‘Creeping territoriality’ is posing a real threat to the concept of freedom of the seas, delegates were told at the Britain and the Sea Conference this week during London International Shipping Week (Tuesday).
Addressing the subject of ‘Geopolitics and the sea – security and insecurity’ – Rear Admiral Chris Parry told his audience: “The great issue that will need to be resolved as the 21st century unfolds is whether the idea of the freedom of the seas is to persist or whether creeping territoriality – whereby states exercise sovereign jurisdiction over their adjacent sea space and, in some cases, beyond, is to prevail.”
The issues at stake in the South and East China Seas, and in the Arctic, represent significant test cases, as do, at a lower level, disputes between the US and Canada about the status of the North-West Passage, between Denmark and the UK (over Rockall) and between a number of countries in the eastern Mediterranean, said Chris Parry.
“The sea is absolutely basic to prosperity, stability and security and if we mess with the current arrangements, all these three things are compromised,” he warned.
However: “We are entering an era in which the whole basis of the way we move around the seas and oceans is going to change. If we are not careful, we are going to see freedom of navigation taken from us by enterprising countries.”
Beyond the accepted 12-mile sovereign jurisdiction limits of a state and even way beyond economic zones, there can be seen more and more reasons, particularly for exploiting seabed resources, why states are imposing marine controls which are like a variation on air control space, he said. “The danger is if economic zones become territorial seas.”
In a paper produced for the conference, Chris Parry said: “It is likely that claims to sea areas will become territorial in their application and interpretation, with might determining right and practice making case law. The more that states think of their maritime boundaries in the same terms as land borders, either for economic or homeland security reasons, the more investment in the apparatus of security and sustainability they will need and seek to impose. If these disputes are not resolved peacefully, future naval conflicts are likely to revolve around and result in a ‘land grab’ at sea, just as land campaigns in the past were fought to acquire land and assets.”
With Russia and China openly saying that they will not adhere to UNCLOS when it does not suit their interests, its provisions are likely to be subject to continual challenge and pressure from their national imperatives and considerations, he said.