The Debate | Opinion

Maritime Security in the Asia-Pacific: Measuring Challenges and Progress

Only by seeking to measure maritime security dynamics in uniform and rigorous ways can we begin to understand the scope of the challenges and make progress.

By Jay Benson for
Maritime Security in the Asia-Pacific: Measuring Challenges and Progress
Credit: U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kryzentia Weiermann/ Released

In the realm of foreign and security policy, the maritime space is often overlooked. “Sea blindness” is real and it is often reflected in the amount of resources and policy attention paid to maritime security and governance around the world. However, as the maritime space gains attention as a theater for nontraditional security challenges and as space of increasingly important economic potential, so too does the need to empirically measure the scope of the challenges and the progress made in the maritime space. There are a plethora of indices, databases, and empirical reporting available on security and governance issues onshore, which contribute greatly to the understanding of policymakers on these phenomena, but the maritime space has yet to see the same application of empirical methods and analysis.

In order to help fill this gap in our collective understanding, Stable Seas launched its initial Maritime Security Index in 2018. The index uses a wide variety of data across nine issue areas and is meant as a tool to: help maritime policymakers better understand the relationship between various aspects of maritime security; assist in identifying trends, either positive or negative at state and regional levels; and serve as a tool for resource advocacy. While the initial version of the index covered sub-Saharan Africa, it has recently been expanded to include the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

The index was created using a wide variety of different data sources and developed in collaboration with a diverse set of partners, including civilian and military leaders from four continents, who generously volunteered their time to complete anonymous surveys that informed the scores across several issue areas. 

Looking specifically at the new index data for the Indo-Pacific, a few high-level trends with important implications for maritime security and governance in the region stand out.

The Indo-Pacific is a leader in international and regional maritime cooperation (with a dangerous caveat). 

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The maritime space is governed by a variety of international treaties and agreements that govern everything from maritime boundaries to fishing regulations. The Indo-Pacific as a whole has quite high rates of ratification of such maritime agreements. In addition, regional organizations like BIMSTEC and ASEAN are placing increasing policy attention on maritime issues and where the need exists, ad hoc cooperative structures are emerging, such as the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA) between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to combat maritime security threats in the Sulu-Celebes seas. Finally, South Asia stands out as a region with only one contested maritime boundary (regarding the British Indian Ocean Territory), though maritime territorial disputes are obviously a much larger concern in Southeast Asia, where a plethora of disputes in the South China Sea and between states in archipelagic Southeast Asia have the potential to undermine the progress the region has made toward cooperation on maritime issues.

The Indo-Pacific is an emerging hotspot of piracy, armed robbery, and kidnap for ransom.

The international community was rudely awakened to maritime piracy in the modern era with the rise of piracy off the coast of Somalia. While these activities still exist in African waters, though more prominently in Gulf of Guinea, the Indo-Pacific has emerged as another hotspot for this form of maritime crime. In the Bay of Bengal criminal gangs prey on fishermen through armed robbery and kidnappings at sea. In Southeast Asia thefts from vessels transiting the Straits of Malacca are on the rise and the Sulu Sea is confronted with a string of piracy and kidnap for ransom incidents, many of them linked to violent extremist groups such as Abu Sayyaf. The region has been quick to respond to this form of maritime crime through initiatives such as coordinated patrols, like the previously mentioned TCA, and increased information sharing through entities like ReCAAP and the International Fusion Centers in Singapore and Delhi.

The Indo-Pacific hosts a maritime black market in drugs and wildlife products.

Illicit maritime trades in things like drugs, arms, and contraband are a problem across the globe, but the Indo-Pacific stands out in its role in two of these illicit markets: synthetic drugs and wildlife products. Synthetic drug production in places like Myanmar and Thailand has risen dramatically in the last decade and these drugs are often moved through the maritime space to markets within and outside the region. In addition, Southeast Asia is the fulcrum for the international trade in illegal wildlife products due to its geographic placement between the primary source of such products in Africa and the primary markets in East Asia. Efforts to increase port screening measures and improve regional Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) will help regional states crack down on the maritime routes used to transport these illicit goods.

The Indo-Pacific has strong but variable maritime enforcement capacity.

In order to address the risks described above, in addition to other challenges such as disaster relief, search and rescue, maritime mixed migration, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, states need navies and maritime law enforcement agencies with the ability to patrol their waters, identify threats, and respond to incidents. Several states in the region, such as India, Thailand, and Vietnam, have robust navies, but some in the region lack the capabilities necessary to effectively address the scope of the challenges they face in the maritime space. The region is working to effectively address these gaps in their collective maritime security through increased MDA, coordinated patrols, and burden sharing. Frameworks for information sharing improve the regional understanding of potential threats at sea and exchanges and capacity building with partners both within and outside the region help strengthen collective maritime security.

The Indo-Pacific region shines in the development of the Blue Economy.

The maritime space is not only a source of threats for the Indo-Pacific, it is also a theater of great opportunities. The Indo-Pacific, as a whole, has largely capitalized on these opportunities through the development of a strong Blue Economy. Maritime industries like shipping, offshore hydrocarbons, coastal tourism, and sustainable fisheries and aquaculture all have the potential, if properly governed, to make immense contributions to economic growth and employment in the region. Southeast Asia in particular is already a leader in many of these industries and initiatives across the region are making progress in addressing remaining gaps in port capacity, fisheries management, and environmental protection. This progress is not just beneficial to macroeconomic growth but is also critical to addressing many of the maritime security challenges outlined above. Where legitimate Blue Economy industries thrive, coastal communities have fewer incentives to turn to illicit maritime activity in order to secure their livelihood.

These of course are general trends and there is significant variation in the scope of the challenges and the capacity to address them across the many diverse states of the Indo-Pacific, but they paint a general picture of priorities for maritime security in the region.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Only by seeking to measure maritime security dynamics in uniform and rigorous ways can we begin to understand the scope of the challenges, progress toward goals, and areas of greatest need for increased partnership and capacity building. Continued efforts to extend the kind of empirical data collection efforts, which have been the foundation of informed policymaking around security and governance onshore, to the maritime space will be critical to providing the maritime security community with the insights they need to make the difficult choices they face.

Jay Benson is a Project Manager for One Earth Future’s (OEF) Stable Seas program in the Indo-Pacific region.