The South China Sea is one of the most strategically important and highly contested regions in the world. Six different countries lay claim to maritime territory in the region, and it is also home to the second-most important choke point in the global oil trade. Maritime law enforcement cooperation in the Indo-Pacific has risen as a U.S. foreign policy priority. Within the State Department, INL has the largest foreign assistance budget, which it uses to combat transnational crime, address illicit drug challenges, and strengthen criminal justice institutions to reduce instability abroad.  

The Capstone team was tasked to identify the main maritime security challenges in the SCS, map the relationships among regional stakeholders, and make recommendations for how INL can facilitate greater maritime law enforcement cooperation in the region. The team identified a lack of maritime domain awareness (MDA) as the overarching problem that allows a score of transnational crimes – piracy, illegal fishing, trafficking – to take place virtually undetected. The team’s recommendations to INL centered around improving MDA to help states develop a holistic picture of the threat landscape in order to formulate strategies to detect, deter, and interdict illicit actors. The report highlighted three axes, or lines of effort, that INL can pursue to help states improve and operationalize MDA: 1) Build national MDA capacity through National Fusion Centers, or National Maritime Single Points of Contact (NMSPOCs); 2) Foster regional MDA through Multinational Fusion Centers; 3) Strengthen Maritime Law Enforcement cooperation through joint operations and exercises.