Competition over the world’s maritime resources and territorial disputes over maritime borders are becoming increasingly prominent in international affairs. At the same time, depleted fish stocks and polluted waters make the question of how countries can collectively manage maritime resources a central one, particularly in discussions over climate change.
Against the backdrop of heightened competition in the maritime domain, China has been rapidly modernizing and expanding its naval capabilities thanks to an unprecedented shipbuilding effort. By contrast, the U.S. Navy is struggling to meet its ambitious goals toward expanding its fleet while nevertheless maintaining a demanding operational tempo.
Meanwhile, the resources that lie beneath the ocean’s surface are increasingly at risk of overexploitation. Illegal fishing is devastating already diminished global stocks and may soon present a severe crisis to countries whose populations depend on seafood for their diets. In the South China Sea, competition over fishing rights as well as offshore oil and gas reserves has been a major driver of tensions and conflict.
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The maritime domain highlights the tensions between national sovereignty and transnational challenges, between the ocean’s littoral regions as exclusive economic zones and the high seas as a global commons. While often ignored in coverage of international affairs, it features prominently in bilateral, regional and multilateral diplomacy, particularly when it comes to resolving boundary disputes.
WPR has covered maritime issues in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will the United States shore up its naval superiority or continue to cede ground to China? How will the pivot to renewable energy affect competition for maritime resources? Will concerns over depleting fish stocks jumpstart global efforts to improve the state of the world’s oceans? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.
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Last week’s ASEAN Summit took place against the backdrop of rising geopolitical tensions in the region, including between member states and China. Nevertheless, paralyzed by its commitment to unanimity-based decision-making, ASEAN is either unwilling or unable to check Beijing’s worst instincts, including China’s aggressive approach to maritime disputes in the South China Sea. The result is a deepening fragmentation within the bloc.
Countries around the world are improving their navies and stepping up their naval activities. That includes China, which has made qualitative and quantitative improvements, but also France and India. All of this stands in contrast to the United States’ struggles to improve the preparedness of its own fleet. These rivalries now include efforts to obtain port access and basing rights, as Russia and China increasingly seek to expand their naval presence overseas.
- What’s missing from the U.S. strategy to compete with China in the Indo-Pacific, in The U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy Has a Navy-Sized Hole in It
- Why Europe’s plans to increase its influence—and naval presence—in the Indo-Pacific region might not be realistic, in Indo-Pacific Ambitions Might Be a Luxury Europe Can’t Afford
- What’s driving Vietnam’s efforts to upgrade its military—and in particular its navy, in Vietnam Modernizes Its Military With a Wary Eye on China
- Why China’s military and naval buildup is making some of its neighbors nervous, in China’s Military Advances Have Come With Some Political Downsides
Territorial and Resource Disputes
As varied as they are common, disputes over maritime access have become increasingly significant within domestic and regional politics. Bolivia’s campaign for Pacific Ocean access was a central theme during former President Evo Morales’ years in office. And China’s disputed claims to the South China Sea are a significant driver of political tensions with the affected countries. But recently resolved conflicts, including a long-standing dispute between Australia and East Timor over access to natural gas fields and now the standoff between Israel and Lebanon over their maritime border, demonstrate that diplomacy can still be an effective tool.
- How new advances in science can help prevent future conflicts over access to fish, in It’s Not Too Late to Head Off Conflict Over Ocean Fisheries
- How brokering the deal demarcating Israel and Lebanon’s maritime border strengthened Washington’s hand, in The Israel-Lebanon Maritime Border Deal Is a Win for the U.S., Too
- Why two islands off the coast of Yemen have become a focus of that country’s civil war, in Yemen’s Small Islands Hold Major Strategic Value
- Why we probably haven’t heard the last word on France and Britain’s dispute over fishing rights, in France and the U.K. Hit Pause on Their Fishing Dispute, but It Isn’t Over
Illegal Fishing and Pollution
Every fifth fish caught in the world is netted illegally, undermining efforts to officially address the alarming problems caused by overfishing. But with global fish stocks declining by as much as 50 percent, there is mounting pressure to address overfishing—and the governments, including China, that encourage it. Failure to do so could be catastrophic for food systems and economies around the world. Meanwhile, efforts to protect marine ecosystems and biodiversity have gained urgency as the impact of climate change and pollution have grown more alarming. And efforts to exploit offshore energy deposits are increasingly coming into conflict with coastal communities’ livelihoods.
- How Senegal’s offshore gas development plans are upending coastal fishing communities, in An Offshore Energy Bonanza Spells Doom for Senegal’s Fishermen
- Why pushes for “protected areas,” like the recently sealed “30×30” target, are not a panacea for saving marine biodiversity, in Protecting Biodiversity Will Take More Than Just the ‘30X30’ Target
- Why there’s no more time to waste on addressing the impact of climate change, overfishing and seabed mining on the world’s oceans, in Only Urgent Action Will Save the Oceans Now
- Why the Biden administration should make ratifying a treaty protecting marine wildlife a priority, in Bringing the High Seas Biodiversity Treaty Into Port
Piracy remains a problem, particularly in remote, conflict-ridden areas. Countries are increasingly working collaboratively to address this problem, but these efforts are often reactive. Because global waters will always remain difficult to police, lasting solutions to piracy depend more on providing economic opportunities to citizens onshore than eliminating piracy on the water.
- How an Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique could move from land to sea, in Mozambique Could Become Africa’s Next Piracy Hot Spot
- What’s driving a shift in piracy tactics in the Gulf of Guinea, in Why Piracy Is a Growing Threat in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea
- How piracy in southeast Asia is evolving despite efforts to tackle it, in Why Southeast Asia Remains a Hotbed for Piracy
- Why piracy remains a persistent problem off the coast of Somalia, in What’s Behind the Resurgence in Piracy Off Somalia’s Coast
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.