A US military commander warned Thursday that Somali pirates were skirting pressure by moving deeper into Asian waters and said the only solution was to restore stability in the African nation.
Admiral Robert Willard, head of the 300,000-troop Pacific Command, voiced exasperation at years of naval efforts to stem the flow of pirates from Somalia -- which has been effectively without a central government for two decades.
"It's remarkable that 28 nations combining their maritime forces together in the Gulf of Aden have not been able to defeat this challenge," Willard said at the Asia Society on a visit to Washington.
Due to the naval campaign, "the pirates are just ranging farther out into the Indian Ocean -- hundreds of miles, quite literally," Willard said.
Willard said the pirates posed particular problems for Maldives, a sparsely populated Indian Ocean archipelago of 1,192 tiny coral islands best known for its upmarket beach resorts.
Willard said he recently visited Maldives and President Mohamed Nasheed told him that "his problem was that either abandoned pirates or pirates that were lost in the middle of the night in their activities, or otherwise detached from their motherships, were now landing in the Maldives."
The commander also saw problems with piracy in southern India and as far away as the South China Sea.
But he said that joint action by Southeast Asian nations has all but eliminated the piracy that once plagued the Strait of Malacca -- a vital route for oil that powers Asia's largest economies.
Foreign navies have stepped up operations off the Gulf of Aden since 2008. But Willard said that there was ultimately not a naval solution.
"I don't think you're ever going to defeat this threat at the far extremes of their operations on the sea lanes," Willard said.
"But rather you have to go to the centers of gravity -- the source on land in the Horn of Africa -- and put a stop to that," he said.
According to the Malaysia-based International Maritime Bureau, Somali pirates are holding 33 vessels and 712 hostages. The captives come from a diverse array of countries.
Willard said that Somalia's scourge also presented legal quandaries as sailors wondered what to do with captured pirates.
A US federal court on Wednesday sentenced a teenage Somali pirate, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, to nearly 34 years in prison after the US Navy caught him in a clash at sea. The judge rejected pleas to be lenient due to his young age.
And in a first in Asia, a Malaysian court last week charged seven suspected Somali pirates for firing at Malaysian forces. They face the death penalty if convicted.
While failing to end piracy, the naval operations have spurred international cooperation. China sent warships, the first time in modern history that it has deployed on a potential combat mission far from its territorial waters.
Willard praised the coordination between the US and Chinese navies over piracy, saying: "We've been impressed with the effort that China has made."
Military relations between the United States and China have seen sharp swings, with Beijing last year snapping off contacts to protest a $6.4 billion arms package to rival Taiwan.
Willard voiced confidence that military ties with China were becoming steadier.
"I'm cautiously optimistic... that we will continue to progress, even slowly, in the military relationship," he said.