Sea robbers have also been active in the Strait of Malacca and Strait of Singapore. Pirates have boarded ships on five occasions so far this year and made an attempted boarding once.
Over the same period in these two waterways last year, pirates pulled off only one attack and made three attempts.
The figures come from the ReCAAP Information-Sharing Centre, which noted that the worst-hit vessels have been oil tankers and large container ships.
ReCAAP stands for Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia.
Lee Yin Mui, ReCAAP’s assistant director of research, added that bandits often hijack and take hostages on board the more vulnerable and slow-moving tugboats.
In the 10 incidents in the South China Sea, pirates boarded the ship nine times and made one attempted boarding.
In the most recent attack, six pirates armed with knives and machetes boarded the Singapore-registered liquified petroleum gas tanker Prospect off Anambas Island in the South China Sea early on Saturday.
They clubbed the duty officer on the head and escaped with cash, cellphones and laptop computers.
Apart from the officer, who was bruised, the other members of the 20-strong crew — Indian nationals and Filipinos — were unhurt.
Lee told The Straits Times that the surge in such attacks in the South China Sea and neighbouring waterways was ‘disconcerting’ because it laid waste to the impression that piracy is on the decline in Asian waters.
The latest figures from ReCAAP indicate that the number of reported cases has fallen over the last five years, from 148 in 2005 to 96 last year.
Between January and last month, the anti-piracy centre received 57 reports of sea attacks or robberies in Asia.
The situation in this part of the world is still a far cry from the escalating violence in the Gulf of Aden.
The London-based International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur has logged 156 attacks there so far this year.
But Lee, 48, a former army officer, noted that the buccaneers striking in Asia were not driven by bloodlust. They mostly wanted cash, ropes and spare parts from vessels, she said.
She cautioned, however, that although the economy seemed to be on the mend, pirates or sea robbers would still be on the lookout for vulnerable vessels.
“If shippers let their guard down, they will just be encouraging pirates to strike.”
For its part, ReCAAP is already in talks with the governments of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to keep them updated regarding the surge in attacks.
The navies of these four countries, which form the Malacca Strait Patrol, will be beefing up their watch over their waters.
ReCAAP, formed by 15 nations — including the above four and China, Japan, South Korea, Norway and India — will also streamline its reporting and strengthen its information-sharing capabilities.
This will ensure that member countries can quickly despatch their navy or Police Coast Guards to break up sea conflicts.
Joshua Ho, a senior fellow at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said countries bordering the South China Sea should also consider forming a patrol group similar to the Malacca Strait Patrol.
They include Japan, China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore, among others. These countries now limit their patrols to approved maritime boundaries.