JAKARTA - Southeast Asia is winning the battle against piracy in the Malacca Straits but any reduction in vigilance could see a sudden return of high-seas banditry in the vital trade lane, a watchdog said Thursday.
The strategic shipping route between Indonesia's Sumatra island and the Southeast Asian peninsula of Malaysia and Singapore was deemed the most dangerous waterway in the world by Lloyds of London only three years ago.
But attacks are dramatically down thanks to better cooperation among the littoral states which surround the narrow waterway, and experts believe a major hijacking like the incident off Somalia this week is now unlikely here.
In the year to September there have been only two pirate attacks in the straits, according to the Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau (IMB), compared to 38 in 2004 and a peak of 75 in 2000.
"If pirates here were to try a copy-cat attack like in Somalia, it won't be easy for them because the governments in this region won't hesitate to take action," IMB Piracy Reporting Center chief Noel Choong said.
But he said pirates operating out of bases in Sumatra and outlying islands would strike again as soon as the littoral states relaxed their coordinated "aggressive patrols."
"What we see is that the pirates aren't being detained, they're just lying low because of the aggressive patrols... We maintain our piracy warning for the Malacca Straits despite the stability of the region."
The Malacca sea-lane carries about 40 percent of the world's trade, including a major part of the energy imports of China and Japan.
But unlike the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden off the coast of lawless Somalia, the littoral states have relatively well-organized maritime police forces and navies with backing from allies like the United States.
US aid for Indonesia's anti-piracy efforts includes 15 high-speed response boats, some of which are based at Batam opposite Singapore at the most vulnerable choke-point in the straits.
Washington is also funding a tactical communications center in Jakarta and a major radar system along the north Sumatran coast to better monitor suspect vessels.
Both pirate attacks this year -- one on February 1 off the Indonesian town Medan and another on May 10 off the northern coast of Sumatra -- involved pirates trying but failing to board huge tankers.
In the May attack, pirates in military camouflage gear used a bamboo pole attached to a hook to try to gain access to the ship while it was under way. They fled in a speedboat after the ship's captain raised the alarm.
There have been numerous other incidents in the straits in 2008 but they were considered too close to ports and anchorages to fit the definition of piracy, according to the IMB.
"Our Straits of Malacca is under good surveillance," said Malaysian defense ministry spokeswoman Fadzlette Merican.
"Whatever irregularities we see, we will report. We feel this is why piracy cases have reduced significantly... We are always on the alert."
Maritime Institute of Malaysia security analyst Ramli Nik said the clear lesson to be learnt from the effort to secure the Malacca Straits is the importance of the "comprehensive partnership" between Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
"This is key in combating piracy," he said.
But it is a lesson that may not apply to Somalia, which has no effective government to cooperate with -- and a much larger expanse of water for international vessels to patrol.
"In Somalia there is no proper government and there is no joint cooperation between the states surrounding the Gulf of Aden. These countries are also incapable of securing the waters due to the lack of resources," he said.
Associate Professor Ralf Emmers, a specialist in maritime security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said piracy was an economic crime and few places on earth were as desperately poor as Somalia.
"It's important to remember that piracy is related to socioeconomics... and this partly explains why you see such an increase off the coast of Somalia now," he said.