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 per cent 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 almost half the global population lives within 200 km of a coastline. It may thus surprise few that 90 per cent of the world’s trade uses maritime routes. With countless freighters, fishing boats, passenger ferries, leisure yachts, and cruise ships plying the waters, a pressing concern is maritime security — a mission tasked to national navies, coast guards, and harbour police forces.

Altering equations

The maritime order has entered a phase of evolutionary change in response to global power shifts. Maritime power equations are beginning to alter. The shifts actually symbolise 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 a new development: the centre of gravity in the hydrocarbon world is beginning to quietly shift 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 a projection by the recently released Global Marine Trends 2030 report, as the global GDP doubles over the next 17 years 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 centre of global maritime competition. Maritime tensions remain high in this region due to rival sovereignty claims, resource-related competition, naval build-ups, and rising nationalism.

A lot of attention has focussed 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 neighbours than between China and the U.S. There has been a course correction in the Obama administration’s “pivot” toward Asia, lest it puts it on the path of taking on Beijing. Washington has bent over backward to tamp down the military aspects of that policy. Even the term “pivot” has been abandoned in favour of the softer new phrase of “rebalancing.”

The U.S., moreover, 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 reassure allies but, as former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg has put it, “without getting ourselves into a shooting war.” 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 neighbours.

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, this year called, a “cabbage” strategy — surrounding a contested area with multiple security layers to deny access to the rival nation.

Bit-by-bit strategy

This bit-by-bit strategy increases the risk of maritime conflict through overreach, and the inadvertent encouragement it provides to neighbouring 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 non-traditional 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 sulphide 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 inter-state competition over seabed-mineral wealth underscores the imperative for creating a regulatory regime, developing safe and effective ocean-development technologies, finding ways to share benefits of the common heritage, and ensuring environmental protection.

Inter-state competition over seabed minerals is sharpening in the Indian Ocean, for example. Even China, an extra-regional power, has secured an international deep-seabed block in southwestern Indian Ocean from the International Seabed Authority to explore for polymetallic sulphides. More broadly, 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 competition over natural resources, will increasingly have a bearing on maritime peace and security.

Bangladesh and Myanmar have set an example by peacefully resolving a dispute over the delimitation of their maritime boundaries in the Bay of Bengal. They took their dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for adjudication. The Tribunal’s verdict, delivered in 2012, ended a potentially dangerous dispute that was fuelled in 2008 when, following the discovery of gas deposits in the Bay of Bengal, Myanmar authorised exploration in a contested area, prompting Bangladesh to dispatch warships to the area.

However, some important maritime powers, including the U.S., are still not party to the 1982 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 an act of reprisal against India’s sharp reduction of Iranian oil purchases under U.S. pressure.

The threats to navigation and maritime freedoms, including in critical straits and exclusive economic zones (EEZs), can be countered only through adherence to international rules by all parties as well as through monitoring, regulation and enforcement.

Great-power rivalries, however, continue to complicate 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, compartmentalised approach in which each maritime issue is sought to be dealt with separately, instead of addressing the challenges in an integrated framework.

(Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author, most recently, of Water, Peace, and War — Rowman & Littlefield, 2013)

The international maritime order will continue to gradually but fundamentally change as new powers acquire greater economic and naval heft