Whose highway, whose resources?

Will creeping territoriality end the freedom of the seas?

Rear Admiral Chris Parry CBE examines how the global power dynamics of the 21st century are likely to affect use of the oceans

Everyone knows that the sea is the interconnected body of salt water that covers 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface. It is vital in moderating the Earth’s climate, in providing food and oxygen, in its enormous diversity, and for navigation. It dominates human life. Without it, the planet would look a lot like Mars on a bad day – any day in fact.

The Internet is a lot like the sea; it is an environment in which man cannot yet live, except in a virtual or temporary sense. Both are used for global access, communication, business and trade. The crucial difference is that those elements that pass virtually over the Internet by e-commerce pass in reality, to a large, tangible and irreplaceable extent, by sea. For centuries, the sea was regarded as something else – a virtual world – which normal people did not inhabit. It had its geeks – deep specialists who understood the mysteries of the medium and how to exploit its various features. One could almost say that they understood the programming rules – the winds, waves and tides – that conditioned the flow of vessels around the world. Sea warfare was as alien a concept as cyber warfare is today.

Globalisation is shorthand for the way in which every aspect of human interaction has been stimulated, intensified and accelerated by technology, transportation and communications. As in the past, the tyranny of distance by land, sea and air has been overthrown in virtual terms, this time by technology. It has brought immediacy, efficiency and diversity to every aspect of life and stimulated economic growth. It has liberated the energies and aspirations of a generation in a blink of Clio’s eye. Meanwhile, electronic miniaturisation has led to both the miniaturisation and the expansion of global society, but the sea remains the unchallenged engine of globalisation.

Typified by underwater trans-oceanic cables that carry the Internet, the interconnectedness and interdependence of the world are enabled by a mutually supportive and complementary relationship between the sea as a means of universal physical access and communication with an information phenomenon that together energise economic growth, international trade and cultural exchange within a range of synthetic human interactions. The technical complexity of the Internet is matched by the physical, watery world wide web, manifested by worldwide supply chains, trade protocols, port and harbour facilities and the vast apparatus of production and distribution, all supported by the graphical user interfaces of banking, insurance and credit. Similarly, the liquidity of the world’s financial system is mirrored in the physical liquidity of the trading system that relies on the sea. It is the world’s pre-eminent strategic medium for access and exchange, providing military manoeuvre space and the worldwide means of communication for oceanic transport and human contact.

The fragility of the system

The lessons that can be drawn from history are that the use of the sea and the efficient functioning of the world’s economy cannot be taken for granted. Globalisation is fragile, subject to both natural shocks and man-made interventions. Investment in any aspect of the use of the sea as a highway or source of commercial gain requires countries and companies to be agile in their management of both military and civilian assets, with the ability to switch resources away from under-performing sectors to more promising areas or regions and the flexibility to switch them back again. It is also clear that countries need to maintain their grip on – or access to – the benefits and rewards of soft sea power, the ways by which the sea acts as a highway and as an exploitable resource. If they do not, others will – competing not just with soft sea power, but also with hard sea power in the form of military presence and power projection.

Navies and government agencies can be used for good or ill in this process. States that have an interest in maintaining the international order and the ‘commons’ for their own and others’ benefit employ their naval power to ensure access and security not only for their own commerce, but also for that of the world in general and their economic partners in particular. However, those countries that benefit less from an ordered international trading system – for example those with extensive land areas and aspiring regional powers with assertive claims or authoritarian regimes – are likely to want to find ways to restrict or close down parts of the international system or control it for their own benefit.

The question of the century

The great issue that will need to be resolved as the 21st century unfolds is whether the idea of the freedom of the seas is to persist or whether creeping territoriality – whereby states exercise sovereign jurisdiction over their adjacent sea-space, and in some cases beyond – is to prevail. The issues at stake in the South and East China Seas, and in the Arctic, represent significant test cases in this regard, as do, at a lower volume of noise, the disputes between the US and Canada about the status of the North-West Passage, Denmark and the United Kingdom (over Rockall) and those between a number of countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is likely that claims to sea areas will become territorial in their application and interpretation, with might determining right and practice making case law. The more that states think of their maritime boundaries in the same terms as land borders, either for economic or for homeland security reasons, the more investment in the apparatus of security and sustainability they will need and seek to impose. If these disputes are not resolved peacefully, future naval conflicts are likely to revolve around and result in a ‘land grab’ at sea, just as land campaigns in the past were fought to acquire land and assets. The great powers have an interest in defending a world that either serves their interests or universal values – or both. The question is – is China an outlier or the leader of an emerging pack, each of which is watching closely how events unfold before making its move?

The maritime domain is the oldest global common, which, with maritime trade, forms the backbone of the globalised economy, along with financial and information services worldwide in the form of cyberspace transactions. Spaceborne platforms are similarly essential to the military and intelligence functions of the free world. As such, guaranteeing stable and free access to the common domains would appear to be a fundamental prerequisite for international peace, security and prosperity. The potential economic and military implications of inaccessible or unstable global commons are likely to be serious, leading to the denial of access to global markets and scarce resources to support the prosperity and integrity of an industrial world. It is ironic that those states seeking to close down the use of the sea for their own exclusive benefit are those that, in parallel, seek to deny the freedom of use inherent on the Internet. In addition, it also has to be recognised that inadequate surveillance, governance and enforcement outside those regions of national jurisdiction will lead to more opportunities for the malware of the sea – criminals, traffickers and terrorists – to ply their illicit trades.

Mare liberum, mare clausum

The next ten years are likely to be characterised by a largely contained international system at sea, in which states will largely cooperate, but will compete continuously for strategic and regional advantage both within – and around – the edges of international maritime law. States will compete in order to secure and exploit the resources of their economic zones, to maximise the opportunities provided by the sea to promote trade, conduct warfare and provide security for their societies and, in conjunction with commercial concerns, to secure the resources of the wider global commons for their exclusive benefit. It will be important for those states that benefit most from globalisation to continue to assert their rights and demonstrate their commitment to the principle of the freedom of navigation and innocent and transit passage, right up to – and within – the limits of territorial seas prescribed by UNCLOS. It is necessary to preserve mare liberum (freedom of the seas) and resist the attempts at imposing mare clausum (closed seas).

Established (status quo) powers will either embrace the opportunities presented by the sea, and they are considerable, or they will surrender the initiative and advantage to others. The question for the developed world is whether they wish China, Russia and other powers to seize the initiative at sea and to dominate the oceans in an era of globalisation. With Russia and China openly saying that they will not adhere to UNCLOS when it does not suit their interests, its provisions are likely to be subject to continual challenge and pressure from their national imperatives and considerations. As we have seen, Chinese investments in ports across the Indian Ocean and in Europe are beginning to look a lot like the ‘treaty port’ system in reverse. The warships are now following.

The US, mainly through its Navy, but with important contributions from its other services and its allies, is the current ‘safeguard of the sea’ and, by extension, the whole global economic commercial and financial system. The end of the Cold War, the progressive but irregular and uneven liberalisation of trade and the emergence of capitalism as the dominant economic system, coupled with dramatic advances in telecommunications and digital technologies, led directly to globalisation on the scale that we understand it today. It is easy to take it all for granted and to forget that globalisation is secured and sustained by the simple fact that the leading proponent of capitalism also happens to be the world’s pre-eminent military power, with a substantial superiority of hard power at sea over any other country or regional grouping. The US, for reasons of simple fiscal reality and power ratios, is unlikely to be able to sustain that preeminence in every part of the World Ocean without the help, resources and commitment of its allies and like-minded partners.

Where the advantage will lie

Therefore, in a developed world in which sea, commercial and national power will be diffused, the advantage is likely to lie with those countries with powerful navies that are able to enforce claims and can deploy sufficient commercial power to exploit the carrying trade, the ocean routes and the exploitation of the resources of the sea. Indeed, where they possess and orchestrate within a coherent strategy both soft and hard maritime power, they are likely, as history reminds us, to control the strategic and economic levers of world power and influence. As Sir Walter Raleigh wrote, ‘Whoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.’ The prize for maritime dominance in the 21st century, as at any other time since the 15th century, is control of the engine of globalisation, which enables a country or group of countries to set the global agenda in its own image and interests, with regard to every aspect of human activity, interchange and security.

Consequently, the 21st century is unlikely to be quiet or straightforward for those who pass on the sea upon their lawful occasions. In a complex, competitive environment, modern maritime forces will be needed to ensure national security and the rights of access and trade at sea, especially to natural resources and energy products, in the face of increasingly assertive, adventurous and aggressive states. In some cases, these circumstances will lead to the threat and use of force in support of national interests or in support of international norms, through the employment of both manned and, increasingly, unmanned platforms and systems. In resisting attempts by some states, notably China and Russia, to assert sovereign rights over the global commons, the choices made by those states that benefit most from the existing international system will determine whether the principle of the freedom of the seas established five hundred years ago will continue to prevail.

Rear Admiral Chris Parry CBE, after 36 years’ service in the Royal Navy, at sea and in senior staff appointments, was the first Chair of the UK’s Marine Management Organisation. He is the author of Super Highway – Sea Power in the 21st Century (Elliott & Thompson)