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Debris flies into the air as foreign fishing boats are blown up by Indonesia’s navy. Debris flies into the air as foreign fishing boats are blown up by Indonesia’s navy off Batam Island, Indonesia, Feb. 22, 2016 (AP photo by M. Urip).

Competition and Cooperation in the Maritime Domain

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

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.

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.

Our Most Recent Coverage

China’s Military Advances Have Come With Some Political Downsides

Under the leadership of President Xi Jingping, China has been pouring resources into its military arsenal in pursuit of a technologically advanced, integrated force, particularly when it comes to its navy, which is central to Beijing’s goal of controlling the East and South China Seas. Its accomplishments to date have weakened U.S. military deterrence in the region, leading some smaller states to question Washington’s ability and willingness to intervene in the case of a conflict involving China. But Beijing’s strategy has also come with some political costs.

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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, demonstrate that diplomacy can still be an effective tool.

Naval Rivalries

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.


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.

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.

[SPECIAL OFFER: Want to learn more? Get full access to World Politics Review for 12 weeks for just $12 and read all the articles linked here to get up to speed on this important issue.]

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.