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New maritime challenges

by Brahma Chellaney

Maritime challenges are being fundamentally transformed by new technological and geopolitical realities, shifting trade and energy patterns, and the rise of unconventional threats. The fact that about 50 percent of the maritime boundaries in the world are still not demarcated accentuates the challenges.

Water covers more than seven-tenths of the planet’s surface and, therefore, it may not be a surprise that 90 percent of the world’s trade uses maritime routes. In fact, almost half the global population lives within 200 km of a coastline. With countless freighters, fishing boats, passenger ferries, leisure yachts, and cruise ships plowing the waters, a pressing concern is maritime security — a mission tasked to national navies, coast guards, and harbor polices.

Given the ongoing global power shifts, the maritime order has entered a phase of evolutionary change. Maritime-power equations are beginning to alter. The shifts actually symbolize the birth pangs of a new world order. Emerging changes in trade and energy patterns promise to further alter maritime-power equations.

For example, energy-related equations are being transformed by the quiet shift of the center of gravity in the hydrocarbon world from the Persian Gulf to the Americas, thanks to the shale boom, hydrocarbon extraction in the South Atlantic and Canada’s Alberta Province, and other developments.

The United States, for the foreseeable future, will remain the dominant sea power, while Europe will stay a significant maritime player. Yet the international maritime order will continue to gradually but fundamentally change as new powers acquire greater economic and naval heft.

According to one projection, as the global GDP doubles over the next two decades, China will come to own a quarter of the world’s merchant fleet. Several other maritime states in the Asia-Pacific, including Japan, South Korea, India, and Vietnam, are also set to significantly enlarge their maritime footprints.

Admittedly, there are real threats to maritime peace and security from the changing maritime-power equations and the sharpening competition over resources and geopolitical influence.

The Asia-Pacific region — with its crowded and, in some cases, contested sea lanes — is becoming the center of global maritime competition. Maritime tensions remain high in this region due to rival sovereignty claims, resource-related competition, naval buildups, 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 maritime power, saying his government will do everything possible to safeguard China’s “maritime rights and interests” and warning that “in no way will the country abandon its legitimate rights and interests.”

China’s increasing emphasis on the oceans was also evident from the November 2012 report to the 18th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party that outlined the country’s maritime-power strategy. It called for safeguarding China’s maritime rights and interests, including building improved capacity for exploiting marine resources and for asserting the country’s larger rights.

The risks of maritime conflict arising from mistake or miscalculation are higher between China and its neighbors than between China and the U.S. There has been a course correction in America’s “pivot” toward Asia, with Washington bending over backward to tamp down the military aspects of that policy, lest it puts it on the path of taking on Beijing. Even the term “pivot” has been abandoned in favor of the softer new phrase “rebalancing.”

The U.S. has pointedly refused to take sides in the sovereignty disputes between China and its neighbors. It has sought the middle ground between seeking to restrain China and reassure allies “without getting ourselves into a shooting war,” as former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg has put it.

China has also shied away from directly challenging U.S. interests. It has been careful not to step on America’s toes. Its assertiveness has been largely directed at its neighbors. After all, China is seeking to alter the territorial and maritime status quo in Asia little by little. This can be described as a “salami-slice” strategy or, what a Chinese general, Zhang Zhaozhong, has called, a “cabbage” strategy — surrounding a contested area with multiple security layers to deny access to the rival nation.

This bit-by-bit strategy increases the risk of maritime conflict through overreach and the inadvertent encouragement it provides to neighboring countries to overcome their differences and strategically collaborate.

The new international maritime challenges, however, go beyond China’s jurisdictional “creep.” The oceans and seas not only have become pivotal to any power’s security and engagement with the outside world but they also 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 coasts, has made maritime security more critical than ever.

The maritime challenges extend to nontraditional threats such as climate security, transnational terrorism, illicit fishing, human trafficking and environmental degradation. The overexploitation of marine resources has underscored the need for conservation and prudent management of the biological diversity of the seabed.

Deep seabed mining has emerged as a major new strategic issue. From seeking to tap sulfide deposits — containing valuable metals such as silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and zinc — to phosphorus nodule mining for phosphor-based fertilizers used in food production, the interstate competition over seabed-mineral wealth is underscoring the imperative for creating a regulatory regime and ensuring environmental protection.

Some of the outstanding boundary, sovereignty and jurisdiction issues — extending 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.

To compound matters, some important players, including the U.S., are still not party to the U.N. 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 has not ratified UNCLOS. The seizure of the tanker, carrying Iraqi oil, appeared to be act of reprisal against India’s sharp reduction of Iranian oil purchases under U.S. pressure.

Great-power rivalries are also complicating international maritime security. The rivalries are mirrored in foreign-aided port-building projects; attempts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes as part of a 21st-century version of the Great Game; and the establishment of listening posts and special naval-access arrangements along the great trade arteries.

The evolving architecture of global governance will determine how the world handles the pressing maritime challenges it confronts. The assertive pursuit of national interest for relative gain in an increasingly interdependent world is hardly a recipe for harmonious maritime relations. Another concern is the narrow, compartmentalized approach to deal with each maritime issue separately, instead of addressing the challenges in an integrated framework.

Brahma Chellaney, a leading strategic thinker and an analyst of international geostrategic trends, is the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).