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Maritime Law Enforcement in the Indo-Pacific

PI: Brandon Prins, University of Tennessee

Year selected for award: 2020

Maritime Law Enforcement in the Indo-Pacific: Building Capacity to Confront Militia Groups and Maritime Crime

Principal Investigator: Brandon Prins, University of Tennessee

Co- Principal Investigators: Anup Phayal, University of North Carolina Wilmington; Curtis Bell, One Earth Foundation; Aaron Gold, Sewanee, University of the South

Years of Award: 2020-2022

Managing Service Agency: Office of Naval Research

Project Description:
Maritime Asia remains crucial to global economic growth and prosperity. Nearly 40% of the world’s seaborne trade transits the South China Sea each year and nine of the top ten busiest container ports in the world are located in the Indo-Pacific region. But strategic uncertainties are also evident as governments in the region struggle to combat numerous security challenges. Singapore’s Defense Minister, Ng Eng Hen, recently noted at the Maritime Defense Exhibition and Conference (IMDEX) that threats to the maritime domain in Southeast Asia persist and pose significant dangers to both regional and global commerce. The U.S. Department of Defense agrees and foresees a rapidly changing security environment characterized by violent non-state actors, resource competition, and organized crime. Consequently, significant resources have been invested to counter these threats and respond quickly to evolving maritime crises.

The U.S., in particular, is heavily involved in the Pacific and consequently is critically impacted by developments in the Asian maritime space. In fact, 61% of U.S. exports flow to APEC countries, which supports over 4 million jobs in the U.S. Responding to these security challenges remains essential to U.S. economic and security interests. Maritime commerce can be shaped by political and economic non-state actors given the close proximity of violent armed groups to important shipping routes in Southeast Asia. Terror attacks remain high in both Thailand and the Philippines where Islamist militant groups, such as Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, pose contemporaneous threats to shipping channels in the Sulu and Celebes Seas as well as the Straits of Malacca. While governments in the region are enhancing and modernizing their maritime capabilities, most large naval power projection remains an unsuitable and mostly ineffective policy tool for combatting illegal maritime activities. Maritime law enforcement capacity, improved regional cooperation, and better local governance can more efficiently target criminal actors and reduce community incentives to engage in maritime crime.

After 9/11, however, research focused predominantly on understanding and countering political violence on land. But armed groups increasingly use the maritime domain to support their operations and help achieve their political and economic objectives. A collective sea-blindness thus inhibits a complete description of the security challenges that proliferate and how best to address them. This project tackles important shortcomings in extant research on the maritime security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region and builds on previous Minerva projects that explored temporal and spatial trends in maritime piracy as well as the resource assets available to local armed groups. This project also builds on Minerva research that examined political stability in Asia but does not duplicate these efforts. Instead, this project will investigate the role of illicit networks in Maritime Asia and the law enforcement capabilities available to detect and counter these criminal actors. Further, we map inter-state rivalries and resource competition to better link traditional security threats present in the region to non-traditional concerns involving non-state armed groups and trans-national criminal organizations. This link is an important component of the proposed research - tying strategic competition among important regional actors to the decision-making and activities of non-state criminal and political groups.

Select Publications:
Daxecker, Ursula, and Brandon C Prins. 2021. Pirate Lands. Oxford University Press.