Maritime security

Maritime security is an umbrella term informed by security agendas to classify issues in the maritime domain that are often related to national security, marine environment, economic development, and human security.[1] The concept of maritime security is transformative and has evolved from a narrow perspective of national naval power projection towards a Buzzword that incorporates many interconnected sub-fields. The definition of the term maritime security depends greatly on the organisation (e.g. governmental, non-governmental, intergovernmental, or intragovernmental) using it. While no internationally agreed on definition exists, the term has often been used to describe new regional and international challenges to the maritime domain. The buzzword character enables international actors to discuss these new challenges without the need to define every potentially contested aspect of it.[2] The sea is a central space for maritime security and has been widely understood as a “stage for geopolitical power projection, interstate warfare or militarized disputes, as a source of specific threats such as piracy, or as a connector between states that enables various phenomena from colonialism to globalization”.[3]

Maritime Security is a concept related to the sea is often associated with four domains according to maritime security experts:[1]

  • National security: The traditional use of naval military power to defend commercial shipping lanes and the national territory.
  • Marine environment: Concerning environmental and safety regulation regarding marine pollution and health protection.
  • Economic development: Includes trade by sea, the exploitation of oil and other non-living resources, as well as fisheries.
  • Human Security: The absence of security (insecurity) of individuals, people in communities, or citizens of states.

These domains are characterized by being interconnected. Further they often go beyond the maritime domain itself (also known as liminality). Maritime security is often transnational (Transnationality) and characterized as being cross-jurisdictional and/or highly jurisdictional complex.[1]

The debate of what Maritime Security is and how it can be defined has until recently mainly been dominated by scholars that are attributed to the realist school of thought of International Relations (IR) (see Realist’ approach to Maritime Security). Another perspective that has heavily influenced the maritime security paradigm is the so called liberalist' school of thought in IR (see Liberalist’ approach to Maritime Security). More recently, constructivist scholars have been challenging the traditional and liberal views on Maritime Security (see Constructivist’ approach to Maritime Security).

History of the Maritime Security Concept

Historically, the sea has been subject to different concepts of law and power. The term mare nostrum (our sea in Latin) has been coined by the Romans in 30 BC to 117 AD as a term to describe its control of the Mediterranean Sea. From this concept of the sealing of a sea, the legal concept of mare clausum (closed sea in legal Latin) was developed during the Age of discovery between the 15th and 17th century. The sea became a restricted space, organised between Portugal and Spain. Maritime activity was exclusively reserved for the enhancement of national security through naval military.[4] In 1609, Hugo Grotius, a Dutch philosopher and jurist, published the book mare liberum where he introduced the concept of the free sea (mare liberum is translated to free sea in legal Latin). In his book, Grotius laid out the foundation of the freedom of navigation at sea. The sea was seen as international territory, where every nation was free to conduct trade.[5]

Grotius’ concept of the free sea was superseded by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This international agreement first came into effect in 1958 as the Convention on the High Seas (UNCLOS I). The most recent agreement is UNCLOS III, which is active since 1994. It now includes various zones and jurisdictions, including internal, territorial, and archipelagic waters. It further defines the exclusive sovereign waters of a state called contiguous zone, and the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in which a state has the sole exploitation rights of resources like oil and fish. The latter can be extended by the continental shelf, a natural prolongation of the territory of the respective state.[6] Maritime security has until then been mostly concerned with interstate naval conflicts and piracy at sea.

As a concept and agenda maritime security has evolved since the late 1990s and early 2000s. In particular concerns over terrorist attacks on port facilities sparked new security interests in the maritime domain. Notable events influencing the maritime security paradigm are the USS Cole bombing[7] in 2000 and the September 11 attacks in 2001.[4] Several states and international organisations have since outlined maritime security strategies. Many best practices and standards regarding physical maritime security like the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS-Code) from 2002 as a consequence of the attacks have been published by regulating authorities or the maritime industry.[8] In the light of the perceived terrorist threat, the scope of the maritime security concept began to broaden from the narrow focus on interstate military confrontation to include other issues.[9] (See also critical security studies)

It is in particular the surge of piracy during the early 2000s in Southeast Asia, off the coast of Somalia and in West Africa which has triggered recognition for the detrimental effects of maritime insecurities.[10] As a result of the economic costs for world trade and the physical threats to seafarers, maritime security gained a significant increase of attention by the shipping industry, insurers and policy makers around the world.[2] Piracy was also the starting point of many International Relations scholars for approaching maritime security as a concept.[4][10][11] The security agenda moved beyond the state as the only referent object to maritime security. In critical security studies this effect is called ‘deepening`[9] and leads for example to the increased attention to Human security and environmental security aspects of Somalian piracy.[10][11]

One effect of piracy has been the development of regional cooperation initiatives. In Southeast Asia for example, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCaap) has been initiated in 2004 and includes now an Information Sharing Centre (ISC). Besides Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) more topics began to become subject of these cooperation initiatives. The Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC), adopted in 2009, was originally an agreement on cooperation between East African and Southwest Asian states to counter piracy.[12] Since its revision and the complimentary Jeddah Amendment to the DCoC of 2017, it now also includes other illicit maritime activities than piracy like human trafficking or illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU).[13]

Theoretical Approaches to Maritime Security

Realist’ approach to Maritime Security

In the traditional realist school of thought of International Relations, maritime security is mainly regarded as a matter of sea power (also command of the sea). In peacetime, sea power is associated with countries securing the ability to conduct transport and trade via the sea. In wartime, sea power describes the agency of navies to attack other navies or other countries sea transportation means.[14]

One more recent definitions in realist’ thinking sees maritime security as “The protection of a state’s land and maritime territory, infrastructure, economy, environment and society from certain harmful acts occurring at sea”.[15] Some scholars then argue that maritime security can be classified into two different types, ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ security.[14]

‘Hard’ maritime security signifying sea power and domination of the sea and ‘soft’ maritime security being used for threats concerning “ocean resources, transportation and trade, and exchange of information”.[16]


Constructivist’ scholars have criticised this approach to maritime security where defining what a maritime security issue actually is, often becomes a collection of topics associated with threats in the maritime domain. When describing what actually entails maritime security, realists often simply list concepts that they include in their definition. The US Naval Operations Concept from 2006 for example listed “ensuring the freedom of navigation, the flow of commerce and the protection of ocean resources, as well as securing the maritime domain from nation-state threats, terrorism, drug trafficking and other forms of transnational crime, piracy, environmental destruction and illegal seaborne immigration[17] as the goal of maritime security. It is criticized, that this approach does not help when it comes to questions like prioritisation, relationship and links between these issues, or outlining how these issues can be addressed.[2]

Liberalist’ approach to Maritime Security

Central to the liberal school of thought approach in International Relations to maritime security is the regulation of the maritime domain.[3] Some legal scholars have defined maritime security as a “stable order of the oceans subject to the rule of law at sea”.[18] The liberalist’ approach emphasises that international law has been a means to transform the traditional way of countries power projection on the sea through their navies towards a cooperation in order to achieve common goals.[19] The focus of the liberal paradigm has been criticised as being mainly limited to technicalities and formalities of international law, but not helping understanding the governance aspects of maritime security that go beyond legal and normative regulation.[1]

Constructivist’ approach to Maritime Security

Constructivism is based on the notion, that security is a socially constructed concept. Rather than accepting maritime security as a given list of threats and means, the constructivist school of thought is interested in looking at the relations and how the concept of maritime security comes to be through actions, interactions and perceptions.[20] Constructivists’ look at how different understandings of maritime security are informed by different political interests and normative understandings.

Christian Bueger, an expert in Maritime Security and Professor of International Relations,[21] has proposed three frameworks for how to deconstruct concepts of maritime security by various actors: the maritime security matrix that helps conceptualise relations, the securitization framework that looks at claims that are being made in relation to maritime security, and practice theory to analyse what is actually being done in the name of maritime security.[2]

Maritime Security Matrix

The maritime security matrix looks at the semantic relations between maritime security and other maritime concepts (see also semiotics). Bueger proposes the use of four dimensions to relate and situate maritime security topics in and to the general concept of ‘maritime security’:

  • Marine Environment (e.g. connected to marine safety)
  • Economic Development (e.g. connected to blue economy)
  • National Security (e.g. connected to relation to seapower)
  • Human Security (e.g. connected to human trafficking)

A matrix could have each concept in a corner of a square, maritime security being situated in the centre. Depending on what is being analysed, concepts like human trafficking can then be situated e.g. between ‘Maritime Security’, ‘Human Security’, and ‘Economic Development’.[2]

Securitization Framework

Securitization is a framework of International Relations originally developed by Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan. Sometimes called the Copenhagen School, securitization looks at who is making claims (using some form of language) in the name of security to carryout measures that would otherwise not easily be justified and accepted.[22] For maritime security, Bueger suggests two ‘tracks’ or central questions for analysis:[2]

  • By which means does ‘the maritime’ become securitized?
  • How are issues securitized to become part of a security agenda?

Practice Theory

The framework of practice theory enables to analyse what kind of activities are actually conducted in the name of security. Practice in this theory is seen as patterns of doing and saying things that lead to the implementation of maritime security measures.[23] According to Bueger five practices fit within the conventional spectrum of maritime security:

  • Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA, see also Information Sharing Centre (ISC))
  • Activities at sea (e.g. patrols, inspections, exercises)
  • Law enforcement activities (e.g. arrests, trials and prosecutions)
  • Coordination activities (e.g. forums, conferences, harmonizing legal frameworks)
  • Naval diplomacy (e.g. capacity building, warfare) This type of activity might not be associated with maritime security, but rather with war or other related concepts.

These activities can be seen through two different perspective. The focus can either be laid on what activities belong to the everyday routine of maritime security actors or on the measures that are done in exceptional circumstances.[2]


  1. Bueger, Christian; Edmunds, Timothy (November 2017). "Beyond seablindness: a new agenda for maritime security studies". International Affairs. 93 (6): 1293–1311. doi:10.1093/ia/iix174.
  2. Bueger, Christian (March 2015). "What is maritime security?". Marine Policy. 53: 159–164. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2014.12.005.
  3. Bueger, Christian; Edmunds, Timothy (November 2017). "Beyond seablindness: a new agenda for maritime security studies". International Affairs. 93 (6): 1295 via Oxford Academic.
  4. Klein, Natalie (May 2011). Maritime Security and the Law of the Sea. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199566532.
  5. Grotius, Hugo (2004). Armitage, David (ed.). The Free Sea. Liberty Fund, Incorporated.
  6. Tanaka, Yoshifumi (2012). The International Law of the Sea. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Parfomak, Paul W.; Fritelli, John (2007). Maritime Security: Potential Terrorist Attacks and Protection Priorities. Library of Congress Washington DC Congressional Research Service.
  8. International Code for the Security of Ships and of Port Facilities (ISPS Code)
  9. Peoples, Columba; Vaughan-Williams, Nick (2015). Critical security studies, an introduction (Second ed.). London, New York: NY: Routledge.
  10. Onuoha, Freedom C. (September 2009). "Sea piracy and maritime security in the Horn of Africa : the Somali coast and Gulf of Aden in perspective : feature". African Security Review. 18 (3): 31–44. doi:10.1080/10246029.2009.9627540.
  11. Bueger, Christian (September 2014). "Piracy studies: Academic responses to the return of an ancient menace". Cooperation and Conflict. 49 (3): 406–416. doi:10.1177/0010836713484117.
  12. Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC) , 2009
  13. "Regional maritime piracy agreement broadened to cover other illicit maritime activity". International Maritime Organization (IMO). 13 January 2017.
  14. Till, Geoffrey (2018). Seapower : A Guide for the Twenty-First Century. Cass Series: Naval Policy and History ( ed.). Milton: Routledge.
  15. Klein, Natalie (2011). Maritime Security and the Law of the Sea. Oxford University Press. p. 11. ISBN 9780199566532.
  16. Klein, Natalie (2011). Maritime Security and the Law of the Sea. Oxford University Press. p. 7. ISBN 9780199566532.
  17. Naval Operations Concept 2006 (PDF). Chief of Naval Operations – Command of the Marine Corps. p. 14.
  18. Kraska, James; Pedrozo, Raul A. (2013). International Maritime Security Law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 1. ISBN 978-9004233560.
  19. Kaska, James; Pedrozo, Raul A. (2013). International Maritime Security Law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. ISBN 978-9004233560.
  20. Aradau, Claudia; Huysman, Jef; Neal, Andrew; Voelkner, Nadine, eds. (2015). Critical Security Methods. New Frameworks for Analysis. Abingdon: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-71294-1.
  21. Bueger, Christian. "CV".
  22. Buzan, Barry; Wæver, Ole; de Wilde, Jaap (1998). Security: a new framework for analysis. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers. ISBN 9781555877842.
  23. Bueger, Christian (2016). Balzaq, Thierry; Cavelty, Myriam D. (eds.). Security as Practice. Handbook of Security Studies. Routledge. pp. 126–135.
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