maritime crime in Asia would increase as a result of the projected global economic downturn.
Summary of results
So, in reality, although the number of piracy and robbery incidents in the region increased in 2020, they were still much lower than during previous spikes. And in 2021, the frequency of attacks fell to pre-pandemic levels. That said, the worst piracy hotspot in Asia was the Singapore Strait, where the number of attacks has increased significantly since late 2019.
Counter-piracy and maritime robbery measures implemented by both regional authorities and individual companies, collectively and individually, helped to largely contain the surge in pirate activity during the pandemic.
Piracy and maritime robbery during the pandemic
Several organizations collect and publish statistics on piracy in Asia. Two of the best known are the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Center (IMB-PRC) in Kuala Lumpur and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery of Ships in Asia (ReCAAP-ISC) Information Sharing Center in Singapore. The former is a non-governmental organization established in 1992 and funded by private companies in the maritime sector. ReCAAP in turn is an intergovernmental agreement signed by 14 countries in 2004, with 21 parties currently participating, including the US and several European countries. Its Clearinghouse was established in 2006 to facilitate information sharing and operational cooperation between the parties to the agreement. The third source of statistics is the Information Processing Center (IFC). It was established in 2009 as a multinational maritime security data exchange center and is located at the Changi Naval Base in the Republic of Singapore. The fourth data source is the Maritime Information Cooperation and Awareness Center (MICA), operated by the French Navy in Brest.
Nevertheless, the data provided by the four organizations do not give a complete picture of the piracy situation in the region. The fact is that captains do not always report incidents involving ships because this leads to flight delays and higher insurance rates for their company. As a result, they have to deal with underreporting. In addition, IMB-PRC and ReCAAP-ISC, due to the political sensitivity of the topic of piracy, assign different geographical descriptors to incident locations, i.e. the latter uses more neutral geographical descriptors such as “Strait of Malacca and Singapore” or “South China Sea” instead of specifying specific countries. Indonesia is a particularly sensitive country in this regard. Nevertheless, data from all four organizations are an invaluable source of information for maritime security analysts.
Although there was a spike in incidents in 2020, the number of incidents was lower than during previous upswings. Previously, maritime crime increased significantly from 2009 to 2011 due to the global financial crisis, and from 2014 to 2015, when oil prices plummeted and criminals attacked small product tankers, pumped fuel from them and then sold it on the black market. Moreover, most attacks in Asia during the pandemic were rather random, with low levels of violence. They were mostly petty thefts committed mostly during the hours of darkness.
Both globally and regionally, piracy incidents declined in the second year of the pandemic. For example, the IMB-PRC recorded just 132 incidents worldwide in 2021, the lowest number since 1994. By comparison, the number of attacks in 2020 was 194. ReCAAP-ISC reported 82 cases in Asia in 2021 compared to 97 in 2020, meaning there were 15% fewer.