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WarPlan Crimson: The NextWar Schedule (14 Sept)

WarPlan Crimson is the long-view schedule for NextWar and its Sea Control Podcast

NextWar Upcoming Topic Weeks:

Forgotten Naval Strategists – Sept 30-Oct5
Editor: Tiago Mauricio & Matt Hipple – NEXTWAR(at)cimsec.org
BJ Armstrong widened the view of Mahan with his book 21st Century Mahan, but let’s do one better by expanding our register of maritime strategists – the forgotten & abused navalists. Inspired by ‘s article on Fernando de Oliveira.

Maritime/Defense Innovation – Oct 21-31
Editor: David Lyle – jamminnav(at)yahoo.com
Coalition Effort with “The Bridge
With the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum sandwiched like delicious deli turkey in the middle, we’ll be discussing innovation & innovators past, present, and future in the realm of defense technology and methodology – with a particular eye towards the maritime realm.

Ship Design – Oct 18 – Nov 22
Editor: Alex Clarke – alexanderdouglasclarke (at) gmail.com
What is the state of modern ship-building and are we building the right kinds of ships, but militarily and commercially, that take best advantage of our concepts, our geography, and our technology?

Amphibious – Dec 9 – 13
Editor: TBD
Talkin’ bout taking beaches, kickin’ in coast-shaped doors, and expeditionary goodness.

Sea Control Podcast Schedule:

Sept 15: EUCAP NESTOR
Sept 22: Sea Control, Asia-Pacific
Sept 29: The Future Defense Industry
Oct 6: East Atlantic: Falklands 2 – Col. Pike and Maj Neame
Oct 13: African Border Control


mahinda-rajapakse-backs-chinas-maritime-silk-road-project

Maritime Silk Road: Through a New Periscope

It was the Maldives’s turn to receive a sermon on the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) from China. Chinese President Xi Jinping invited Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen to participate in the 21st Century MSR, expand cooperation in tourism, trade and infrastructure, and enhance maritime cooperation. Apparently Yameen assured Xi that his country would “respond to the Chinese initiative.” Ali Hameed, former vice foreign minister of the Maldives, too had stated that the MSR was of interest to the Maldives. Earlier, Xi had approached Sri Lanka to consider the MSR, and Colombo indicated that it would actively examine the proposal. The MSR was also raised during Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari’s visit to China a few months ago.

Unlike in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the MSR has sent the Indian strategic community into a tizzy. A number of articles, commentaries, op eds, discussions and sound bites have concluded that the MSR is nothing but a Chinese ploy to get a naval ‘foothold’ in the Indian Ocean and reflects China’s creeping influence in the region. These reactions are quite natural given that China has aggressively pursued the agenda of building maritime infrastructure in friendly countries such as Pakistan (Gwadar), Sri Lanka (Hambantota) and now the Maldives – that are seen as bases/facilities to support People’s Liberation Army Navy’s future operations in the Indian Ocean and also the Chinese attempt to ‘encircle’ India.

However, it will be useful to examine the MSR through the prism of maritime infrastructure development and explore if India can leverage the MSR to its advantage. China has developed a sophisticated concept of marine economy that has been facilitated by its long coastline. Nearly 40 per cent of the Chinese population, 5 per cent of cities, 70 per cent of GDP, 84 per cent of direct foreign investment and export products are generated within 200 km of coast. In 1998, the Chinese government published a White Paper on marine economy which identified twenty different sectors for the development of the national economy. The China Ocean Information Center announced that the marine output in 2013 grew 7.6 per cent year on year to 5.43 trillion Yuan ($ 876 billion) accounting for 9.5 per cent of the national economy. In essence, the coastal provinces have contributed substantially to the overall national strength in terms of economic growth and play an important role in developing an export-oriented economy.

Today, China figures among the top countries in shipbuilding, ports (particularly container cargo), shipping, development of offshore resources, inland waterways, marine leisure tourism, and not to forget it is one of the top suppliers of human resources who are employed by international shipping companies.

mahinda-rajapakse-backs-chinas-maritime-silk-road-projectChina’s shipbuilding capacity is notable and is supported by plentiful of cheap labour and domestic ancillary industry which is endowed with exceptional engineering skills. Seven of the top ten global container ports are in China and the Chinese shipping fleet of 6,427 vessels ranks second behind Japan with 8,357 ships. Similar successes are seen in China’s fisheries production which is projected to reach about 69 metric tonnes by 2022 and it will continue to be top world exporter with 10 metric tonnes by 2022. Likewise, China ranked third as a tourist destination in 2012. The coastal regions are dotted with marinas, water sport parks and beach resorts and Sanya, Qingdao and Xiamen are home to the growing yacht and luxury boating industry.

These capabilities have been built over the past few decades and has placed China among the major maritime powers of the world and top Asian maritime powers – beating both Japan and South Korea. China is leveraging these capabilities and offering to develop maritime infrastructure in friendly countries that are willing to accept the offer – which at times makes an attractive investment opportunity, and can help these exploit the seas to enhance economic growth, and ensure food and energy security.

There is a sea change in the maritime strategic thinking of China and India. While the former has harnessed the seas to build its power potential, the latter needs to undertake a strategic evaluation of its maritime potential. India needs to make major policy changes to develop maritime infrastructure, offshore resources and exploit these on a sustainable basis. Although India is pursuing the path of building a modern three-dimensional navy with nuclear submarines, a new appreciation of the multifaceted maritime economic activity needs New Delhi’s attention.

India lacks maritime infrastructure and technology to exploit offshore marine organic, mineral and hydrocarbon resources that are critical to ensure sustained economic growth – which is high on the current government’s agenda. It would therefore be prudent to understand the MSR through the prism of an opportunity.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is the Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Indian Navy or National Maritime Foundation. He can be reached at director.nmf@gmail.com. This article was cross-posted by permission and appeared in its original form at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies

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Call for Articles: Forgotten Naval Strategists Week

CIMSEC will soon run a series dedicated to expanding the naval canon entitled “Forgotten Naval Strategists”. From September 30 until October 5 (or when we run out of articles), we want to discover and explore the ideas and works of naval strategists whose names remain largely unknown. Articles are due to “Nextwar(at)cimsec.org” by 26 September.

In an article published in July I argued that a founding manuscript of the naval studies lore is absent in the historiography. Oliveira’s 1555 “The Art of War at Sea” remains unknown to many navalists, including some in his own country: Portugal. The larger and unwritten argument in that piece was that many other works remain unmentioned in the debate. Simply put, these are the works that never make it to the syllabi of naval war colleges.

This series aims to raise awareness to these lesser known strategists and their contributions to the theory of maritime power. If we are to grasp the growing complexity of human activities at sea, from the sea, and through the sea, we have a professional as well as moral duty to look beyond the horizon and expand our intellectual toolkit to devise new solutions to deal with maritime problems.

This upcoming quest to expand our knowledge of forgotten naval strategists echoes two previous calls made elsewhere in the blogosphere. First, the good folks at Kings of War had an article a few years ago asking which country had produced the greatest strategists. In the comments section, many people jumped into the discussion and took some liberties to mention unsung heroes. Second, James Holmes’ The Naval Diplomat had a series of controversial articles asking whether America still had any naval strategists. These  two articles give us some hints about the way in which a debate about expanding the naval canon should be conducted and we urge you to read them too.

To conclude, submissions must focus on one strategist whose work, for whatever reason, goes unappreciated in current naval debates. As an example, contributions by strategists from Italy, India, China, Brazil, Japan, among other countries, are most welcomed. The challenge is to identify a theoretical contribution, either a specific concept or a broad formulation, that helps us understand maritime strategy. To put it bluntly, we don’t want yet another piece explaining why everyone should read Mahan or Corbett; we know that already. We also don’t want an eulogy for an admiral’s feats in battle. Remember, it’s all about their intellectual contributions to the study of maritime strategy!

Series title: “Forgotten Naval Strategists”
Due Date: September 26
Due to: Nextwar(at)cimsec.org
Running: September 30 – October 5
Format: 500-2000 words

Epic writer Luís Camões salvages his masterpiece "Os Lusíadas" from a shipwreck. Watercolour by Francisco de Resende (1867)
Epic writer Luís de Camões salvages his masterpiece “Os Lusíadas” from a shipwreck. Watercolour by Francisco de Resende (1867)
President

Assessing the President’s ISIL Speech as Strategic Communication

This piece was written in response to the Presidential address on ISIL and as part of our Strategic Communications week.

13 years ago America woke up to the Long War. September 10th was a sadly appropriate time for the President to address the continuation of the conflict: ISIL – the message of the speech was that this Long War will continue to be so.

As a piece of strategic communication, the speech laid out something best said by .38 Special:

Just hold on loosely
But don’t let go
If you cling too tightly
You’re gonna lose control
Your baby needs someone to believe in
And a whole lot of space to breathe in

The president’s intent was to explain the threat of ISIL, then walk the fine line of both destroying ISIL and avoiding the entanglement he sees in America’s thirteen years of ground war. In short, America will destroy ISIL, but America will not be the one to destroy ISIL – America will look to Arab partners, the Iraqi military, and the Syrian opposition, with the support of American advisers and airpower.

Let’s go into the details of looking at this speech, not for the policy, but as a piece of strategic communication.

To Everyone:
ISIL Is a Threat & Will Be Destroyed

While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners, including Europeans and some Americans, have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.

This was considered by many the President’s moment to explain, particularly to the American people, explicitly the threat posed by ISIL, which he did by drawing the thread between opportunity, capability, and intent: the proven brutality and capability of ISIL, the stated aims, and their ability to get people of bad intent to us. This was likely aimed at European audiences as well.

I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are… This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

That message and its purpose probably doesn’t need any explanation.

To Middle Eastern Actors in General :
We’ll Be
Holding On Loosely

This is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region…
…This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partners’ forces on the ground.

Whether we can rely on the emergence of an enemy’s enemies coalition or an inclusive Iraqi government is to be seen, but this speech was likely meant as a final signalling to those in and around this cross-border conflict that the US will not be the one to “contain” this situation, and that the ongoing proxy war may threaten to consume all of them.  The thinking may be that regional actors, once realizing the US will not “swoop in” will turn upon this conflict’s most disturbing symptom rather than each other.

No particular partners are mentioned other than the new Iraqi government, Kurdish Forces, and the vague “Syrian opposition” – the particulars of a specific Syrian opposition group, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and many of the gulf states who choose to playing a part in extending this crisis are left out. This is likely on purpose, requiring no explanations of whose name was said, left out, or why.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

This is a side note to the more general trend, but the division of Iraqi and Kurdish forces should be recognized in the language. This could be a natural result of the bifurcation of the two forces’ effort in fighting and the desire to recognize the enormous contribution of the Kurds or a more subtle political intent.

To Congress:
But We Won’t Let Go

We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter terrorism strategy.

That the US is now firmly aimed at ISIL and alot of resources, thought not troops, will be aimed in their direction. This not surprise to anyone – more importantly, the president communicated two specific points to Congress: he needed not seek their specific approval, but wanted to engage them & desperately wishes for them to expand their engagement in Syria.

I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger…
…It was formerly al-Qaida’s affiliate in Iraq and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border.

This is pretty clear – some have speculated the president would seek Congress’s approval. He, fairly safely, presumes to tacitly have it amidst the unclear debate some are having on whether he needs it explicitly. Likely, this is also why he mentioned ISIL’s association with al-Qaida.

Tonight, I again call on Congress, again, to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people — a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost.

Here the President is extending the discussion from earlier discussions on involvement in Syria – this is a point he does not plan on giving up, though in this speech it was buried in the larger narrative of his over-arching strategy. Having previously discussed the brutality of ISIL, he wishes to show how Assad cannot be a partner in their defeat – having already shown the same brutality. Realists would debate this point – but the president illustrates throughout the speech an intent to engage soft power and counter ideology.  This will be something he will continue to push in the future.

To the American People:
Won’t Cling Too Tightly, and Lose Control

The president is trying to establish certain foundational points here with the American people for their support:

As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission. We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq…
…I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.

1.) The US will not go full-bore into this conflict, “returning” or being “dragged” back into what they’ve been used to for a decade. This was the great fear when the Syria debate arose, and one the President would like to avoid. This is likely meant to “cut off at the pass” the likely debate of mission creep, or at least hold off discussion and a potential negative consensus if it does happen.

We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm…
…It will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL.

2.) Keeping expectations realistic. The strategy laid-out is, indeed, a long one – and the statement that “we can’t erase every trace of evil from the world” is an acceptance that many more like-threats will come in the future. The President likely wishes to avoid any sense of triumphalism or expectation of a quick victory that will later be dashed and undermine support for the mission.

…any time we take military action, there are risks involved, especially to the servicemen and -women who carry out these missions.

3.) This is to set up the expectation of risk – with personnel in-theater and aircraft overhead, any discussion of this being “low risk” would immediately undermine the mission if/when our people are killed/kidnapped by ISIL or if an aircraft were to go down.  The reality-check on the longevity and risk of this conflict up front may not create the initial surge of support, but will create a more sturdy and realistic appreciation for what we’re doing that may last longer.

To Middle Easterners & Potential Western ISIL “Converts”:
Middle East has America to believe in,
But whole lot of space to breathe in.

As stated throughout the speech—the United States is committed to the region, but the dialogue of “airpower”, standoff “counter-insurgency”, and advisors is to push the narrative that the US will not be occupiers again. This is likely a long-shot attempt to communicate to those on the fence about ISIL or worried about “western imperailism.” Part of that denial of a “imperialist” or “holy war” narrative is also the continued emphasis the United States is placing on ISIS not being “Islamic” and the United States not being at war with Islam. It is unlikely that this message would reach anyone in the conflict zone.

It may, however, be for those in Western Nations or more stable neighbors to the conflict who would follow ISIL’s new social media campaign into the maw of jihad, as Anwar al-Alwaki convinced some westeners to do.

Overall:

Some will argue with the strategy itself, as well as the accuracy/value of allusions to Somalia and Yemen (as I sit here watching talking heads on CNN), but as a piece of stand-alone strategic communication for the plan being put forward, the speech was a straight-forward. It clearly illustrates the reasons the US is engaged with ISIL and the commitment of the US to its own safety, as well as a commitment to allies -willing- to commit to their own safety,

Few communications are more “strategic” than those that come from the Bully Pulpit, and this was a solid piece of that kind of communication. Whether this 80’s classic of “Hold on Loosely, But Don’t Let Go,” is right plan for the US? That is for us to argue and, as time goes on, see.

Matthew Hipple is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content and an officer in the United States Navy. His opinions do not reflect those of the US Government, Department of Defense, or US Navy – even if they ARE very good opinions.

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Military Strategy for a Twitter War

This article was written for our Strategic Communications Week.

It’s been clear for years now that Twitter, and social media writ large, have become battlespaces, where success is measured one retweet at a time. In 2012, ISAF and the Taliban went after each other in a tit-for-tat that sparked headlines like “NATO, Taliban take war to Twitter.”

Or take the example of the current conflict in Iraq, and ISIS’s (or ISIL’s) sophisticated recruiting campaign that The Guardian dubbed “Jihadi Cool.”

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the number of fighters ISIS has recruited via social media, the mass reach of its message is undeniable. The gruesome executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff first appeared on social media sites, including Twitter and YouTube, and became headline news in a matter of hours.

The U.S. has put its weight behind a social media offensive of its own, and it’s important to note that both sides are taking the social media front seriously. ISIS employs advanced tools, like an app called “Dawn” that autotweets pro-ISIS messages from users that download it, and effective techniques, like hashtagging key phrases, to centralize the group’s message. Both aspects are weapons in the war for influence, and the most influential organizations should be taking notes.

Unfriended: The Challenges of Military Social Media Strategy

Military action and information operations have gone hand in hand since the dawn of warfare. Given the ubiquity of social media, taking IO to the social battlespace seems logical and necessary, but several issues make that leap a tricky act.

First is the “P word” – Propaganda, which gets thrown around every time the military forays into the world of mass messaging. Take the example of DARPA’s study of social networks. Since its start in 2011, the dryly named Social Media in Strategic Communications (SMISC) program has been scrutinized by the media as the groundwork for a social media propaganda machine. Even under the most noble pretenses- protecting troops in the field by studying social media cues, the negative connotations of government snooping on social networks, especially in a post-Snowden era, are good enough reasons for some organizations to limit their involvement with social media.

After Facebook’s psychological experiments on users surfaced in July 2014, The Guardian was quick to draw connections between Facebook’s widely disparaged study and DARPA’s SMISC. The smart defense media planner should take these comparisons into context, or otherwise risk losing valuable messaging opportunities.

A second challenge to military social media strategy is one that not all militaries face. If you’re part of the Israeli Defense Force, you have no problems tweeting the following:

Now if you’re tweeting on behalf of the U.S. military, you just can’t do this. Whereas the IDF has defined itself as a do-anything-to-win organization, the U.S. military places a great deal of effort into avoiding the perception as a killing force. Any media strategy must draw from the organization’s values, and for the U.S. military that means centering its tweets around the values of professionalism, leadership, and technical know-how.

Built to Share = Wider Influence

So amidst the perils of doing social media wrong, who’s doing it right? The first lesson comes from none other than the IDF, which crafts media products that are built for sharing. Their graphics and videos are visually engaging, easily understood, and as a result, perfect for passing on to Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and Youtube subscribers.

The idea that social media products should be shareable isn’t exactly a revelation in strategic communications, but too often, organizations fail to execute on the concept. Take PACOM’s Twitter feed (@PACOM), for example, which is so littered with acronyms and military jargon that it takes a professional military education to understand it. More jargon means a disengaged audience, which in turn means fewer shares and limited distribution.

Promoters, Millions of Them

The second lesson comes from ISIS, which relies on a network of outsiders to promote its material. Instead of a single source as the monolithic voice of the organization, multiple authors carry the water for ISIS. This distributed model lends the appearance of authenticity. It also creates a huge problem for the people attempting to control the spread of ISIS’s messages. Blocking offending users as they pop up becomes a challenge, and squashing violent statements on Twitter brings up meaty questions regarding free speech that are yet to be answered.

While militaries are built on authorities, and their communications strategies on official statements and messaging, the truth of the matter is that in social media, the official line is only the beginning of a discussion. Military topics draw crowds of commentators, and more than ever, official posts should be considered no more  than starting references for all of the conversations to follow.

The Serious Business of Social

A February 2014 Reuters study found that 57% of Facebook users and 50% of Twitter users had discovered, shared, or discussed a news story on the sites in the previous week. Internationally, the number of users who get their news (and arguably, their opinions) from social media will continue to increase, as will the opportunities for the most responsive organizations to communicate their messages in that domain.

Gaining the upper hand in social media requires interest and resources, but the alternative is being left out of the discussion. In strategic terms, that’s handing the initiative to your enemy.

Figure 3: The location and severity of piracy incidents in the South China Sea.

Piracy in the South China Sea: Petty Theft in Indonesia, Kidnapped Ships in Malaysia

By Sarah Schoenberger

Armed with AK47s and equipped with GPS devices, modern pirates pose a serious non-traditional security threat to all seafaring nations, their people, and economies. In 2012, five crew members were killed in pirate attacks, 14 wounded, and 313 kidnapped; and the world economy lost about US$6 billion through disrupted maritime logistic chains, higher insurance premiums, and longer shipping times. While most associate piracy with hijacked ships and abandoned crews around Somalia, the area with the most pirate attacks in recent years has been the South China Sea. While the most severe attacks here occur primarily in Malaysia, 78 percent of the incidents in 2012 took place at Indonesian ports and concerned small cases of petty theft.

This analysis is based on data by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN specialized agency for maritime security. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines piracy as an illegal act of violence committed for private ends by the crew or passengers of a ship or aircraft against another ship or aircraft on the high seas; the IMO extends this definition to include “armed robbery against ships”—pirate attacks within a state’s territorial sea.

According to the IMO, piracy worldwide has risen substantially since 1994 with incident peaks of about 470 and 550 in 2000 and 2011, respectively (see Figure 1). This is primarily due to the exponential increase of global shipping in the course of globalization—leading to 80 percent of world trade being shipped across oceans today—with which opportunities for piracy increased likewise. The real number of pirate attacks are thereby even higher: An estimated two-thirds of all pirate attacks remain unreported, as shipping companies skirt the bad publicity, higher insurance premiums, and investigation delays that come with reporting incidents.

With the exception of 2007 to 2012, when piracy in East Africa experienced a sharp increase, the South China Sea has been the most piracy-prone region in the world, with up to 150 attacks per year. Why? First, about 30 percent of global maritime trade passes through the region, so opportunities for attacks are plenty. Second, the area’s geographical features foster piracy, as the island chains and small rocks constitute ideal hiding places, while the narrow passages facilitate attacks. Third, unresolved territorial issues and lack of agreed jurisdiction, particularly around the Spratley and Paracel Islands, complicate maritime enforcement and patrols and thus facilitate illegal activities at sea.

While pirate attacks in the South China Sea are spread across the entire area, the majority happen around Indonesia: Of 85 incidents with a known location in 2012, 66 occurred in Indonesia, 10 in Malaysia, 3 in the Philippines, 2 in Singapore and 4 in Vietnam. Indonesia’s geographical features and the increased efforts of Malaysia and Singapore to combat piracy in the Strait of Malacca explain the predominance in Indonesia. Here, efforts to fight piracy are weak, cooperation of corrupt port officials is high, and punishment for piracy rather light.

In Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, most attacks occur at ports, whereas none happened in the Singaporean port. In Malaysia, the majority of incidents occurred on the high seas (see Figure 2). Taken together, this leads to a regional average of 67 percent ‘port-attacks’ in 2012, while only 13 percent happened on the high seas. In this regard, the South China Sea is distinct compared to the rest of the world, where more than a third of all pirate attacks are committed on the high seas.

To know more about the nature of the incidents in the different countries, the severity of the attacks can be calculated. Taking the four variables, (A) number of pirates taking part in an attack, (B) weapons used, (C) content stolen, and (D) amount of violence employed, the grade of severity is established by scaling the four variables appropriately (0.5A-2B-2C-3D), using them as axes in a four-dimensional coordinate plane and employing a point-distance formula of the point A/B/C/D to the origin.

Figure 1: Yearly statistics of piracy incidents worldwide since 1948. Source: IMO, 2012.
Figure 1: Yearly statistics of piracy incidents worldwide since 1948. Source: IMO, 2012.

Linking the severity with the location of attacks yields the map in Figure 3 (the larger the bubble, the more severe the attack; when several attacks of different severity took place in the same location, they are marked by black lines). While no hot spot is obvious, it is apparent that attacks in vicinity of Malaysia and Singapore were more severe (at an average severity of 37.5 and 34, respectively, on a scale from 8.5 to 59.5), while the mildest ones occurred in Indonesia at 24. The Philippines and Vietnam range in the middle at 29.5 and 26.7.

Comparing the severity with the area of attack in the different countries, two types of piracy become apparent. The first one is exemplified by attacks in Indonesia, which occur at ports and are not that severe. These are usually carried out by four pirates armed with knives, guns, or machetes; they target the crew’s personal belongings and the ship’s stores without employing much violence. These attacks can be characterized as low-profile piracy, which is generally conducted by un(der)employed fishermen or idle dock workers. As they lack resources, the attacks are ill-organized and opportunistic and exercised where security measures are low, law enforcement weak, and the concentration of shipping high.

Figure 2: Occurrences in the South China Sea according to country and area.
Figure 2: Occurrences in the South China Sea according to country and area.

In contrast, severe high-profile piracy occurs primarily on the high seas. It is carried out by well-organized international piracy syndicates, which have substantial means at their disposal and use modern techniques and equipment. In the South China Sea, this type of high-profile piracy is most evident in Malaysia. On average, these are carried out by 11 pirates armed with knives and guns; they hijack the ship and take the crew hostage or abandon it in life rafts.

The most self-evident explanation for the difference of low- and high-profile piracy in Indonesia and Malaysia is the disparity in living standards and wealth. In Indonesia, where the GDP per capita was US$5,100 in 2012, piracy attacks are much more likely to be motivated by poverty. Local fishermen do not have the means, or the motivation, to conduct high-profile attacks, but simply seek money and food—making Indonesian piracy less severe. In Malaysia, with a GDP per capita of US$17,200 in 2012, poverty is not as high and there is less necessity for fishers to conduct low-scale piracy attacks in order to survive. Instead, piracy attacks here are conducted by organized crime syndicates, entail much more criminal energy, and are more severe. Other factors that have an impact on the prevalent type of piracy include the amount of port security measures, the degree of law enforcement, and the strength of penalties.

Figure 3: The location and severity of piracy incidents in the South China Sea.
Figure 3: The location and severity of piracy incidents in the South China Sea.

Understanding the nature of piracy in the South China Sea leads to several implications for its combat. As most attacks happen in harbors, increased port and ship security measures would be highly effective in reducing the number of these incidents. In addition, stricter law regulation and enforcement mechanisms, as well as training for local port officials would be useful. Both these measures should be conducted in multilateral settings, like regional Piracy Law Dialogues or Conferences. They should include regional government officials, legal experts, representatives from the IMO and IMB, the shipping community, and other non-regional states with an interest in combating piracy in the South China Sea.

To address the cases on the high seas, any military mission patrolling the waters and accompanying ships (such as the successful NATO Operation Ocean Shield in the Gulf of Aden) would be highly controversial and inadvisable due to the possible escalation of territorial tensions. Instead, a joint coast guard system with common patrols could be much more effective.

For a country-specific course of action, the incidents in the respective country should be analyzed more closely, looking inter alia at the specific locations of the attacks with their surrounding circumstances and the general structure of criminality in the country. Nevertheless, based on the results of this analysis, piracy in the South China Sea in general can be much reduced if the root causes of unemployment and poverty in Indonesia are addressed. Through the depletion of resources, limitation of fishing grounds due to territorial tensions, and competition from large international fisheries that outclass them in the open sea, local fishermen can no longer sustain themselves by their livelihood. Facing a dearth of other employment opportunities, there is often little choice but to commit low-scale opportunistic crimes around harbors—and thereby become pirates.

Sarah Schoenberger is a postgraduate student of International Affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Peking University in Beijing. Her focus is on security studies and East Asia. This article appeared in its original form at the Indo-Pacific Review and was republished by permission.

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