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Dealing With Piracy in Asia Requires Clear Data

Can scholars play a more prominent role in regional discussions on piracy?

Robert Farley
Dealing With Piracy in Asia Requires Clear Data
Credit: NASA

Piracy continues to be a problem in the maritime spaces of Southeast Asia, as well as elsewhere in the world. Although the amount of work available on piracy has increased substantially over the last decade, good research on piracy has long been limited by access to good data. The issues are common to statistical issues associated with criminal incidents, or cyber-attacks. Reported incidents of piracy represent only a portion of the total attacks, as shipping companies remain reluctant to openly report successful attacks. Definitional issues (“piracy” vs. “armed robbery at sea”) hound data evaluation, with different authorities coding specific events differently.

Eric Frecon, writing in the Jakarta Post, discusses some of the issues associated with collecting data about piracy. Frecon points out that researchers and policymakers can find themselves in information feedback loop, talking to one another more than evaluating the available evidence (both qualitative and quantitative) on the extent of piracy. Frecon also notes the role that case study research can play, insofar as it sheds light on the motivations of pirates and on their socio-economic forms of organization.

Maritime piracy has generated considerable scholarly work in the last 15 years, and although some of this focused on the largely imaginary “piracy-terrorism nexus,” much of the rest illuminated the extent and logic of modern piratical activity. There are good resources on piracy from various non-governmental organizations that have focused on management of the maritime domain. And without question, scholars have produced good work over the last decade on the origins of piracy and the means of its management. Some work had developed the association between piracy and failed states, while other work has examined the impact of the 2004 tsunami on rates of piracy in Southeast Asia. Other innovative work involves correlating illegal fishing with piracy. Research has had a policy impact by helping navies and other maritime security agencies to evaluate the effectiveness of different kinds of policies.

Of course, the pirates also benefit from access to intelligence. Data indicating the density of traffic along certain shipping routes could indicate to clever pirates where they should direct their attention. Similarly, evidence of foiled attempts could reveal information about how the capacity of local authorities to respond to attacks, again offering evidence of vulnerability. In general, we should expect that information about state responses to piracy will shortly find itself in the hands of pirates, or at least in the hands of those who manage the money that pirates bring in. That said, piracy researchers probably shouldn’t worry overmuch about pirates using their research to probe for victims.

Altogether, the phenomenon of piracy represents an unusually clear opportunity to “bridge the gap” between scholarship and policy. Scholars have tools that, given the availability of data, can provide insights to policymakers on how to manage the problem. Policymakers have the ability to bring scholars into the conversation, a discussion that can range beyond the specific of platforms and techniques and engage wide-ranging questions of law, economics, and sociology.