Friday, April 29, 2011

Pirates, Unions, and the Need for Naval Collaboration

What do labor unions and Somali pirates have in common? Well if you’re an Indian, Russia, or Indonesian sailor and a member of a big maritime union, the latter could be the cause for a huge strike brought about by the dangerous working conditions that arise while repeatedly transiting the Indian ocean with some of the world’s most precious cargo.

Two days ago, a representative for such a maritime union told the AFP that, “There is a strong possibility that a collective international boycott by the seafarers coming from the labor-supplying countries like the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Russia, Bangladesh, etc. is round the corner.” The article goes on to suggest that the containment policy pursued by numerous navies in the region is failing. The threat of a strike could further jam up supplies of all things hydrocarbon, including asphalt, petroleum, and coal, potentially driving up prices for commodities that are already viewed as too expensive.

While this is an issue commonly discussed in energy-related publications, it has not gotten much attention in the broader world of international politics and defense news. The ripple effects of a labor strike could bring the story of piracy’s tangential effects front and center. Piracy is not enough of a force to halt shipping on its own, but it need not fully impede shipping in the Indian ocean to adversely affect the world economy—the potentially for a pirate-induced labor strike demonstrate this fact.

A potential work stoppage should raise critical questions about the counter-piracy policies of the U.S. and its allies and the need for more meaningful naval cooperation. India’s navy, the fifth largest in the world, will likely be at the center of this debate. Platt’s blog “The Barrel” has been on the record since February in calling for the Indian navy to step up its efforts in interdicting pirates as they venture further and further from the African littoral. These “blue water” pirates (I know it’s a stretch, but just follow along for now) highlight how asymmetrical conflict should be an emphasis of naval strategic thinkers as much as it is in the Army and Marines.

Furthermore, the specter of international piracy and its pestilent effect on transnational shipping should influence naval procurement both in the U.S. and abroad. Big deck amphibious ships like the ones off the coast of Libya are interesting platforms for effectively challenging the pirates.

Burden sharing will be the likely catch phrase of counter-piracy strategy going forward. Putting together an arrangement between countries like the U.S., India and China is certainly difficult, but this is the kind of interest-based collaboration that should be the emphasis of military-to-military collaboration in the Asian region.

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