New technology, unconventional threats, and geopolitical realities are fundamentally transforming maritime affairs. With about half of the world’s maritime boundaries still not demarcated, the stakes are high.
Water covers more than 70 per cent of our planet’s surface, and almost half the global population lives within 200km of a coastline. These facts help explain why 90 per cent of the world’s trade uses maritime routes.
With countless freighters, fishing boats, passenger ferries, yachts, and cruise ships ploughing the waters, a pressing concern is maritime security – a mission assigned to national navies, coast guards, and harbour polices.
The maritime order has entered a phase of evolutionary change in response to global power shifts. Changing maritime-power equations symbolise the birth pangs of a new world order.
For example, energy considerations are being transformed as the centre of gravity in the hydrocarbon world begins to shift from the Gulf to the Americas, thanks to the shale boom, hydrocarbon extraction in the South Atlantic and Canada’s Alberta province, and other developments.
US dominance as a sea power will continue for the foreseeable future, while Europe will remain a significant maritime player. However, one recent projection suggests that as global GDP doubles over the next two decades, China will come to own one-quarter of the world’s merchant fleet. Other Asia-Pacific states including Japan, South Korea, India and Vietnam will also significantly enlarge their maritime footprints.
The Asia-Pacific region, with its crowded and in some cases contested sea lanes, is becoming the centre of global maritime competition. Seaborne tensions there are high due to rival sovereignty claims, resource competition, naval-force build-ups, and rising nationalism.
A lot of attention has focused on the maritime implications of China’s rise. President Xi Jinping has championed efforts to build China into a global sea power.
The risks of maritime conflict arising from mistake or miscalculation are higher between China and its neighbours than between China and the United States.
There has been a course correction in the Obama administration’s “pivot” toward Asia, to steer away from anything that looks like taking on Beijing. Washington has bent over backward to tamp down the military aspects of the pivot.
Moreover, the US has pointedly refused to take sides in sovereignty disputes between China and its neighbours. It has sought the middle ground between seeking to restrain China and reassuring allies so that it doesn’t get “into a shooting war,” in the words of James Steinberg, a former deputy US secretary of state.
China has also shied away from directly challenging US interests or stepping on America’s toes. Instead, its assertiveness has been directed largely at its neighbours.
China is seeking to alter the territorial and maritime status quo in Asia little by little. This is what a Chinese general, Zhang Zhaozhong, has called a “cabbage” strategy – surround a contested area with multiple layers of security, thus denying access to any rivals.
This bit-by-bit strategy increases the risk of maritime conflict through overreach and it can encourage neighbouring countries to unite, overcoming their differences to collaborate strategically.
The new international maritime challenges, however, go beyond China’s territorial “creep.”
The oceans and seas constitute the strategic hub of the global geopolitical competition. The growing importance of maritime resources and of sea-lane safety, as well as the concentration of economic boom zones along the world’s coastlines, has made maritime security more critical than ever. The challenges today include non-traditional threats such as climate security, transnational terrorism, illicit fishing, human trafficking and environmental degradation.
Deep seabed mining has emerged as a major new strategic issue in the world’s oceans.
From seeking to tap sulphide deposits – containing valuable metals such as silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and zinc – to mining phosphorus nodules for fertilisers, the international competition over seabed-mineral wealth is underscoring the imperative for international cooperative action to create a regulatory regime and to ensure environmental protection.
Some of the outstanding boundary, sovereignty and jurisdiction issues – covering waters from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean – carry serious conflict potential.
The recrudescence of territorial and maritime disputes, largely tied to the competition over natural resources, will increasingly have a bearing on maritime peace and security around the world.
To compound matters, some important players, including the United States, are still not party to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Iran recently seized an Indian oil tanker, holding it for about a month, but India could not file a complaint with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, because Tehran, also, has not ratified UNCLOS.
The seizure of the tanker, carrying Iraqi oil, appeared to be an act of reprisal against India’s sharp reduction of Iranian oil purchases, under US pressure.
That is a good example of the way great-power rivalries continue to complicate international maritime security.
These rivalries are mirrored in foreign-aid port-building projects, attempts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes and the establishment of listening posts and special naval-access arrangements along the world’s trade arteries.
The evolving architecture of global governance will determine how the world handles the pressing maritime challenges it confronts.
Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author of Water, Peace, and War