Last month, Vuk Jeremic, the president of the UN General Assembly, in speaking to the High-Level Meeting on the Rule of Law, observed, "By strictly adhering to the rule of law, we discourage the recourse to war." But while state-on-state conflict over territory has largely abated, the sea is another matter.
Controlling the sea and what lies in and under it has become much more important because governments around the world are increasingly pressed to secure the blessings of a middle-class lifestyle for their citizens. The fish, oil and natural gas available in a state's offshore zone can help to cope with rising food and fuel costs. As Peter Apps recently reported, "From the melting and resource-rich Arctic to the eastern Mediterranean, the South Atlantic to the East China Sea, legal wrangling, diplomatic posturing and military sabre rattling are all on the rise."
Such developments—particularly in the Far East and in the Mediterranean—threaten the fundamental basis of the preferred American outcome for global order, which Charles Krauthammer, writing in The National Interest a decade ago, described as being based on "open seas, open trade and open societies lightly defended." Maritime clashes risk the safety and security of the sea lanes of communication—through which some 90 percent of global trade passes—and heighten the risk that nations will eschew diplomacy and once again embrace arms buildups, particularly naval capabilities, in a twenty-first-century repeat of the arms races prior to the First World War. Whether it is the prospect of a naval clash between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea or a resumption of hostilities between Britain and Argentina over the Falklands, the possibility of new conflicts lies on the horizon.
One way to avoid this future is to encourage states with competing and conflicting maritime claims to have their disputes settled by impartial arbitration, especially when the question of who has the right to exploit undersea resources is at stake. Bangladesh and Myanmar have already adjudicated their maritime border via the tribunal process supported by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, while Chile and Peru will use an older method—utilizing the International Court of Justice at the Hague to provide a definitive ruling over where the lines should be drawn.
But encouraging states with maritime disputes to seek arbitration is only one part of preserving peace on the high seas. Another component is ensuring that “might does not make right”—that the proper claims of small states who lack extensive military might to protect their offshore domains are not usurped by those who wield stronger conventional capabilities. As Jeremic observed, “If our aim is to strengthen trust between nations, then the respect for accepted norms cannot be ambiguous or selective. Everyone needs to know everyone else will adhere to the same principles and rules.”