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Fights over marine boundaries are creating safe zones for pirates

New research reveals how contested waters have become maritime hot spots

- August 4, 2021

In January, Nigerian-based pirates seized the MV Mozart, a large Liberian-flagged container ship heading to Cape Town, South Africa, from Lagos, Nigeria, as the ship sailed close to Sao Tome’s maritime border. Fifteen abducted officers and crew members were released in February after the shipping company paid a ransom, but one sailor died in the assault.

The attack was one of nearly 70 incidents that occurred during the first half of 2021. That’s a decrease over the same period in 2020, but the number of kidnapped sailors continues to be a concern, and remains at close to the highest level seen in the past decade, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Piracy might be pervasive, but it remains geographically restricted. Nearly half of these pirate attacks and attempted attacks in 2021, including the one on the MV Mozart, occurred in and around the Gulf of Guinea.

Our research shows that contested maritime boundaries are partly driving the location of sea piracy. Here’s why.

The Gulf of Guinea remains a hotspot for maritime crime and sailor kidnappings.
The Gulf of Guinea remains a hotspot for maritime crime and sailor kidnappings.

We examined the maritime hot spots

Pirate groups from five countries account for more than 60 percent of the total pirate attacks between 1995 and 2017, we found — and nearly 75 percent of the more sophisticated attacks against steaming ships. Economic deprivation explains much of what drives piracy in these five countries: Somalia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria.

Poverty and joblessness are widespread, yet the locations of pirate attacks tend to be highly contained. For example, thousands of vessels transit the Singapore Straits each year, making it one of the busiest sea lanes in the world and, consequently, a frequent location for maritime crime. Pirates look for rich “targets of opportunity,” such as shipping lanes, geographic chokepoints and ports, but this isn’t enough to explain the geography of sea piracy.

Contested maritime boundaries also attract pirates

Our research suggests that pirates exploit porous maritime boundary lines — the boundaries that define countries’ territorial waters. Particularly attractive are areas where countries have conflicted and uncertain claims over territorial waters.

Why did France and the U.K. dispatch their navies to fight over fish?

The figure below shows the frequency of offshore sea piracy incidents in the Indo-Pacific region from 1995 to 2017. Ship attacks occur closer to maritime boundaries than one would expect by chance alone. Terrorism and piracy expert Peter Lehr notes similar behavior in the 19th century as pirates evaded capture by exploiting the competition among European colonial powers.

Why would pirates attack along these contested boundaries? In the 21st century, pirates and other maritime criminals understand that they can exploit the fear of conflict escalation between countries to dodge government security personnel.

Coast guard forces and maritime police hesitate to enter the territorial waters of neighboring nations since such maritime trespassing might lead to diplomatic crises or standoffs, especially between governments that already dispute local borders. That’s what’s going on in the Gulf of Guinea and in Southeast Asian waters.

Pirates are also likely to attack closer to countries with weaker law enforcement capacity. It is no accident that most incidents of piracy occur in the eastbound lane of the Singapore Straits, which sits closer to Indonesia’s Riau Islands. Attacks in this area are less likely to attract maritime patrols from Singapore, which has more capacity to crack down on illegal activity.

Greek and Turkish ships started playing chicken at sea. There’s already been one crash.

Why aren’t countries working together on piracy?

Conflict over maritime boundaries also undermines efforts to combat maritime crime.

Under international law — the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 111 — coastal nations can extend their jurisdiction beyond their own maritime border to pursue and seize any vessel involved in illicit activities. The chase must begin in the territorial waters (or contiguous zone) where the illegal activity took place and continue into international waters.

But once the pirate vessel crosses into another country’s territorial waters, the hunt must end. At that point, the law enforcement ship must turn back unless bilateral or regional agreements sanction cross-border pursuit. In areas where maritime conflict prevails, such agreements are unlikely. While a country may want to secure maritime trade routes, countering maritime crime is costly and the conflict over maritime boundaries is often more salient to overall security interests. So governments frequently ignore maritime crime and focus on rival neighbors.

For this reason, countries locked in maritime conflict fail to pursue pirates and other maritime criminals effectively. In 1992, for example, the Royal Malaysian Police Marines chased a suspected pirate vessel out of Malaysian waters. Rather than follow the ship into Filipino maritime space, the Malaysian captain opted to return to Malaysian territorial waters. A 1994 agreement between Malaysia and the Philippines allowed for coordinated patrols in Sulu and Celebes Seas, but only along their shared maritime boundaries, while cross-border pursuits remained prohibited.

The two countries (along with Indonesia) revisited the issue of coordinated patrols in 2016 as Abu Sayyaf (an Islamic separatist group in the southern Philippines) increased attacks against ships in the area. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte conceded to allow hot pursuit, given concerns about maritime piracy and the threat of terrorist violence. But remaining disagreements over territorial claims, jurisdictional control and resource management prevent deeper cooperation.

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Cooperation will be key to tackling piracy concerns

What does our study mean for maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, and for U.S. counter-piracy operations? Our research suggests that maritime crime can thrive where nations are locked in contention and local law enforcement remains limited. Further, it’s unlikely that countries in the Indo-Pacific region will be successful at reducing sea piracy single-handedly.

That’s a prime reason the U.S. Navy trains annually with militaries and coast guards throughout the region and the U.S. State Department has increased infrastructure assistance to help combat illegal fishing. And USAID’s Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative, aimed at strengthening political institutions, is another area of increased assistance to the region.

Formal military agreements, training opportunities and joint action with other countries may help address global piracy. Information sharing through ASEAN, along with confidence-building measures to shared patrols, have also proved effective at preventing maritime crime. The absence of such cooperation will only push illegal activities across maritime borders.

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Brandon Prins (@bcprins) is a professor of political science and a global security fellow with the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is the author of “Pirate Lands” (Oxford University Press, 2021).

Anup Phayal is an assistant professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs, University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Aaron Gold is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Politics at Sewanee: The University of the South

Funding for this project was provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, Office of Naval Research, through the Minerva Initiative. The opinions and interpretations are those of the authors and not the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.