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date: 23 March 2017

Maritime Piracy and Foreign Policy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

With piracy in the Greater Gulf of Aden seemingly eradicated, some analysts have suggested that attacks against shipping no longer remain a salient global security concern. Indeed, the number of attacks attributable to Somali pirates dropped dramatically from 2011 to 2015, and small private maritime security firms have begun to go out of business as demand for armed guards on ships has diminished. But recent increases off the coast of Nigeria and around the Straits of Malacca confirm that the threat has not been entirely eliminated. In fact, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines recently agreed to conduct coordinated naval patrols to stem the rise of attacks in and around their waters, and some Indonesian elites warn that the problem will only grow worse. While the international community mounted a significant counter-piracy response to attacks in the Greater Gulf of Aden, beginning in 2009, and shipping companies started to implement protective measures to safeguard their transports, piracy endures because the conditions driving it persist. Successful attacks against ships produce sizeable payoffs and the risk of capture remains low in most places. Further, the continued presence of fragile governments, corrupt elites, joblessness, and illegal foreign fishing ensure that pirates will continue to pose a threat to marine traffic.

Current research efforts focus on the micro-level drivers of pirate attacks. While structural (country-level) indicators of poverty and institutional fragility correlate with piracy, local conditions on land proximate to anchorages and shipping lanes where incidents occur will likely provide additional leverage in explaining where pirates locate and why piracy endures. Existing research also suggests that piracy may be closely connected to armed insurgency. As rebels seek resources to help fund their anti-state or separatist campaigns, piracy, like gemstones, oil, and narcotics, may serve as a means to pay fighters and purchases weapons. Spatially and temporally disaggregated analyses as well as the synthesis of research on civil war and maritime piracy will open up new lines of inquiry into the relationship between lootable resources and armed conflict.