Battle for the High Seas

Launching land wars to seize resources and territory has gone out of style. Extending that principle to the sea is the next challenge.

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.”

Cyprus is an example of a state that has followed the rules. In 2003, the island nation settled its maritime border with Egypt and proceeded, in 2007, to demarcate the line with Lebanon and in 2010 to reach an agreement with Israel. This removed any doubts as to the legitimacy of its claim to the so-called Aphrodite natural-gas field, which is located off of the southern coast of the island, adjacent to Israel’s Leviathan gas field. The Aphrodite field, which is estimated to contain some two hundred billion cubic meters of natural gas, could not only ensure the energy independence and security of Cyprus, but if developed in conjunction with other fields in both the Cypriot and Israeli zones, it could also set up the island as a net exporter of energy, particularly to a Europe in need of new energy supplies. And given that a stated goal of U.S. policy is to encourage the European Union to obtain natural gas from a diversity of suppliers, not just rely on Russia, encouraging the rapid development of an Eastern Mediterranean alternative would be a desirable outcome.

Because Turkey does not consider the internationally recognized government in Nicosia to be the legitimate authority for the island, it has argued that the Republic of Cyprus has no right to engage in energy-extraction activities in the waters surrounding the island until there is a final settlement on the island. Turkey also will not make any final delineation of its continental shelf claims with Cyprus and has instead concluded agreements with the separatist entity (the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, which Turkey alone recognizes and supports with the stationing of military forces on the island). The agreements provide for state oil company TPAO to begin prospecting in Cypriot waters for resources. But as the International Crisis Group concluded, “Turkey’s objections to the rest of Cypriot maritime areas, including Aphrodite, are not related to Turkish boundary claims but emanate from the political situation on the island and Turkey’s non-recognition of the Republic of Cyprus.”