Insecurity is on the rise in the South China Sea. While all eyes are on the growing geopolitical tensions between the US and China around Beijing’s territorial and maritime claims, new types of threats are resurfacing: South Asian countries face piracy, and sea-borne crimes are increasing at an alarming rate. To further complicate matters, COVID-19 has impacted the ability of companies and agencies in the maritime space to transfer crews, enter ports, perform inspections on-site, and manage routine operation.
It is common knowledge that crisis breeds insecurity, and the lack of certainty has created an opportunity for criminals looking to exploit the situation further. It’s no coincidence that there are growing reports on piracy in West Africa and the Gulf of Mexico, while European authorities seized more than half a billion euros worth of narcotics in April and May alone coming by sea from South America. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published a report stating that COVID-19 is changing the route of illicit drug flows, specifically noting that “due to the pandemic, maritime routes seem to be increasingly used now to traffic.”
Organized crime activities, smuggling operations, drug transfers, and sanctions evasion are all on the rise worldwide, and the South China Sea is the epicenter of much of the maritime-related crime.
Reduced security due to COVID-19 alongside the political issues regarding jurisdiction created a vacuum for organized crime. The month of May alone saw a drastic surge in organized crime in all the South Asian countries in the area;
The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) launched Operation Benteng this past May, and between May 9th– May 14th, executed a large-scale narcotics raid during which 112kg of drugs were seized. On May 13th Hong Kong Customs reported a 255% increase in seized contraband goods. On May 22nd an alert was issued by the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) warning that the Islamist terror organization Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) begun operating in the maritime area of Malaysia, seeking kidnap and ransom opportunities.
During this time, the Philippines was combatting increased sophisticated smuggling operations, mainly targeting petroleum products, and Malaysia and Indonesia continued to fight illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in their respective waters as well as a spike in robberies at sea and port.
Governments have recognized the growing appeal of the seas during these unprecedented times, increasing their use of new technologies, drones – such as in the recent interception of the S. Petch Samut 1’ by the Royal Thai Navy – and other tools.
To effectively reduce crime rates and improve the governments’ ability to intercept criminals, vessel behavior must be analyzed at a larger scale to enable targeted predictive intelligence. Understanding vessel behavior in the South China Sea can help reduce crime rates, however, the ability to do so lies in the availability of information.
Pooling resources – intelligence and operational – can significantly increase security and enhance efficiencies on a national and international level. The sovereignty and territorial claims in the region negatively impact data sharing, leaving crucial information unshared between the surrounding nations.
While organizations such as the Information Fusion Centre (IFC) in Singapore are facilitating information sharing in the region, sharing sensitive information requires better frameworks and tools to generate a truly comprehensive overview of the criminal activity in the region.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) modeling can help Southeast Asian nations understand the state of the sea, enabling them to make decisions based on data. Factoring into consideration each individual vessel’s behavior, type of cargo on board, ports and docks visited in the past, routes sailed, cruising speed, and more, it is possible to use AI models to predict whether or not a vessel is engaging in illicit behavior.
However, for AI modeling to be effective, it is necessary to aggregate data collated from multiple sources to gain a complete overview of the safety of the sea. By considering all factors and using AI modeling, it is possible to improve mitigation, interception, and interdiction with greater confidence levels, optimizing security planning, and protecting the seas.
The maritime sovereignty issues in the region, alongside the global lock-downs and reduced security measures, have made crime particularly attractive in the past several months.
As tensions continue to rise and COVID-19’s disruption seems to have no end in sight, transnational crime rates will likely continue to rise and the South China Sea will continue being unmanned, creating a perfect opportunity for criminals to catch countries off-guard off-shore.
Countries in the South China Sea need to recognize that alone, they cannot truly ensure the safety of their citizens from piracy, smugglers, and other criminals at sea, especially at a time when resources are overstretched and human lives are already at risk. The only way for governments to succeed in thwarting crime and protecting their citizens is by collaborating on border protection, law enforcement, and information sharing.
By embracing a holistic and collaborative approach to security, information sharing, and operational efficiencies, governments can better manage their resources and keep their seas safer for their citizens.