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Rising oil price may fuel piracy attacks on tankers in Asia

Analysts say lucrative earnings from illicit oil trading may prompt pirates to hijack small tankers for the quick sale of their stolen cargo

With their sheer number and close proximity to the shore, supramaxes and panamaxes will be regarded as prime targets for hijackers

HIGH oil prices as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine may fuel hijackings of small oil tankers in Asia, according to experts.

“An increased threat to small oil tankers would seem likely,” said John Bradford, senior fellow at the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “While the regional states have been expanding their capacity to suppress maritime crime, the increased value of the cargo incentivises potential culprits.”

Siswanto Rusdi, director of Indonesia’s National Maritime Institute, agreed that small tankers in the region could be targeted for quick gains by pirates as oil prices continue their uptrend.

“Unscrupulous individuals and criminals now see plenty of opportunities to make good money, since oil prices are highly unstable and may rise further,” he said. “I foresee attacks and hijackings of supramaxes and panamaxes in the region, particularly in the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea.”

The Regional Co-operation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia acknowledged that high oil prices may be exploited for quick profit.

“The motivation to steal increases when there is greater demand and this will always exist, especially when the product is sold below the market rate,” said Nicholas Teo, its deputy director of information, adding that so far there had been no reports “related to oil cargo theft”.

The most recent incidents in Asia was in May 2016 following the arrest of the syndicate’s master mind, he said.

Oil prices have seen wild swings amid heightened geopolitical tensions following Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine.

After spiking to 18-year highs on March 7, benchmarks US crude retreated to $108.70 a barrel on March 9, while Brent stood at $116.12 per barrel. Both benchmarks achieved their highest levels since 2008 on March 7, with Brent hitting $139.13 a barrel, while West Texas Intermediate touched $130.50 a barrel.

Looking ahead, oil prices are expected to remain volatile after the US banned all imports of Russian crude and with the end game to the Russia-Ukraine conflict still unclear.

Mr Rusdi said hijackings of small tankers in Southeast Asia may start sooner rather than later, a view shared by Mr Bradford. “If hijackings do increase, it could be any day now.  It is likely that the hijacked ships will be converted for use in the illicit market,” he said.

Mr Rusdi said small tankers were more vulnerable since they were anchored close to shore and there are many more of them than huge tankers.

“Trade in oil today, even if it is illicit, will be more brisk than before since many users would like to store as much as they can and build up their inventories. There is no telling where prices and supply will be in the coming months, and it is totally understandable for users to stock up for up to six months or more,” he said, adding that tanker attacks and hijackings that he expects to see in the Malacca Straight and the South China Sea is unwittingly facilitated by certain factors.

“Unlike in the Black Sea, Gulf of Guinea and other areas with heavy navy patrols, southeast Asian waters don’t have that benefit,” Mr Rusdi said. “The bulk of responsibility for marine patrols and enforcement actions is now with the Singaporean and Malaysian navies and marine police. Because of substantial Covid-19-related spending, the Indonesian government had to reduce the navy’s budget for petrol, thus curtailing its patrols and enforcement actions.”


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