Global Maritime Britain

Reinvigorating Britain’s maritime sector

Dr Chris Parry CBE PhD surveys the geopolitical context in which Britain must chart a strategy for a maritime future in a connected and contested world, and proposes a centrally coordinated approach.

On exiting the European Union at the end of 2020, the United Kingdom has the opportunity to shape a distinctive future for itself, as Global Britain. It is hoped that this future will be characterised by a renewed relationship with the sea, the primary strategic medium and essential enabler of globalisation, access and exchange. Building on its distinctive maritime heritage, its geographical position and its diverse investment in every aspect of marine enterprise, a Global Maritime Britain approach can overcome decades of ‘sea blindness’, and reinvigorate every aspect of its maritime sector.

A connected, contested world

China’s President Xi Jinping visiting Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2016
China’s President Xi Jinping visiting Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2016, seeking new measures of bilateral cooperation in the context of China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. Photo: CC-BY-SA4.0.Intnl

Geopolitically, the United Kingdom’s maritime and global ambitions at the start of the third decade of the 21st century will be framed by the emergence of two major power blocs within a connected, but contested, international system.

The first, a Eurasian authoritarian bloc comprising China, Russia, Iran and a number of Central Asian states, is already apparent, its members linked by mutual geopolitical, trading and ideological interests. In addition to their continental credentials, China and Russia are both projecting significant (and in China’s case, increasing) national state power at sea, through the deployment of naval and military assets and through their massively expanding footprints of state-backed energy extraction, fishing and maritime commercial activity. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has both land and sea routes that, together with its ‘Made in China 2025’ and civil–military initiatives, seek not only to dominate its near-abroad, but also to encompass the energy, and the commercial and geopolitical spaces, across and around the Eurasian continent. Russia, meanwhile, is attempting to neutralise geopolitical competitors and dominate activity in the Baltic and Black Seas, as well as securing proprietorial rights in the Arctic. In addition, both China and Russia are directly challenging the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in order to gain advantage in their respective spheres of interest – in China’s case, attempting land grabs in the South and East China Seas. As a result, some other countries, as seen recently in the eastern Mediterranean, have been encouraged to engage in maritime disputes, which are increasing in frequency and intensity.

This bloc looks likely to be countered by an increasingly cohesive maritime democratic bloc, comprising the USA, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Japan and New Zealand, together with European and Indo-Pacific democracies, such as India, and others whose values and geopolitical and commercial interests do not align with those of the Eurasian authoritarian states. These states will be committed to maintaining democratic values and an international rules-based system that has delivered strategic stability, economic growth and security for the past 70 years. As free, open, democratic and sovereign societies, they will continue, both individually and collectively, to have a critical interest in the unconstrained use of the sea, and will be wary of the geopolitical and maritime ambitions of the Eurasian authoritarian bloc in general, and China in particular.

The United Kingdom and the sea

British grand strategy derived from first principles would identify that the country’s vital national interests lie in an open world economy and access to international trade and investment as part of an international rules-based system. The constantly repeated lesson of history is that control over – or guaranteed access to – the resources vital to human development (energy, food, water and raw materials) and the routes along which they travel remain vital strategic interests for states, if they are to prosper. It is not necessary for the states to possess the resources themselves, but it is essential for them to retain the ability to obtain the resources at reasonable prices, move them away, add value through manufacture and convey them to markets. In parallel, any country that wishes to exert influence through hard power needs to maintain secure access to the open sea, either on its own or through its allies, in order to deploy its armed forces.

The concept of Global Maritime Britain is consistent with this thinking and fits neatly into the emerging geopolitical framework as part of the maritime democratic bloc. Britain’s outlook is global anyway – a legacy of empire, its economic interests and its investments – and millions of its citizens are to be found all over the world. It has the advantage of English being the global language for international exchange and association, especially on the Internet. Also, within the maritime democratic bloc the UK has a range of connections and cultural ties with what can loosely be termed the Anglosphere – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many other Anglophone countries – and its trade with the Commonwealth is thriving, with member states in normal years collectively exporting more than £1.5 trillion of goods and services each year.

In addition, new opportunities are presenting themselves at sea. There are substantial opportunities for British skills, innovation and technologies in a range of Green and Blue Ocean and clean energy initiatives, as well as for the development of novel warships, unmanned platforms and commercial vessels. Meanwhile, Covid-19 has demonstrated the fragility of global ‘just enough, just in time’ supply chains and overreliance on China as a manufacturing and production source. These vulnerabilities, as well as novel approaches centred on sustainability, air quality and climate adaptation, are likely to lead to increasing activity at regional and local levels, in combination with the re-shoring of manufactures, 3D printing and the application of artificial intelligence and robotics in many productive industries. In the future, more and larger underwater pipelines, integrated electrical grids and distribution networks and extremely high-volume data-bearing cables will also be the routes by which globalisation is exploited and extended. Most will be sited at sea and will need protection and regulation in much the same way as the traditional sea lines of communication.

Maritime strategy

HMS Queen Elizabeth with a British F35B
HMS Queen Elizabeth with a British F35B, in the company of the type-45 destroyer HMS Dragon, on exercise in the western Atlantic in 2019. Photo: Crown Copyright

It is to be hoped that the recent formation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) with the associated Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy will have the sea at the heart of a national strategy that reflects the UK’s longterm interests, policy and national security. In parallel, if the United Kingdom is to thrive at sea in the twenty-first century, it will need to develop and implement a comprehensive, coherent maritime strategy that integrates both hard (defence and security) and soft maritime power (its merchant marine, energy extraction and distribution, shipbuilding, fishing, seabed systems and other associated sectors, such as marine insurance, investment and telecommunications). In this way, a coherent maritime strategy should identify and establish the ends that are sought by engagement with the sea, the resources that can be committed to realise them and the distinctive ways in which they can be realised in the face of stiff competition and opposition. It should fundamentally define the country’s long-term future relationship and engagement with the sea and involve those elements and partnerships – military, commercial and institutional – that can advance its interests and galvanize the sea power of the state and society.

Public and political support is always likely to lag behind entrepreneurial urge and commercial initiative, but another important aspect of successful sea power is the extent to which the state translates the combined resources of a country into usable and exploitable power at sea. It must make a conscious decision to turn to the sea as a means of economic growth and political influence; this cannot simply be left to private initiative and simple calculations about return on investment and political advantage. More than ever, in the face of strategic competition from major states, notably China, that provide direct political, financial and national support to their state-based and state-owned oceanic ventures, the ‘flag’, in the form of government, needs to support ‘trade’ – which repays the debt in the form of taxation and economic growth. The best arrangement would seem to be a public–private partnership, in which entrepreneurial activity is encouraged to thrive within a conducive, protective and joined-up strategic framework provided by the state.

The UK offshore zone

However, the ways in which UK government initiatives and policies encourage only individual aspects of our country’s approach to the sea are unlikely to be effective. They are rarely based on a comprehensive view of the sea, but are instead shaped by recommendations and objectives defined within narrow sectors. It is simply not good enough to have the Sea relegated to a subset of a parent department, such as Transport. The integration of the instruments and elements of national power that can deliver growth, wealth and advantage at sea will depend on the formation and empowerment of a central coordinating government mechanism or department that can overcome the significant division of responsibilities between various departments in the maritime dimension.

This aspect is nowhere more apparent than in the United Kingdom’s offshore zone. Here, the UK will need to provide safe and secure maritime borders that preserve Britain’s sovereignty, prevent unlawful penetration and illicit activity, and enable effective defence of our population and homeland in the face of an increasing range of state-based and transnational threats. Within both our territorial seas and our exclusive economic zones (EEZs), it will also be necessary to maintain a sustainable balance between social, economic and environmental considerations. This is because countries that can provide secure, stable offshore zones and maintain coherent regulatory, taxation and legal regimes for their EEZs are likely to attract inward investment and enterprise. This not only applies to substantial oil and gas reserves, but extends to other resources, such as leisure and tourism, fishing and renewable energy, as well as clean water, sustainable ecosystems and developments in aquaculture, settlements and offshore infrastructure. The issue of resilience in the face of the worst that Mother Nature can inflict, in the form of rising sea levels and extreme weather events, will be another major consideration.


In implementing these functions it would seem appropriate and necessary for a single, unitary maritime authority to be formed and thus take a comprehensive approach, coordinating information, decision-making and action across all areas of Britain’s engagement with its offshore zone. Within government, this reform would necessarily address the overlapping jurisdictions, duplicated departmental responsibilities and multiple systems that currently prevail, seriously inhibiting joined-up solutions and wasting both human and material resources.

The decade beginning in 2021 represents a distinctive window of opportunity for Britain to renew its relationship with the sea and, in so doing, to contribute significantly to the protection of the international rules-based system and the preservation of free world values and interests.

Rear Admiral Dr Chris Parry CBE PhD is a former Royal Navy officer who was the first Chair of the UK Government’s Marine Management Organisation until 2011. He is now a strategic forecaster and risk expert.