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Sunday
Nov232008

When piracy threatens commerce, great powers fight back

Nothing better signals the lack of - and thus opportunity for - comprehensive maritime security cooperation among the world's great powers than their collective inability to stem piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf, not to mention the Straits of Malacca - chokepoint for Asia's energy imports from the Middle East.

Add it all up and we're talking $15 billion of losses every year.

In historical terms, most piracy involves the simple theft of crew possessions or the ransom of hostages. But last week's stunning capture - 500 miles at sea! - of a Saudi supertanker indicates the growing sophistication of these violent non-state actors. The cargo is worth upwards of $100 million.

Consider this: In the past few months alone, pirates have seized Greek, Japanese and Turkish chemical tankers and a Ukrainian cargo ship full of Russian tanks.

In one murky incident off the coast of Somalia, pirates allegedly died after exposure to either chemical or radioactive materials aboard a seized Iranian ship on its way home from China.

Clearly, when we're talking pirates, some of this stuff could eventually end up in even worse hands. But this is what happens when a failed state like Somalia comes apart at the seams: unable to police its own waters, they quickly become a relatively safe haven for transnational bad actors.

As a direct result of this recent uptick in global piracy, insurance costs are skyrocketing. For cargo carriers traversing the Gulf of Aden, premiums are said to have increased tenfold over the past year.

More and more commercial carriers are turning to private security firms - a clear sign that globalization's maritime frontiers are slipping into complete lawlessness.

Not surprisingly, all of this piracy has elicited increased surveillance efforts by advanced country navies. But besides the usual NATO-driven cooperation among American and European navies, much of this activity is pursued independently by rising great powers. Russian naval ships, for example, are now active off the coast of Somalia, and last week an Indian frigate took out a pirate "mother ship."

Meanwhile, China, growing increasingly nervous about its rising dependence on Middle Eastern oil, endeavors to create a naval base "string of pearls" that secures its sea lines of communication with the Gulf.

The U.S. military wonders in a recent official review of Chinese defense spending what lies behind Beijing's continuing naval build-up. Here's a clue: By 2030 China will be importing twice as much oil from the Persian Gulf as America will.

As Chinese oil workers come under attack in Africa, China responds as any rising great power would: It builds its capacity to protect its strategic economic interests abroad. Ditto for an increasingly assertive Indian Navy and a Russian military still in recovery from its profound post-Soviet collapse.

None of this emerging ambition should be resisted; indeed, the West should openly encourage it.

After all, U.S. naval and marine forces came of age during our nation's infancy primarily in response to our own problems with piracy in North Africa - you know, "… to the shores of Tripoli." At one point, a major chunk of our federal budget went to paying off Barbary Coast pirates to earn the release of American hostages.

Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has long promoted a "thousand ship navy" that would render the world's oceans transparent and safe. Since we can barely afford the 200-odd ships we currently deploy, Mullen's vision necessarily encompasses all great-power navies. I constantly advocate a security dialogue with Iran, and there would be no better place to start than counterpiracy.

For now, American naval cooperation with the world's cluster of rising great powers remains far below what it could be, reflecting the Pentagon's preference for planning against future "near peers."

Today's global piracy shows this strategic reticence needs to end.

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