Doing more with less, what next for Maritime Security?
This month witnessed the first transit of a Russian LNG vessel via the Northern Sea Route (NSR) from Norway to Japan. This kind of vessel, capable of a capacity of 3.1 billion cubic feet of gas or 63 metric tonnes of LNG normally transits via the Atlantic, Mediterranean, across the Indian ocean and up to Asia.
The NSR is normally impassible to tankers, save for four months during the warmest parts of the year. However, the sea ice is thinner, leaving the route open for longer periods during the year, possibly due to the increasingly warmer temperatures of the arctic. The time saved in transiting this shorter route is significant and if proven feasible, could demonstrate the capability of modern ‘ice class’ LNG vessels transiting routes not yet in the domain of traditional maritime control. After all, that far north, it’s normally impassable and if you get into difficulties, there just isn’t the maritime presence to come to your assistance. The opening up of this region in terms of the projection of power through trade is significant and was intense discussion at a recent seminar at Chatham House - “A new era in Maritime Security”, where representatives from academia, the military and shipping industry gathered to debate issues surrounding ‘International Maritime Security’.
Mention the phrase Maritime Security these days and it is usually in the context of counter piracy. How ironic that the governance, peace and security of the oceans has become synonymous with Somali piracy and yet the issue of who rules the waves has existed for centuries. Mindful that, ‘every generation gets the pirate it deserves’, there must be a sense of irony for those that have a vested interest in the maritime domain in that it took the organised criminal activity off the Horn of Africa to expose the weaknesses of recent ‘maritime security’ policy. However as the rivalry between major superpowers surges ahead of Somali piracy, issues surrounding the domination of sea-lanes and claims to vital undersea resources are beginning to fill the narrative.
The seminar acknowledged that the maritime domain is changing. Against a backdrop of state and non-state actors, peace and security at sea is becoming more challenging. State navies no longer dominate the maritime; the private sector is bearing more responsibility for the safe passage of cargo and crew across the oceans. The global economic downturn has hit the Shipping Industry hard, where it is still trying to recover from a drop in demand for white goods as well as counter the threat of modern piracy. By its own admittance it is beset by an over tonnage of vessels, which operate in high-risk environments where they degrade, collide, sometimes sink and often pollute. However, in spite of all this, it is working extremely hard to modernize its fleets and reduce its carbon footprint.
The global recession also hasn’t helped in sustaining military forces at sea, they’re expensive, but with some old lessons being re-learned, littoral and continental states are realising once again the importance and necessity of projecting power beyond their land borders. Trade routes need to maintained and new markets opened up. Take the regime change in Libya, which gave NATO another chance to reaffirm its sense of purpose, and the ongoing counter piracy collaboration in the Indian Ocean between the US; NATO, EU and other states (Russia, China and even Iran) cannot go unnoticed. The current policy of containment on the eastern seaboard of Somalia offers the international community time and space to shape an environment more conducive to countering piracy on land as opposed to ‘chasing tails’ at sea. Put more succinctly in the words of the UK’s First Sea Lord, the Head of the Royal Navy, ‘engagement without embroilment’, but is this how maritime security will exist in the future?
Elsewhere, the issues of ownership and governance of the oceans continue. In the fishing sector, overfishing has depleted some stocks in trying to meet a global increase in demand for this vital food source. How states continue to draw upon this precious resource is a constant cause of dispute where increasing coastal and port state control and satellite observation is beginning to take effect in spite of the constant threat of species extinction. The shifting balance of power between major states extends to seabed disputes and thoughts are turning towards the polar ice caps, where it is estimated that huge resources exist beneath the ice. How can these be safeguarded for the benefit of many states, instead of falling prey to the predatory approaches of the few? Accessed by sea and bordering several nation states with understandable interest in its territorial waters, this as yet untapped part of the world challenges the established order set out in the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Arguably there is a persuasive case that the future stability of Governments will be predicated by security at sea. The use of the sea in the projection of force is well established and may well be set to change, where global geo-politics endorses ‘the power of controlling the space between’. After all, it’s not all about the trade and exchange of physical goods these days, the protection of the flow of information is just as important as not all communications travel via satellite. Undersea fibre optic cables move vast quantities of data in connecting the global village; an activity that affects millions of people in their daily lives.
The delivery and sustainment of Global Maritime Security is not just about countering piracy. How states interact via the ocean is crucial for trade, for energy, for the environment and for the allocation of resources the maritime domain offers. National Security is uppermost of all Governments, but how the ocean is governed in the future will determine its survival. More vessels will undoubtedly follow the Russian’s test transit of transiting the Northern Sea Route adding a competitive edge to the movement of resources, but the maritime domain must be a safe and secure environment; it’s in all our interests.
Paul Gibbins is the Director of PGC Global providing Reputation & Issues Management in challenging environments. www.pgc- ‐global.org @pgcomms .