CLAIRE GUTE WRITES — When people think of pirates, they often imagine long ago pirates such as Britain’s West Indies’ Blackbeard, or fictional pirates like Jack Sparrow from the Disney amusement park ride, Pirates of the Caribbean. But the issue of piracy plagues many of the world’s oceans, and the South China Sea is not immune.

Historically, since 106 BC, piracy has maintained deep roots in the South China Sea; it has not been eradicated and experts predict it will continue until a major naval project is constructed and planned in the region. The growth in seaborne trade has increased traffic on shipping routes, providing large numbers of potential targets for pirate activity and more attacks. This has implications for nations’ maritime and economic security through international shipping routes, and for the international rule of law.

Piracy in the South China Sea primarily occurs in the Southern region. It is most prevalent in the Malacca Strait, one of the busiest and most essential shipping lanes to the world economy due to the expansion of maritime trade and the demand for oil as well as other forms of energy.  According to data from the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combatting Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), there was a 17% increase in piracy during 2020, with 97 total incidents. ReCAAP also reported that piracy in Asia has increased to its highest level in five years.

International cooperation is currently limited–although it is necessary. Why? China claims much of the South China Sea as its territory based on its self-declaimed Nine-Dash Line. Conflict with Beijing among littoral states such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Singapore focuses on this exclusive economic zone. Territorial disputes thus make patrolling and conducting counter piracy operations extremely difficult.

China now has the largest ship building facilities in the world and has established, in the past two decades, the largest navy in the world. Its extremely fast-growing technological expertise should produce a modern navy capable of operational superiority on both the high seas and coastal patrol areas. Due to both the size of its forces and capabilities, China has the ability to reduce piracy in the South China Sea and help secure shipping lanes such as the Malacca Strait. Cooperation is essential, but it will be dependent upon diplomatic efforts to resolve the Nine-Dash Line claims in the South China Sea, which include the territorial waters of many other countries. No country, or countries – including rising China – can make it through this difficult and critical passage alone.

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