Battle for the High Seas

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.”

Over the last year, Turkey has sent naval vessels to shadow and harass the ships and equipment being used by Noble Energy, a U.S. firm which has the contract to develop the Aphrodite field; this, in turn, raises the risks for a clash with Israeli forces, which are on patrol to protect the work on developing these fields. Cooler heads have prevailed so far, but there is always the possibility of an accident that could spark a crisis.

Last September, the Obama administration reaffirmed its stance that Cyprus has every right to prospect for resources within its recognized maritime zone free of interference or harassment. The State Department announced, “The United States supports Cyprus' right to explore for energy. Having a U.S. company involved in developing the energy resources of Cyprus is also positive.” While the United States has expressed its desire for revenues obtained from any offshore energy projects to be shared equitably with all communities on the island, it does not believe that development must be halted until there is a comprehensive political settlement. Washington also is concerned about Turkey setting precedents for Russia to conclude agreements with the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia, which has similar offshore resources in a zone that the rest of the world recognizes as belonging to Georgia.

Ensuring that Cyprus can drill for natural gas in the Aphrodite field without fear of attack or disruption is important for several reasons. In the volatile situation of the Middle East—particularly with the ongoing civil war in Syria—avoiding a possible clash in the Eastern Mediterranean that would pit Israel against Turkey is important. Moreover, there is more than enough energy for all parties—and promoting a de-escalation of tensions is likely to produce a win-win solution in which Cyprus, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and Greece would all benefit. There are precedents in the frozen north of Europe—where competing claims of Russia and Norway to Arctic gas have been settled in favor of a cooperative approach that promises to enrich both parties.

But there are larger issues at stake. By showing its commitment to a rule-based system to settle claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, the United States models a possible solution to help decrease tensions in the South China Sea, where overlapping claims in that resource-rich region of the ocean could destabilize East Asia.

Moreover, a continued U.S. commitment to upholding the rights of smaller states, even if it means disappointing a long-standing NATO ally such as Turkey, can reinforce the status of the United States as a true “honest broker” when it comes to similar disputes in Asia. A common assertion from many Chinese sources, for instance, is that Washington will unconditionally back the claims of its friends and allies to the detriment of Beijing’s concerns.

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

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.