The U.S. and China Can and Should Work Together to Improve African Maritime Security

China USA Maritime Security Africa

On August 3 and 4, One Earth Future in partnership with The Carter Center and the Chinese Institutes for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) hosted representatives from China, the United States, and several East African  countries in Djibouti to discuss opportunities for trilateral cooperation in promoting African security and development. I was invited to discuss the potential for greater trilateral cooperation around African maritime security. The following is adapted from my remarks.

Thank you for this opportunity to introduce and discuss an important topic: the potential for improved cooperation and coordination between the United States, China, and African countries around issues relating to African maritime security.

I am here in my capacities as the Associate Director of Research at One Earth Future and as the director of our Stable Seas initiative. We are working to understand and assist in the elimination of the illicit maritime activities that contribute to organized political violence and undermine good governance and economic development. The United States, China, and African states share common interests in the promotion of freedom of maritime navigation, safe shipping, and sustainable economic development in marine and coastal areas. These common interests can be the foundation for fruitful cooperation around addressing these issues .

The illicit activities plaguing African waters and undermining regional political and economic development include piracy and armed robbery at sea; illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; and the smuggling and trafficking of weapons, drugs, wildlife, contraband of all kinds, and, of course, migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, sufferers of forced labor, and victims of the sex trade.

Furthermore, the perpetrators of these activities exploit coastal areas and ports, increasing the vulnerability of coastal populations, contributing to port corruption, and obstructing the development of legal “blue economy” industries like offshore oil and gas development, coastal tourism, sustainable fisheries, and the transoceanic transport of legal exports and imports.

These problems have consequences that reach far into the continent’s interior. Africa’s coastlines and territorial waters are where inland challenges like the mining of conflict minerals, the poaching of exotic wildlife, and flows of persons displaced by civil conflict become maritime challenges and, subsequently, global challenges. Africa’s coasts are where challenges emerging elsewhere, such as the global trades in South Asian opiates and South American cocaine, become Africa’s challenges.

It is clear, then, that the maritime frontier that envelops the African continent is of the utmost importance to the world and worthy of our consideration as an arena for improved international cooperation. There are abundant opportunities for better alignment of American, Chinese, and African efforts. Alignment will be necessary because the challenge is formidable.

Two concepts explain the root of the challenge of maritime insecurity in African waters: adaptability and displacement. Stated simply, the crimes I have mentioned require similar, though not identical, vessels, seafaring skills, crews, and equipment, as well as networks of transnational illicit actors, corruptible government officials, and other maritime enforcement actors. This means illicit actors operating in this region can transition between specific illicit activities with relative ease, always seeking opportunities where the profits to be gained most clearly outweigh the associated risks and costs.

We have seen this here in the Gulf of Aden, where coordinated counterpiracy initiatives sharply increased the costs and risks of piracy. Concurrently, the devastating war in Yemen also provided new lucrative opportunities to profit from crime at sea. Piracy has sharply declined in this region. Coordination between African states, the United States, and China made a significant contribution to this success. But, not coincidentally, these illicit networks are still present. This decrease in piracy and armed robbery at sea has been mirrored by a rise in transoceanic smuggling and trafficking in arms and refugees. The adaptability of the bad actors in the region means a decline in piracy does not necessarily indicate a decline in maritime crime. Illicit actors adapt and the scourge of piracy can return again, and quickly, if the benefits outweigh the costs and the profit margins are sufficient.

Contrast this adaptability with the relative rigidity and inflexibility of our efforts to stop these crimes. Our institutions have mandates and mission statements and we have strong incentives to define and address specific problems. Fisheries issues belong to fisheries ministries, environmental non-governmental organizations, INTERPOL, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and others. Drug trafficking falls under the purview of other actors, like international navies, local coast guards, trade and customs authorities, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Different agencies and institutions work on the smuggling and trafficking of persons. Still others focus more narrowly on infrastructure development, port management, oil and gas development, and marine pollution. As these mandates are public, the resulting blind spots and areas of conflicting authority are abundantly clear to illicit actors.

Given this context, it is not at all surprising to see that illicit actors can exploit poor inter-agency and inter-governmental coordination. Consider the number of agencies and institutions that would be interested in a very plausible scene in the Western Indian Ocean: an unregulated fishing vessel in a vast ocean of unregulated fishing vessels transits between ports, going unrecorded and undetected, carrying South Asian opiates in the freezer, crewed by Southeast Asian victims of modern slavery, possibly hiring a small group of former pirates to provide security. Drug authorities face an impossible challenge if fishing vessels are not regulated. Fishing regulation is nearly impossible without good port management and improved maritime domain awareness. Reducing slavery at sea requires the cooperation of governments on the other side of the ocean. Successfully overcoming all of these challenges would close an income opportunity for former pirates and increase the pull of a return to piracy.

The point I am driving at here is that because of the adaptability of illicit networks operating in the African maritime space, uncoordinated efforts are unlikely to generate sustainable improvement in maritime security. Instead, they are likely to cause what criminologists call displacement. Narrow efforts to address one problem in one space will shift illicit activity to a new blind spot in a new geography or a new issue area. If law enforcement duties in a city were divided across so many institutions with so many different mandates, we could imagine great progress on an effort to stop bank robbery, narrowly defined, though such a narrow strategy would be likely to result in increased attempts against other less-protected targets in the city . This is the kind of problem we face at sea and this is why there is a real need to coordinate international efforts to improve African maritime security.

Having defined the problem, I would like to highlight four themes that could be useful for identifying opportunities for future coordination of African, American, and Chinese efforts.

Recognizing Common Areas of Priority

First, we are all aware that there are some differences of opinion between the states here. Some of these differences relate to maritime issues of considerable importance. But working together on African maritime security does not require complete agreement between the United States and China on other issues in other oceans. In the African context, the United States and China have several common goals. Narrowing our focus on those goals without conflating them with issues elsewhere will create opportunities to address common areas of priority.

The United States and China have already coordinated counterpiracy activities, but they also share interests in the free transit of commercial shipping through the region’s many shipping chokepoints. Both countries have an interest in maritime-related fraud and cyber security. Both countries have fisheries industries that will suffer if the oceans are overfished and unregulated to the verge of economic and ecological collapse.

Fortunately, the United States and China produce the assets needed to make progress against these problems. It was recently reported that these two countries alone possess nearly two-thirds of the world’s capacity to generate innovations in artificial intelligence, remote sensing, big data processing, and machine learning. If the United States and China can harness these technologies without unnecessary duplication of effort, these tools can assist African countries in monitoring and regulating an enormous maritime space. This cannot happen unless these countries set aside differences arising from elsewhere and focus on a mutual interest in improving conditions in African waters.

Concentrating on Demand-Side Reforms

Second, our economies, legal and illicit, are connected through global markets. The United States and China could make good progress toward improving African maritime security without deploying more resources to Africa. The cocaine transshipment trade that has ravaged much of West Africa largely exists to serve Western markets. The exotic wildlife products that threaten the survival of rare species are not poached for African consumers. The conflict minerals that are derived from Africa are not smelted there.

Demand for these goods exists in the United States, China, and in these countries’ many allies and trading partners. The United States and China can work together to obstruct these global black markets, change consumer norms, and improve best practices. Using better technology to regulate transoceanic trade and tighten port security in American and Chinese ports could cripple illicit economies in everything from fisheries to pharmaceuticals, or from conflict cobalt to cocaine. Black markets seek the weakest regulations and political will, so unilateral action is rarely sufficient to change incentives at the African point of origin. If the United States and China can coordinate, they could make considerable progress toward eliminating the profitability, and, in effect, the existence of these trades that are harming African maritime and port security.

Support African Leadership

Third, prioritization is made easier by the fact that African states are well-organized around maritime security issues of African concern. The United States and China need not define an agenda and seek partners who share that agenda. African states have cooperated extensively around African maritime security and African priorities are well-defined and formalized. Foreign partners can work through strong, emerging transnational arrangements like the Yaoundé Code of Conduct for the greater Gulf of Guinea and the Djibouti Code of Conduct that covers the western Indian Ocean region. The African Union is also working on a continent-wide Lomé Charter, and the continent has an extensive long-term integrated maritime security plan called AIMS 2050.

Cooperative regional institutions for maritime security are as developed here as they are in many other regions. Working with them would be more beneficial than bringing in a new maritime security agenda defined from abroad with incomplete buy-in from Africa’s many littoral countries. Future meetings on trilateral cooperation should include these institutions.

Being Mindful of Second-Order Effects

And finally, American and Chinese cooperation in Africa must be cognizant of unintended second-order effects. Interventions in areas like counter-piracy and port development implicate many other maritime security issues. This is exactly what we are studying with our Stable Seas initiative.

What are pirates likely to do if piracy is deterred by American or Chinese intervention? Are there predictable consequences, such as increased port crime, more frequent armed robbery in anchorage, or increased piracy in other regions? Can the United States and China preempt these negative second-order effects?

China and the United States seek economic development in coastal areas and offshore oil and gas production. Does sufficient forethought go toward the implications for human trafficking and migration? A new port project today can be a magnet for sex trafficking tomorrow. African maritime security will be improved if foreign partners can look below the “tip of the iceberg” and intervene before negative and predictable second-order effects occur.

These are already difficult and important problems that are worthy of concentrated and coordinated American, Chinese, and African attention. They will only become more important in the future. Demographers project that within our lifetimes the global population center will shift sharply toward the Indian Ocean basin and sub-Saharan Africa. By 2050, Lagos is projected to be larger than Tokyo and New York. Cairo will be larger than Shanghai and Sao Paulo. Khartoum and Dar es Salaam will both be larger than Beijing. By the end of the century, the majority of the world’s twenty largest megacities will be African.

This demographic and economic boom will bring new opportunities and challenges, many occurring in the maritime domain. The geography will not appreciably change and Africa will continue to send and receive most goods through transoceanic transportation. The vast but untapped offshore oil and gas deposits will shift into production. The pressure on Africa’s fisheries will grow. As Africa grows wealthier, smuggling networks will increasingly see Africa as a destination market instead of a point of origin or transshipment. That will complicate any efforts to intervene in these trades.

For these reasons it is important to establish strong norms of trilateral cooperation, coordination, and communication now. This should be a high priority for future American and Chinese efforts in Africa. The global importance of the African maritime domain and the shared interests in freedom of navigation and the sustainable use of Africa’s resources, existing American and Chinese resources like the bases here in Djibouti, and well-established African-led institutions capable of defining and legitimizing an agenda all combine to make maritime security an optimal focus area for improved great-power cooperation in and around Africa.