Japan Tanker Shows How Getting Answers on Ship Security Not Easy

July 30, 2010

The confusion around what the owners initially called a possible “attack” on a Japanese tanker in the volatile Straits of Hormuz shows the difficulties markets and policymakers face reacting to security events offshore.

As with the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, the hijacking of the freighter Arctic Sea last year or even the Gulf of Tonkin incident that helped spark the Vietnam war, getting to the truth of what happened could prove hard or impossible.

Port officials in the United Arab Emirates blamed a collision, possibly with a submarine or sea mine for the damage inflicted on the M.Star on Wednesday near the Strait of Hormuz — a key choke point for global oil supplies overlooked by Iran.

Owner of the world’s second largest tanker fleet Mitsui O.S.K. Ltd said they had hired a Dubai-based specialist military attacks to help investigate.

The story briefly spooked oil markets particularly in Japan — a sign of the heightened focus on the Gulf after new sanctions were imposed on Iran at the beginning of the week.

“In international waters, it is always difficult to tell what happened,” said Jonathan Wood, global issues analyst at Control Risks. “It could be an accident or it could be an attack. If you are an investor, there is not much you can do except sit and wait and watch the news and market reaction.”

It took weeks to raise the South Korean corvette Cheonan after it sank in March and for Seoul to blame North Korea. Investigating this could be easier — the ship is still afloat.

Attacks on land are hard enough to probe, but at sea independent witnesses may be scarce, radar and satellite coverage patchy and physical evidence at the bottom of the sea.

Darkness and bad weather can all play a role — and some crews may try to conceal their own mistakes such as keeping a poor lookout or poorly maintaining equipment.


Sometimes, the lack of clarity surrounding events at sea suits governments. The reported hijacking last year of the freighter Arctic Sea in the Baltic sparked a global naval hunt and media frenzy, with suggested explanations including a covert Israeli operation to block arms sales to Iran.

Russian forces took control of the ship off the Cape Verde Islands. Prosecutors charged eight men with piracy and said they found no suspicious material despite media talk of missiles.

Analysts say that — as so often out of sight of land — it remains unclear exactly what happened. Sometimes, that clearly suits policymakers. It also tends to minimise market reaction. Global markets were briefly hit by the South Korean warship sinking in March, particular after local media quoted military officials as saying it could have been torpedoed.

But they recovered after officials were quick to row back from such suggestions, only finally blaming their neighbour weeks later when it had much less market impact.

Ultimately, the United States, South Korea and their allies decided to respond with a show of force through a major military exercise currently taking place along the disputed border.

Alleged attacks on warships — sometimes heavily disputed years after the event — have sparked outright war in the past. Two reported attacks on U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 prompted Washington to escalate conflict against North Vietnam.

Many historians now believe there may not have been a second attack and that U.S. sailors may have incorrectly believed they were being fired upon. That is seen less likely to happen now.

“The days in which you might have an immediate retaliation without knowing the details are probably gone,” said former diplomat Kerry Brown, now an analyst with Chatham House. “You are going to want to find out what happened — you don’t want to overreact and blame somebody wrongly.”

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