Sea Control 134 – The South China Sea with Vasco Becker-Weingberg

By Matthew Merighi

Join the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Professor Vasco Becker-Weingberg of Universidad Nova in Lisbon, Portugal, about the South China Sea. The interview, conducted by Roger Hilton of the University of Kiel, address topics including the role of the Law of the Sea, the oil sector, private security contractors, and everything in between.

Download Sea Control 134 – South China Sea with Vasco Becker-Weinberg

The transcript of the conversation between Vasco Becker-Weinberg (Vasco) and Roger Hilton (Roger) begins below. Special thanks to Associate Producer Ryan Uljua for helping produce this episode.

Roger: Hello CIMSEC listeners and welcome to another edition of the Sea Control podcast series. My name is Roger Hilton,  and I am a non-resident academic fellow for at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University. With no shortages of geopolitical crises erupting today, our podcast could not come at a more timely moment. One global topic that is especially prone to unpredictability is the evolving list of security threats dominating the South China Sea (SCS). Thankfully, I have the pleasure of hosting Vasco Becker-Weinberg as our guest for this episode today. Vasco is a law of the sea professor at the Universidad Nova de Lisboa, and a coordinator of the LLM program on the maritime economy and the law of the sea at Nova. His contribution to the Routledge Handbook of Naval Strategy and Security outlines the very security issues dominating the SCS. Vasco, thank you for joining us.

Vasco: It’s my pleasure.

Roger: After reading your piece, it is clear that there are a litany of issues in the SCS outside of the region’s well-publicized territorial disputes.To lay the groundwork for the conversation, can you start by explaining to our listeners how the maritime space is currently organized, and some of the threats that we are going to discuss today?

Vasco: We’ll probably focus on maritime jurisdiction in the SCS,  also perhaps refer to the seabed activities in the disputed maritime areas, meaning what is the regime applicable to these areas, and current threats–perhaps piracy, armed robbery, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD)–must be addressed as well.

On the issue of maritime jurisdiction, just briefly, it’s important that our listeners understand that this important maritime area is not no-man’s-land in the sense that this dispute has the result of two or more overlapping claims. These claims have to be based on the legal title recognized by international law and claims have to be made clearly to other states. What we see today in the case of the SCS is that some of these claims or claiming states, to be precise, neither put forward the basis on which they make their claims (i.e. their respective legal title), and second, what is the location (precisely) of the disputed maritime areas. So therefore this creates a sort of cloud of legal uncertainty regarding some of these claims.

To make matters even complex, our listeners should know that different offshore features have different legal regimes. So, the legal codification of the feature as an island or as a rock, for example, has different consequences in the type of maritime zones it can project. When we refer to maritime zones, essentially, we refer to territorial sea, to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). So in the case of a rock, a rock can project a territorial sea (TTS) up to 12 NM but if the legal status of this feature is an island or should be considered an island, then it can actually project a 200 mile EEZ. So the differences are actually quite significant. Of course, the tendency is that claiming states would always consider these offshore features to be islands, so that they can actually project greater maritime zones, and therefore, there’s an inherent stress between different claiming states between claimed offshore features. And in this respect, recent international jurisprudence has been extremely helpful in clarifying exactly what the relevant criteria in terms of what is a rock or an island. But let me point out that although there is recent jurisprudence on this matter, the debate is still very much alive.

When it comes to jurisdiction of states, it’s important to understand that the further you go from land towards the sea, the rights of states are not as intense as they are closer to shore. So, in the territorial sea of 12NM, that’s the first fringe of sea that’s closer to land, and states exercise more rights of sovereignty. But when we refer to sovereignty at sea, it’s not the same thing as sovereignty on land. There is no concept of private property at sea, for example, and you cannot cross the territory of another state. There is no right for you to do so without that state’s permission. Whereas in the TTS, for example, there is the right of innocent passage for certain vessels that comply with the conditions listed in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). There’s no similarity between this right of innocent passage and any other right on land.

Then, forgetting about the contiguous zone, then after the TTS is the EEZ. The EEZ has its own special regime because it is neither TTS nor is it part of the high seas. It allows you to develop economic activities. It’s not exclusive, it’s economic. There’s very little that gives the state exclusivity in the EEZ. And finally, on the seabed and subsoil adjacent to the baselines of the TTS, we have the continental shelf. The continental shelf has been recognized as existing beyond the will of the coastal state to declare a continental shelf. It means that state exercises exclusive rights of sovereignty for the purpose of exploration of the resources of the shelf. There’s an erroneous perception some might have that the whole continental shelf is an extension of land sovereignty from the coastal state.It’s not that. It’s only focused on resources. And to end on a simple note, the current UNCLOS was developed on a resource-based approach, and a sectoral approach. Therefore, the whole issue of economic issues at sea and environmental resources is quite central to how the current legal regime has developed in recent years.

Roger: Thanks for such a comprehensive introduction. Undoubtedly, all of the technical and legal information you outlined is critical to understanding the activities in the SCS. It’s definitely a lot for the states in question to consider. Let’s get to some specifics now. As you state, tensions among the claiming states have shrunk the prospects for the delimitation of boundaries either via agreement or compulsory mechanisms. Against this backdrop, how do states interact legally in this gridlock?

Vasco: Well it’s true that it has become very difficult for states to agree on a compulsory set of mechanisms – meaning, resorting to a third party or any other means of settling the dispute. On the other hand, the fundamental reason why states have not been able to come to an understanding or an agreement is precisely  the lack of clarity regarding some claims and some legal titles.

So what are states bound to do if they can’t reach an agreement? International law is quite clear in defining these obligations. The first principle is the preservation of the maritime environment. In the disputed area, claiming states can’t act as if it’s a no-man’s land and have different conduct in that area. So they have a fundamental obligation to protect the marine environment, which states are bound to. Another obligation is that of the freedom and safety of navigation. Just because it is a disputed maritime area, the rights of third-party states are not shrunken. So guaranteeing that other states can freely exercise the freedom of navigation is extremely important. Unfortunately, what happens is that this sort of competitive behavior has developed in recent years in the SCS, particularly with oil and gas, therefore placing offshore installations that are neither identified, or were placed without notifying other states that this was happening. Of note, in a disputed maritime area, no state may develop the resources of that area without the consent of all states that are also claiming that same area, since a claim to that area is also a claim to those resources. So, a state, if he wants to develop, he must first seek the consent of all other states. Of course, this is not an easy task. Another case that is also important is that if a state finds out that there are important marine resources in a disputed area, he has the obligation to inform the other states that these resources exist.

How can we develop these obligations? Based on two fundamental principles of international law. First, good faith, of acting with good faith, and the principle of cooperation.

Roger: The legal dynamic in theory seems to work, but in practice it might be overshadowed by the disproportionate capabilities of the competing states. It’s undeniably a difficult challenge to preserve the diverse ecosystem of the SCS while simultaneously developing the lucrative trade in the region. That trade will only increase as the region becomes a hub for global finance. This is the perfect segway into the dangers of nationalism being injected into the negotiations for disputed areas. I think you’d agree that this hinders progress during negotiations, as any international compromise can be interpreted domestically as a form of capitulation. Should the listeners expect to see more of this in negotiations, or will it diminish moving forward?

Vasco: You put the question in an interesting way. If we are focusing on the SCS, but if you look at many disputes around the world, first, there’s no obligation to draw maritime boundaries, and many boundaries in the world are still pending the limitation or any form of settlement. You know, there are many examples. And in many of these cases, because it’s part of defending the territorial integrity of any state, throughout history governments have used nationalism to create a sense that there’s no giving up of claims or of territory. So, this nationalistic rhetoric is precisely to reinstate their claim for territorial integrity. 

But having said this, it’s interesting to see that in one case, of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), two years ago the PRC government announced the Belt and Road initiative, which also included the Maritime Silk Road initiative. These are an interesting approach by the PRC, and involves strong nationalistic rhetoric. It’s important to understand that all states in the SCS have their own nationalistic rhetoric at home. This new approach, the belt and road initiative, is precisely focused on economic development and increasing efficiency in transportation of goods, not only in the region but beyond. It involves connecting port infrastructures, making sure there’s security and safety, and these are all important for creating a dynamic of cooperation between states. So, if you want, things can be thought of in this way –I think states will continue this rhetoric, even though it’s not helpful in its outcome, and secondly, I think the tendency will be to continue developing some sort of cooperation between both claimant states and regions. The threats that claiming states and regions are facing are common to both, and cooperation will become an inevitability.

Roger: Maybe what distinguishes the SCS, which involves so much competition, is that the current operation of jurisdiction in the SCS is a minefield to navigate on a daily basis. So in your opinion, the functional link you mentioned earlier, it seems to serve its purpose of facilitating the compartmentalization of relations, but can this model be sustainable long term? Where are the shortcomings likely to be exposed?

Vasco: The international law isn’t without its shortcomings. Where many skeptics of international law focus is on the lack of effectiveness of international law to uphold its own decisions. We saw that recently with an arbitration between 2 states in the SCS where one state refused to participate, or to comply with the award. Therefore, one can very well ask ‘ok, we have international law, the obligations are clear, but then do states just continue doing what they are doing’? But that’s how it is. The global awareness of maritime disputes and the need to continue increasing cooperation will lead to the need for agreement on a specific dispute to take place. The problem of the SCS regarding other disputes is the intricacy of the different claims, and of course the importance of the SCS for international trade. Therefore, it’s quite a complex situation.

Is it sustainable to continue with the current dispute? Well, there are many cases around the world where disputes regarding maritime boundaries have existed for centuries and states nonetheless have had an entente cordiale, some sort of understanding to allow them to continue. It is important to look to the Law of the Sea and to the Convention to understand that the convention gives us the mechanisms not only to promote cooperation but also to help with the very important element of saving face.

I’m referring specifically to joint development, which is an alternative to states that do not agree on a maritime boundary, either by agreement or by compulsory settlement mechanism, but still manage to find this legal solution. It is not prejudicial and has no bearing on the claims they have made. This allows the two states to achieve economic development in a disputed maritime area. Then of course this would be an optimal result, but there are many different types of agreements states can make before they get to this optimal agreement. For example, making sure that there are mechanisms for 2 states that claim a disputed area to implement environmental assessment mechanisms that allow both of them to act in a way that preserves and protects the marine environment. This may not be a satisfactory answer to your listeners, but it’s the one that’s possible given the current legal framework.

Roger: Against this complicated legal backdrop, you mention that while disputed areas aren’t subject to the sovereignty of a coastal state, that does not mean that seabed activities are exempt from an internationally binding legal regime, which is a positive, both in terms of trade and protection of the environment. Can you elaborate on the procedural duties of this in an international law context–the difference between the lack of jurisdiction in disputed areas and seabed activities?

Vasco: The first thing we should be aware of is that there are thousands of offshore installations at sea. In many parts of the world, these installations are located in areas under the jurisdiction of a particular state, and therefore they’re accounted for. We know where and what they are, and we can monitor the safety procedures they’ve implemented. For example, around each installation there should be a security zone–not only to prevent some sort of collision, but also to ensure that the activity itself can take place safely.

In the SCS, we don’t have as much information as we would desire. Firstly, many of these offshore installations are in disputed maritime areas–very difficult to reach considering the military tension around them, and secondly, some of these installations have actually passed their service date, more than 30 years, and some have been abandoned, they’re just sitting there at sea. This can represent a hazard not only to the environment, but also to safety of navigation.

International law provides us with rules for states in these conditions. Firstly, the law of the sea is the law of the continental shelf. So, it’s impossible to construe the option that a state could be allowed to develop the resources in an area and not be responsible for exactly how those resources are developed. So the lack of clear jurisdiction doesn’t mean that all states concerned don’t have the obligation to protect the environment (and this is very clear and specific measures under international law) and also to protect the freedom of navigation. For example, if you have an offshore installation abandoned, then the state that put the installation there in the first place is responsible for all damages resulting from that offshore installation, be that complying with the obligation of dumping waste to the sea, or if there’s a spill after it’s no longer in use. The state that placed that installation will have to be responsible under international law.

Roger: It’s all very relevant and valid. As the region is developing, it’s a very new experience that it is responsible for upholding environmental standards. We’re hoping that with more time and experience, it will get a little more familiar and rigidity at administering these practices. In your text, in the post-Deepwater Horizon era, you identified how the EU and its member states have tried adopting common standards without impacting the jurisdiction affecting the national maritime areas. This is also backed up by UNCLOS Art. 192, which says that all states, including the landlocked states, have the duty and obligation to protect and preserve the maritime environment. Can you detail the EU’s practices, and if this model is realistically transferrable to the states in the SCS?

Vasco: Well the EU does not exercise jurisdiction over the maritime areas belonging to its member states. It does, regarding one activity, fisheries, and regarding other activities, it shares confidence, if you want to put it simply, with the member states. But the rights of coastal states, regarding maritime zones, that too stays with the EU member states. What happened was until we had the Deepwater Horizon incident, the notion of the financial implications and magnitude of the environmental impact were completely unrealistic compared to what we saw actually happened there, both in terms of indemnities that have been established, and other standards. It’s important to know that Deepwater Horizon was not in compliance with many international standards, but the problem there was of significant human error.

So the EU, after what we saw, took and made security of offshore installations and safety a priority for the EU, and also put forth legislation for states to implement at the national level. Another important organization putting forth valuable guidelines is the International Maritime Organization. All of these efforts made at a global level also have an impact on the SCS. In the SCS, for example, ASEAN has taken to heart the preservation of the maritime environment and encouraged member states to adopt measures. But you can’t really compare. What we have in the EU in terms of political integration is quite unique compared with other world regions.

Roger: Could standards not rise without political integration?

Vasco: That’s precisely what we’re going to say. There is today a very clear understanding of the standards around the world. It would be very easy to determine certain options and see whether they’re operating within the international legal framework. There’s consent given by all relevant states, that they would abide by those standards, and subject to inspection and so on and so forth. The problem is there is very little information and there could possibly be much more about these offshore installations. So yes, they’re subject to international standards and the industry itself is very different these days than it was several years back. The industry is very aware, and continues to increase its own self-regulation. Standards these days in most places around the world are very high.

Roger: It’s hard to compare the two, but moving forward even without the political integration, we can all wish that they will collectively voluntarily want to raise the standards for the general use of the area.

Vasco: There’s another element to this. The fact is that many oil companies around the world actually have their headquarters outside of the region. I’m thinking of oil companies based in the EU. We now have international jurisprudence and domestic courts where you are allowed to sue the mother company that isn’t located in that specific country where it is not upholding the level of standards, but back home. For example, if the company which is based in the EU opens a branch in another country where perhaps the levels of compliance are lower than those in the home state, the parent company can actually be sued for failing to exercise due diligence, or failing to comply with international standards. So the approach can be sometimes very frustrating, but we have a series of new mechanisms in development to make sure that when a company goes abroad, it doesn’t do whatever it feels like, but complies with the standards of its home state. These situations have rapidly developed and you’re seeing more and more situations where parent companies are actually sued for violations outside the home state.

Roger: Good to know there are some mechanisms to keep companies in check if the political integration isn’t there on the national level. Shifting gears, we’ve spoken about the legal governance and how seabed activities are conducted in disputed maritime areas. There are some major hard security issues that we would be foolish not to talk about. The rise of professional piracy, as well as the menace of trafficking weapons are all increasing substantially. Consequently, both of the issues are not confined to the SCS but to a global area. Let’s start with trafficking of WMD. What has the response been in the SCS?

Vasco: What we’ve seen in recent years is the increasing number of private military security companies. Statistics show that ships that have members of private security companies significantly reduce the cases of incidents occurring. These cases often occur when security personnel are not onboard the ships. But it’s a double-edged sword. Although international law recognizes this is the situation–there are these companies operating onboard the ships–it raises the problem of the presence of firearms aboard ships and the training of these elements is complicated. And their own role on the ship  such as their relationship with the captain, the crew. It creates a lot of added difficulty.

Nonetheless, similar to what happened with the oil and gas industry, private security companies are increasing their own self-regulation. This can be a huge risk  for them if they’re not applying best standards when defending or being present onboard a ship. At the end of the day, responsibility falls with the flag state. The flag state has the obligation that these companies operating onboard the vessel actually comply with the laws of that flag states. Regarding the protection of human life, that is fundamental. Some states, there are many European states that don’t allow the presence of firearms and ammo onboard their own vessels. So there is some request by the shipping industry that many states develop the legal framework allowing the presence of military and security personnel onboard the ship.

The other element of response that’s been extremely effective is increasing level of sharing of information and intelligence and cooperation between national agencies. It’s not possible to control every ship at sea. Or, even far more impossible, to put armed guards on every ship. Flag states can’t put a guard or policeman or army personnel on every single ship. If you look at what happened the anti-piracy efforts that were undertaken by the EU and others, particularly in the Gulf of Aden, even with all the military power that was put into place in the region, we were only capable of monitoring very small portions of the space. Therefore, it is a very complicated issue and probably private security companies are the most efficient way to combat the threat. In addition to sharing of information and intelligence, which will make it possible to combat in a holistic way the proliferation of WMD.

Roger: This is all true, but it puts both commercial carriers and nautical tourism in a very difficult situation based on the security concerns. The listeners should take note of two very important cases. In 2008, the motor vessel Sirius Star was hijacked by pirates and was carrying oil cargo valued at $100 million USD, which was later negotiated for a year later in the millions sum, the largest ransom ever paid. So this is on the commercial side. In the other issue, in regards to the private security companies, some off-duty Italian marines inadvertently killed some Indians who appeared to be assuming a negative position in February of 2012. So how do companies manage security for their cargo and their tourists against such dangerous security concerns?

Vasco: Well, this is a very difficult question. In the first case, regarding the robbery of oil, that can only be fought efficiently and stopped if we try to find out how this practice has developed. You’ll be surprised to find out that in some parts of the world, for example in the Gulf of Guinea, there is a huge connection between the robbery of oil, piracy, and the financing of terrorism in other states of the the Gulf of Guinea, and also connection with illegal unreported and unregulated fishing. But that probably would take us to an entirely different podcast.

The problem really is that states have to call into port to supply. So, the safety and security of port infrastructure is also a key element to ensure that ships can call into port in a secure manner. But the professionalism of pirates and those committing robbery at sea is also increasing tremendously. Therefore, it makes it even more difficult for traditional players of the shipping industry to combat this without the support of a larger network. Meaning cooperation not only between states but also between agencies and those working at sea.

Regarding the Enrica Lexie case, this is very interesting because in this case there were two marines aboard the ship, and so the issue of diplomatic immunity has also been raised. Many questions were asked not only regarding the position taken by Italy as the responsible state, but also India, because not only was it Indian nationals who were mistakenly shot, but the area where the incident took place is also a disputed area. Since then, some sort of agreement has been reached. But this is a phenomena that we’ll continue to witness if states don’t establish legal binding guidelines for personnel aboard their vessels. At the end of the day, the flag state will be accountable if it does not exercise its obligation of due diligence to make sure the people on the ship are qualified to carry arms and use them if necessary onboard a ship.

Roger: It seems there’s a bit of tension between the increased communication and cooperation between states and the private sector, which on an ad hoc basis might want to continue with private security companies. Despite international law considering the use of force as a last resort, it appears the great challenge governing private security companies is the legal harmonization, as you said. Based on all the research out there, it doesn’t look like there’s a standard operating procedure that’s in the pipeline that might be able to produce real guidelines about how universally they should operate with arms aboard the shipping vessels.

Vasco: The IMO has made significant efforts and has put forth important guidelines that IMO member states should implement. But the situation is very complicated when you consider the size of trade. Maritime trade will increase. We’re now seeing super containers and as more countries have access to industrialization and become exporters of goods, we have no other option than to create and implement these guidelines in all parts of the world. Without them it can become extremely complicated. It’s a two-edged sword, as I said. We know that the presence of these private security companies is extremely useful and effective, but on the other hand we still see some states reluctant to enact legislation and enforce guidelines onboard their ships. Without the flag state doing that, these military private security companies can find themselves in a very dubious situation.

Roger: We’ll have to keep a close eye on this. As the listeners have heard, there’s no shortage of issues for the SCS. Do you have any last operational takeaways for the listeners?

Vasco: The SCS is not very different from other parts of the world, except that the awareness of international public opinion has become greater. The Gulf of Guinea situation is extremely complex, but the difference between the Gulf of Guinea and the SCS is that in the Gulf of Guinea we’ve witnessed a lot of maritime delimitation, initiatives, joint development, etc. So although the situation can be extremely complex and even seem hopeless, there are also in the SCS many positive examples of not only regional cooperation but also bilateral cooperation. However, there’s a road still that has to be done, and one of the key elements that will contribute is if states undertook and implemented many of the agreements that they’ve already addressed. I think that would be a positive development if states plus ASEAN and China would implement the principles they agreed to many years ago–like the 2002 Code of Conduct, and eventually, the Code of Conduct that would safeguard that these obligations would be rightfully implemented.

Roger: Vasco, amidst all the global turbulence, it’s nice to see that you’re seeing a couple of positives. Hopefully they’re not too overshadowed by all the negatives that dominate the press. No doubt your feedback today gave us a lot to think about in the SCS and globally. You can find more information in the Routledge Handbook online. Thank you again, Vasco, and goodbye.

Vasco Becker-Weinberg, Dr. iur. (Hamburg), LL.M (Lisbon), is a professor at the Faculty of Law of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and a qualified lawyer at the Portuguese Bar Association. He is the coordinator of the LL.M program on Law and Sea Economy and is undertaking post-doctoral studies in public international law at NOVA. He was previously legal advisor to the Portuguese Secretary of the Sea (2013-2015) and a full-time scholar at the International Max Planck Research School for Maritime Affairs at the University of Hamburg (2008-2012).

Roger Hilton is from Canada and a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna where he holds a Master’s Degree in Advanced International Studies. He has previous experience at the Office of the State Minister of Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration as well as with the delegation of the Kingdom of Belgium at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since 2017 he is a Non-Resident Academic Fellow at the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University in Germany. His research publications concentrate on transatlantic affairs and the post-Soviet sphere. 

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer for Sea Control. He is also Assistant Director of Maritime Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and CEO of Blue Water Metrics.

Can America Give Offshore Balancing a Chance?

By Aaron Richards

America’s Grand Strategy

Whether you are an academic, a member of the Armed Forces, or an America citizen whose main news outlet is Fox News or CNN, a common term heard in American politics is strategy. In a security environment where challenges grow by the day, we hear our leaders in government outline our national security strategy, military strategy, economic strategy, and other approaches to securing America’s interests. However, a concept that may be unfamiliar to the average American is grand strategy.

The various definitions for grand strategy center on a common theme. For the purpose of this article, grand strategy can be defined as the use of power by leaders through diplomatic, economic, military, and political means to defend their respective nation-states and interests. The United States’ grand strategy has been evolving since the 19th century. President James Monroe articulated his policy in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine, which is arguably America’s first grand strategy, “The American continents…are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” President Monroe’s call for developing a new order in the Americas paved the way for the U.S. to expand its economic and military power throughout the Western Hemisphere. 

During World War II, U.S. grand strategy under President Franklin Roosevelt focused on multilateralism with the ends being the “reestablishment of a stable international order, a prosperous global economic system, and a U.S. population free from military threat at home and abroad.” America’s superiority enabled it to succeed in its objectives in both the European and Asian theaters, leaving the U.S. as the world’s superpower following the war.

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, America’s view on the world changed drastically, given that 19 hijackers successfully executed the greatest terrorist attack on U.S. soil. As a result, President George W. Bush iterated to the world his grand strategy for the United States, which can be summarized as a strategy of preemption:

“The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction — and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. [The] United States will, if necessary, act preemptively…in an age where the enemies of civilization openly and actively seek the world’s most destructive technologies.” 

Just as with the previous two U.S. presidents, Presidents Bush and Obama, President Donald Trump entered the Oval Office as a wartime president. Each U.S. President in the 21st century has had to justify the need for American troops in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. President Obama’s foreign policy legacy will likely be remembered with triumphs, such as the raid that led to Osama bin Laden’s death and brokering a nuclear agreement between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 [The United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members (the P5); China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany]. And failures; including his reluctance to act in Syria after publicly stating President Bashar al-Assad must go and Obama’s drone policy which which has encouraged the proliferation of armed drones and the associated legal ambiguities involving their use. Given the complex geopolitical world we live in today, it may be appropriate to adopt a new approach to address today’s challenges in securing American interests. One such approach is offshore balancing.

What is Offshore Balancing?

Offshore balancing is a strategy that can allow the United States to preserve its interests at home and abroad, without weakening its relationships with allies. Offshore balancing in today’s international systems, as defined by Jon Mearsheimer (R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government), advocates “preserving U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere and countering potential hegemons in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf” and encouraging “other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, [the U.S.] intervening itself only when necessary.” Based on this definition, the United States is capable of protecting its position as the world’s sole superpower for the future while ensuring security at home.

It is evident that the U.S. will remain a regional hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, as no state currently poses a threat. However, the same cannot be said for the U.S. in other regions of the globe.  Potential hegemons that offshore balancing would be aimed at addressing include China, Russia, and Iran. In each of the three regions mentioned above, offshore balancing requires a “balancer” to maintain America’s interests abroad ranging from securing trade routes to preserving the national security of allies.

Offshore Balancing in Action: Asia

In Asia, the United States should leverage its strategic alliances with its partners in the Asia-Pacific to balance against the rise of China. The U.S. should combine the use of soft and hard balancing strategies with its Asia-Pacific allies to demonstrate that China’s aggressive behaviors in the region will not be tolerated. The key partner the U.S will need to rely upon in balancing against China’s rise is Japan.

Japan remains wary of China’s intentions in the Asia-Pacific, especially regarding territorial disputes. In February, three Chinese Coast Guard ships entered waters near a chain of islands claimed by both China and Japan in the East China Sea. Japan controls the chain and calls them the Senkaku Islands, while China calls refers to them as the Diaoyu Islands. Washington has taken a strong approach in reassuring its commitment to Japan’s territorial claims, for instance, coordinating with Tokyo to revise their Mutual Defense Guidelines (MDG) in April 2015. Given China’s growing strategic threat in the region, the updated MDG focuses on developments in military technology, improvements in interoperability of the U.S. and Japanese militaries, bilateral cooperation on cybersecurity, the use of space for defense purposes, ballistic missile defense, and cooperation in defending Japan’s outlying islands and of sea lanes relied upon by many Asia-Pacific states.

Additionally, the U.S. will need to rely on other local powers to contain China (e.g., South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines), as a stronger Japan is unlikely to counterbalance China’s rise alone. The U.S., with the agreement and cooperation of its regional partners, could develop Anti-Access and Aerial Denial (A2/AD) zones in the region to demonstrate collective strength against China’s unwillingness to abide by international law. Such a U.S.-led effort would include multilateral cooperation to build “a greater reliance in the region on short-range, tactical airpower as well as quieter, faster attack submarines and small, fast frigate-sized warships with robust anti-ship cruise missile capabilities; an expanded inventory of long-range anti-ship missiles” deployed on ships and aircraft at sea. 

Conducting such a transition will require improvements in training with allies, information-sharing, embedded military advisers, and prepositioned supplies to build a competitive advantage against China of strategic capabilities in the region that are to be used for defensive purpose only. China seems to have no issue with continuing its aggressive behavior in the Asia-Pacific, thus the United States should be proactive in incorporating offshore balancing measures to secure the interests of America and its allies.

Offshore Balancing in Action: Europe

With the case of Europe, the United States and its European allies have stated their concerns over Russia’s action in the past few years and what may potentially be on the horizon for Moscow. Arguably the strongest multilateral security organization in the world, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), is a collection of 28 states promoting democratic values and encouraging cooperation on defense and security issues to build trust and prevent conflict between allies. As part of the NATO members’ commitment to collective security, each member is expected to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) toward defense spending. Currently, only five nations meet that commitment, with the United States spending over $660 billion in 2016. While America’s support is needed to deter Russian aggression in Europe, there are approaches in which the U.S. can lessen its financial burden on providing NATO security but maintain the trust and security of its European allies.

Soldiers from Poland’s 6th Airborne Brigade and the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division during the NATO allies’ Anakonda 16 exercise near Torun, Poland. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

For instance, increasing the U.S. military footprint in Europe may not be as effective in countering Russia’s growing role in Europe. Recent strategic documents coming from the Kremlin state Russia’s goals in the region include maintaining a military advantage over NATO (which Russia sees as a threat to its security) and politically controlling neighboring spaces and countries to create buffer zones as protection from invasions and external instabilities. Thus, the U.S. should allow its European allies to bolster its own security forces and posture while Washington leverages its soft power to develop a selective engagement approach to strengthen European partnerships and counter Russian influence. The U.S. can serve as an offshore balancer to Russia in Europe by providing security assistance to NATO allies to “increase pre-positioning, develop stronger deterrence measures for the Black Sea…and exploit technologies including longer-range aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and stealthy platforms to address Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.” 

If a scenario were to occur whereby Russia antagonizes European allies, the U.S. can deploy necessary troops or capabilities to deter further Russian aggression. In the long-term, allowing European allies to lead in their collective security allows the U.S. to support when  required and demonstrate to Russia that Europe is capable of countering Russian bellicosity.

Offshore Balancing in Action: Middle East

With the Middle East, the United States has, and will continue to have, strategic interests in the region; including the promotion of a more stable and prosperous region with increasingly effective governance, improved security, and trans-regional cooperation to counter state and non-state actors posing a threat to the U.S. and its allies. However, there needs to be a balance between America’s direct role in shaping the region and the need for a proactive, lead role from its Middle East partners who are more directly affected by the security environment of the region.

In the Middle East, an offshore balancing approach should not be viewed as abandoning our allies, but requiring regional powers to “bear the primary responsibility for dealing with crises on the ground, [America’s] military strategy is [to be] oriented toward policing the sea lanes and the skies, and direct intervention is contemplated only when the balance of power is dramatically upset.” The implementation of offshore balancing can be directed toward countering Iran’s aggressive behavior in the Gulf region.

While the United States was able to broker a nuclear accord with Iran in 2015, Washington remains concerned about Tehran’s malign activities in the Gulf. As Central Command’s (CENTCOM) commander  General Joseph Votel stated at a recent Congressional hearing, “Iran poses the greatest long-term threat to stability for this part of the world” due to Iran’s “malign influence across Iraq and Syria,” and efforts to prop up the Syrian regime and exploit Shia population centers. To counter Iran in the region to prevent the Islamic Republic from attaining regional dominance, the U.S. does not need to engage in extensive intervention, rather, it will need to rely on its strategic partners in the region.

The United States should focus on bolstering its support for those Middle East states in which Iran has been proactive in building its influence; specifically Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. In Syria, Iran continues to bolster the Assad regime, contributing to the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. A more assertive, military-centric approach to finding a solution in Syria is unlikely to prevail, but rather elongate the dire situation in which millions of Syrian civilians are fleeing or being killed.  To move toward a negotiated transition will require “a willingness to apply American resources more forcefully toward a diplomatic outcome that meets the minimum requirements of all relevant actors—including security for all civilians regardless of sect.” Washington should focus on resolving the humanitarian crisis in Syria, as it is unknown if and when a political solution will be achieved. Focusing on counterterrorism activities such as airstrikes aligns with U.S. security interests, but continuing to stock pro-Western militias (if they are discernable versus those backing Syria and Iran) may lead to long-term fighting as even those against the Assad regime have their own oppositions amongst one another. A political solution is needed in any case in Syria, a failed state for the foreseeable future, even if it requires Iran and/or Russia as the leading adjudicator.

As for Lebanon, it seems that Beirut has faded as an area of strategic value for the U.S. in recent years. Iran’s influence includes military, political, cultural, financial, and religious programs “aimed at enhancing the image and strength of Hezbollah, justifying Iranian presence and influence in Lebanon as well as its ties with Hezbollah, and turning public opinion in Lebanon against the United States, Israel and Sunni Arab countries.” Iran’s influence in Beirut continues to grow, especially since Lebanon gained a new president and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was the first top diplomat to meet with him. With the new U.S. administration, President Trump will need to engage with Lebanon more actively and increase U.S. financial and military commitments to the country.

Washington must make it clear to the Lebanese government that it opposes all forms of Iranian military aid to the Lebanese army. Instead, the U.S. government should work with its regional allies to develop a strategy to strengthen Lebanon’s state institutions to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon; whether by improving training and military-to-military cooperation to build sustainable security forces that are more competent than Hezbollah or increasing support for programs, such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative, to enhance America’s image in Lebanon’s Shiite community. If President Trump and his administration want to sustain their strategic interests in the Gulf region, our leaders will need to re-evaluate their comprehensive approach to addressing the challenges of the Middle East.

Conclusion

The examples of offshore balancing approaches provided above may or may not be applicable to today’s security environment in the next week, month, or year. The world we live in today continues to evolve and the future is uncertain to an extent. Thus, the United States can gradually shift toward acting as an offshore balancer in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf until the international setting changes requiring Washington to react more aggressively.

The United States is not always in the position to lead from the front to solve international crises, however, its involvement is probably needed given its influence across the globe. A majority of Americans prefer the U.S. to focus on domestic issues, however, implementing a reactive posture in dealing with challenges in each strategic region of the globe will result in long-term setbacks in achieving U.S. security interests abroad. Offshore balancing in practice should be not perceived as isolationism, either by Americans or our international partners. Washington must collaborate with its allies to prevent emergence of revisionist hegemons to ensure U.S. security at home and around the world. 

It is difficult to deny that we live in a multipolar world with a vast array of security challenges. As an offshore balancer, the U.S. can rely upon nuclear deterrence, air power, and naval power to ensure its interests and the security of its allies. Concrete vital interests should determine America’s commitments abroad, rather than credibility determining commitments and thus commitments determining interests. With a cohesive strategy and commitment from leadership, the United States can be a successful offshore balancer —maintaining U.S. security interests without weakening its relationship with its allies who should now act in a greater role in preserving security in the world’s more strategically important regions.

Aaron Richards currently works as a Senior Analyst within the Defense & National Security Sector of Deloitte Consulting LLP. He holds a Master of Science in Defense and Strategic Studies from Missouri State University and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Affairs from Hofstra University. Aaron was recently nominated to the George C. Marshall Fellowship Class of 2017 sponsored by The Heritage Foundation. Aaron has also written on other national security issues for the Ecologic Institute’s Arctic Summer College and Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) conference series.

Featured Image: Map of WWI by G.F. Morell. (Advocate’s Library Edinburgh)

Announcing Winners of the Commodore John Barry Maritime Security Scholarship

By Roger Misso

It has been an exciting scholarship judging season at CIMSEC! We were lucky to have a slew of essay submissions and a great panel of judges for our Commodore John Barry Maritime Security Scholarship Contest. Alas, we had to narrow down our choices…

…and the winners are:
FIRST PLACE: Patrick C. Lanham, Senior, Cocoa Beach Jr./Sr. High School (Florida)
SECOND PLACE: Christopher L. Rielage, Senior, Percival Blakeney Academy (Hawaii)
THIRD PLACE: Matthew Lidz, Senior, Bernards Township School District (New Jersey)
Congratulations to the winners! In the coming days and weeks, we will publish their essays and honorable mentions here at CIMSEC.

We are exceptionally proud to have had such a geographically diverse pool of submissions. The commitment to and knowledge of the great maritime issues among our nation’s high schoolers is strong, and bodes well for both the United States and the world in the future. 

We invite all authors—of any age or grade level—to submit their best content on maritime security issues to CIMSEC. We look forward to reading!

Roger Misso is the Vice President of CIMSEC.

Featured Image: Pen and paper (A. Birkan ÇAĞHAN/Flickr)

The NATO of the New North

From author Ian Birdwell comes The Changing Arctic, a column focusing on the unique security challenges presented by the increasingly permissive environment in the High North. The Changing Arctic examines legal precedents, rival claimants, and possible resolutions for disputes among the Arctic nations, as well as the economic implications of accessing the region’s plentiful resources.

By Ian Birdwell

Introduction

NATO is justifiably focused on dissuading Russian aggression, especially given the Federation’s aggressive actions over the past two years in the region. However, there is growing concern for NATO’s northern flank: the Arctic Ocean and far northern Atlantic. The warming of global temperatures presents new challenges related to rising sea levels to navies like the United States,’1 but the retreat of ice in the Arctic Ocean poses a new risk as an avenue to exploit NATO’s flank in Europe. Though some budding conversation determining NATO’s role in defending Arctic nations like Norway from new security challenges is occurring,2 NATO’s gaze remains focused on ground threats throughout Eastern Europe. Despite the persistence of NATO’s strategic goals of deterrence and cooperation, a warmer Arctic demands the attention of NATO powers to preserve regional stability. Looking toward the role NATO could play in maintaining an Arctic balance of power into the future, it is important to acknowledge NATO’s regional hurdles and the strategies the alliance could employ to overcome them.
NATO’s goal has always been deterrence through mutual defense and cooperation between member state militaries, but this has never rung quite as clear among its member states as it has since the onset of the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. The crisis, if not instigated by the Russian Federation, certainly advances, exacerbated by the comments of Russian officials and state actions. Since then, Eastern European NATO states have clamored for NATO support in counteracting Russian aggression. Vladimir Putin’s regime regularly draws international ire for their actions moving to exploit Arctic oil resources, the effects those operations may have on surrounding communities, and the measures against those protesting oil exploration.3 For the Russian Federation, the Arctic Ocean represents more than just a birthplace of new oil revenues and potential superpower status, it is one of the only areas of the world were its navy may be able to operate more effectively than NATO.

Russia’s Oil and Gas Activities in the Arctic (Malte Humpert/The Arctic Institute)

The Russian Northern Fleet possesses a slight advantage over NATO forces in several crucial areas, including a slight and recent increase in submarine warfare capabilities,4 a focus on constructing Arctic naval installations,5 and a plethora of icebreakers compared to NATO.6 Russian forces certainly retain a regional upper hand at the moment yet the aged nature of their equipment belays an opportunity for NATO to deter Russian regional aggression if action is swiftly taken. Finally, to accommodate necessary actions to dissuade aggression, the alliance must gather the funding to make readiness plans a reality, which could become a difficult prospect. Most NATO members overlook the requirement to contribute two percent of national GDP towards military operations, leaving other NATO states like the United States to fit the bill.7 With a new American administration critical of NATO’s funding woes, member states may grow concerned NATO capital will go toward the defense of Eastern European states or other areas with higher visibility.8

Arctic Adaptation

NATO possesses the capability to address and overcome the challenges laid before it. A promising step to move NATO toward readiness for Arctic operations would be to expand the frequency of training activities in the High North. While the norm for nations with Arctic waters like Canada,9 Norway, and the United States,10 the inclusion of non-Arctic NATO powers in a variety of training exercises could prove pivotal in deterring aggression within the Arctic. This past summer, NATO held an anti-submarine warfare exercise called Dynamic Mongoose in the Norwegian Sea that included vessels from eight alliance members.11 With other operations planned for later this year,12 increasing the frequency of such operations, the variety of weather conditions faced, and diversifying into other types of exercises such as amphibious assault drills will allow NATO to become acclimated to regional obstacles and gain the flexibility to respond to threats.

The costlier long-term readiness goal involves the expansion of ports close to or within the Arctic Circle to house larger vessels and the construction of new facilities. Accomplishing this task would help close Russia’s geographic and logistical advantages while assisting troops in becoming acclimated to the region’s weather conditions. Moreover, those expanded ports hold the potential to facilitate an increase in commercial traffic, provide a base for scientific research vessels, and contribute to the logistical support of search and rescue operations – all valuable assets for nations wishing to study a changing global climate. For these reasons, the Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. investigated deepening the Port of Nome.13 Dredging and enlarging ports in the region offer a boon to NATO’s defense goals while boosting Arctic infrastructure for other non-military functions.

The last and largest task for NATO powers concerned about Russian Arctic capabilities is providing the funding necessary to meet their NATO obligations. Each NATO nation with Arctic borders proffers in various declarations their preferred method to move forward with Arctic defense is to cooperate with close allies to fill gaps in their defenses.14 If Canada, Denmark, and Norway,15 NATO Arctic powers currently shy of their NATO percentage pledges, increase their military funding closer to the required two percent of national GDP, then it becomes easier for NATO to achieve its overarching security goals within and outside of the Arctic region.

Conclusion

NATO transformed from a tool bolstering European Defense in the early days of the Cold War into an alliance pulled in several directions in the name of collective security. Today NATO faces a familiar sight, a Europe pressured by an aggressive Russia. Yet as NATO reinforces its easternmost borders, the Russian Federation focuses on a new, warming frontier that could provide a new threat axis where Russia enjoys preeminence.

Ian Birdwell holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and International Politics from George Mason University.

References

1. Myers, Meghann “Rising oceans threaten to submerge 128 military bases:report” Navy Times. July 29, 2016 https://www.navytimes.com/story/military/2016/07/29/rising-oceans-threaten-submerge-18-military-bases-report/87657780/

2. Dearden, Lizzie “Norway urges Donald Trump to announce clear policy on Russia amid fears of military activity in Arctic” Independent December 3, 2016 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/donald-trump-russia-vladimir-putin-norway-nato-clear-policy-arctic-bases-submarines-military-a7453581.html

3. Luhn, Alec “Arctic oil rush: Nenet’s livelihood and habitat at risk from oil spills” The Guardian December 23, 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/23/arctic-oil-rush-nenets-livelihood-and-habitat-at-risk-from-oil-spills

4. Sonne, Paul “Russia’s Military sophistication in the Arctic sends echoes of the Cold War” The Wall Street Journal October 4, 2016 http://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-upgrades-military-prowess-in-arctic-1475624748

5. Einhorn, Catrin, Hannah Fairfield, and Tim Wallace “Russia rearms for a new era” New York Times December 24, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/12/24/world/asia/russia-arming.html

6. Snow, Shawn “Retired 4-Star: US Military ill-prepared for Arctic confrontation” Military Times December 27, 2016 http://www.militarytimes.com/articles/retired-4-star-us-military-ill-prepared-for-arctic-confrontation

7. Thomassen, Daniel “Norway faces a new era of Russian realpolitik in the Arctic” Center for International Maritime Security July 5, 2016 http://cimsec.org/norway-faces-new-era-russian-realpolitik-arctic/25984

8. Frum, David “Trump will inherit the biggest NATO buildup in Europe Since the Cold War” The Atlantic January 10, 2017

9. Pugliese, David “Canadian Forces to expand Nunavut training centre as Russia plans more bases in the Arctic” National Post February 23, 2016 http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/canadian-forces-to-expand-nunavut-training-centre-as-russias-plans-more-bases-in-the-arctic

10. Schehl, Matthew L. “Marines hit the arctic for largest winter exercise since the Cold War” Marine Corps Times March 2, 2016 https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/story/military/2016/03/02/marine-hit-arctic-largest-winter-exercise-since-cold-war/81161832/

11. North Atlantic Treaty Organization “NATO Launches anti-submarine warfare exercise in Norwegian Sea” June 20, 2016 NATO Press Release http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_132596.htm?IselectedLocale=en

12. Thomassen, Daniel “Norway faces a new era of Russian realpolitik in the Arctic” Center for International Maritime Security July 5, 2016 http://cimsec.org/norway-faces-new-era-russian-realpolitik-arctic/25984

13. Zak, Annie “Port of Nome sees big growth as traversing the Arctic gets easier” Alaska Dispatch News November 24, 2016 https://www.adn.com/business-economy/2016/11/24/port-of-nome-sees-big-growth-as-traversing-the-arctic-gets-easier/

14. Wezeman, Siemon T. “Military Capabilties in the Arctic: A new cold war in the high north?” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute October 2016 https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Military-capabilities-in-the-Arctic.pdf

15. North Atlantic Treaty Organization Public Diplomacy Division “Defense Expenditures of NATO Countries” North Atlantic Treaty Organization July 4, 2016 http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_07/20160704_160704-pr2016-116.pdf

Featured Image: U.S. Coast Guard (Patrick Kelley)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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