Violence at sea: Unpacking "piracy" in the claims of states over Asian seas

Anthony Reid*

*Corresponding author for this work

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    13 Citations (Scopus)


    The contemporary international community is rightly concerned with piracy as a global problem that challenges its system, and needs to be addressed by all. The word "piracy," however, derives specifically from English, and comes out of a particular European experience of interstate rivalry. It translates readily into the major European languages, which used the concept when interacting with each other legally and commercially. Outside of that world, though, the Europeans employed the term to justify military expansion at the expense of Asians. Asian languages use several expressions that modern scholarship has translated as piracy, although no real equivalence of meaning or associations can be assumed. It must be remembered that the European definition of piracy as illegitimate armed robbery at sea was imposed progressively on the rest of the world within an imperial context. With the advent of the steamship in the mid-nineteenth century, the European powers, acting in concert, extended their authority gradually over the world's seas, destroying or dispersing one "pirate nest" after another that had resisted the hegemony of European shipping. Led by Britain, the imperial states also included the world's great shippers and possessed a direct interest in making the sea lanes safe. That coincidence of interest and might lasted from roughly 1870 to 1940, the only period, in modern times, when piracy in the European sense disappeared from Asian waters. This chapter will seek to connect our present concern about piracy with reference to the two Asian experiences which have intersected most with European ideas of piracy, namely the Chinese and the Malay.1 It will be helpful here to utilize the concept of "organized hypocrisy" in the international system, as it passed through different paradigms.2 The present form, "sovereign equality," manifests itself in the United Nations Charter of 1945, whereby all nations purport to accept the equal sovereignty of all others, extending in a homogeneous way exactly to their border with the next sovereign nation-state. Earlier paradigms of "organized hypocrisy" included the high colonial system in which "civilized [European] states" partitioned the world among themselves, and obeyed an agreed upon set of rules among the members of this club, but extended it through colonialism at the expense of the rest of the world; and the previous Chinese "tribute system," whereby Southeast Asian countries, or those claiming to act for them, at times pretended to play the Chinese game of world hegemony in return for commercial monopolies.3 The UN Law of the Sea well reflects the contemporary international understanding of piracy. Like the UN itself, it understands the world as a territory divided into uniform parcels of sovereignty among a large number of states. It narrowly defines piracy as "acts of violence and robbery" in the neutral space falling outside the domain of these equal sovereign states - "on the high seas or in a place outside the jurisdiction of a state." By the same UN edict, sovereign states cannot be piratical, thereby limiting piracy to private acts by private persons and ships.4 The real world, of course, has been much less clear-cut. In maritime regions, such as much of Southeast Asia, states depended rather more on their control of the sea than of the land. Forcing or encouraging trade to come to one's port exemplified the essence of statecraft, and the ability to protect such trade from attack by enemies, the proof of accomplishment. The path to statehood often began with violent seizures at sea that established powers resisted as aggressive and illegal. Successful states more effectively channeled the sometimes forceful activities of sea peoples in their favor. I want to argue here that this modern, restricted definition of piracy derives from a specifically European concept which became globalized in the colonial era. The contemporary imperative that all states should join together to combat piracy arises directly from the nineteenth-century European requirement that "civilized states" should so cooperate. But today's world differs greatly from the colonial period, and we should not be surprised at the setbacks in the control of piracy that have happened. European translations of Chinese texts make it appear that "piracy" occurred everywhere during the Ming and Qing, as indeed it actually does in the chapters of this volume. Similarly, European desires to suppress attacks on their shipping in the treacherous waters of Southeast Asia made "Malay" and "pirate" seem almost synonymous.5 But in these early periods, only the European gaze could make the Asian phenomena resemble "piracy." Let me elaborate by examining the opposite Chinese and Austronesian ("Malay") worlds, and how each tradition seems to have regarded armed robbery at sea.

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationElusive Pirates, Pervasive Smugglers
    Subtitle of host publicationViolence and Clandestine Trade in the Greater China Seas
    PublisherHong Kong University Press, HKU
    Number of pages12
    ISBN (Print)9789888028115
    Publication statusPublished - 2010


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