Maritime Power Shapes the World Order – And is Undergoing a Sea Change

Singapore freight forwarders – Star Concord


[By Basil Germond]

Recent attacks on commercial shipping and warships in the Red Sea by Yemen’s Houthi rebels have brought the ocean back to the forefront of international security.

Western global leadership was the result of centuries of sea mastery. Controlling the global ocean enables the projection of military power all over the world, as well as securing the free flow of goods at sea.

The prosperity and security of trading nations strongly depend on the stability of the global maritime supply chain and thus on freedom of navigation. But now western maritime superiority is being challenged by other rising powers and by insurgent groups.

Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea have incurred substantial costs for the global economy. They have prompted a rise in insurance premiums, while many ships have had to be rerouted via the Cape of Good Hope, raising costs and causing delays and container logjams.

The fact that the US and UK have gone as far as launching airstrikes on Houthi positions – a move that brings major risks, given how volatile the region is – shows how seriously the two countries view anything that infringes on freedom of navigation. The Houthi rebels and their Iranian backers are well aware of this leverage. What would happen to the global oil market if similar tactics were to be employed in the Strait of Hormuz (the choke point commanding the route to and from the Gulf), which, unlike the Red Sea route, cannot be bypassed?

Elsewhere, at the beginning of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia attempted to leverage its control of the northwestern Black Sea to blockade its neighbor. This initially raised grain and wheat prices. But Turkey quickly invoked the Montreux Convention which allowed it to close the Turkish straits to warships. Together with Kyiv’s efficient use of missiles and drones against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, it limited Russia’s ability to disrupt Ukraine’s maritime trade. This is now back at pre-war levels – Moscow’s blockade has failed.

Russia also poses a threat to western undersea infrastructure – mainly communication cables and energy connectors, as well as offshore infrastructures such as oil rigs and wind farms – in the Baltic and North Seas. A successful attack would directly affect energy and national security.

Power projection

Western dominance has always relied on its ability to project military power across the globe via the sea. The Ukraine war has demonstrated what strategists and planners have been discussing for more than two decades: that surface warships are increasingly vulnerable to land-based missiles and drones.

This raises questions about the West’s ability to project power and forces into contested theatres such as the Taiwan Strait because they’d be vulnerable to attack from the Chinese mainland. In the Black Sea meanwhile, this has played out in Ukraine’s favor. Ukraine’s ability to target Russian naval assets in the Black Sea and Crimea prevents the Russian navy from contributing to land operations or blockading Ukraine (except with submarines, which can still operate relatively safely underwater and launch cruise missiles).

In the Indo-Pacific, China has been developing capabilities to counter US projection forces. In case of an invasion of Taiwan by China, Western warships would be at the mercy of China’s land-based missiles and drones. However, reciprocally, Chinese forces attempting a landing could also be threatened by Taiwan’s own land-based asymmetrical means of defense.

Civilian seapower

Unlike Russia or Iran, the power base of China’s regime is much more dependent on the global supply and value chains – China is a trading nation. So it’s not in Beijing’s interest to contribute to an unstable maritime order. This explains China’s balanced stance on the Red Sea crisis and reports that Beijing has been pressuring Iran to bring the Houthis under control.

China does not want to disrupt the global maritime order, it wants to lead it. To that effect, China is developing its naval power, including projection capabilities such as aircraft carriers. But at the same time, China is using its commercial and financial assets to peacefully, though proactively, extend its maritime power.

China has invested in European ports and terminals (in Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands and Poland) via private ventures. Yet, Chinese private companies have close ties with their state, entailing risks of meddling with European critical infrastructures including espionage, policy obstruction and political interference.

Elsewhere, in the South China Sea, Beijing has mastered the art of blurring the boundaries between civilian, military and legal means and objectives – this is defined as “grey zone” tactics. At sea, this involves using commercial stakeholders (such as the Chinese fishing industry) to justify assertive coastguard or naval presence in, and legal titles over, claimed maritime areas of economic and geopolitical importance.

For whosoever command the sea…

Sir Walter Raleigh’s old dictum: “For whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself” has until recently characterized the Western, liberal world order.

My research has demonstrated the timelessness and universality of seapower. Seapower proceeds from a combination of naval and commercial maritime assets and isn’t limited to the West. Seapower can and is being developed and exercised by other countries such as China.

So there is an increasing risk that Western nations might lose their maritime dominance in the 21st century. This might open the doors for a new, illiberal world order, most likely one that is dominated by China. But like any trading superpower, China is reliant on freedom of navigation, so Beijing will want to dominate the sea, not to make it less secure. The sea and seapower will play a key role in shaping the future world order.

Basil Germond is Professor of International Security, Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University.

This article appears courtesy of The Conversation and may be found in its original form here.

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