Tag Archives: UNCLOS

Wrapping Up Sea-based Nation Week

New international law: an EEZ 5 hexagons wide


I started out the week with a few of my own thoughts and an interview with Randy Hencken, Executive Director of the Seasteading Institute, who was gracious enough to reach out and participate in our discussion.


In “From Jules Verne to Sir Julian Corbett” Viribus Unitis provided a worse-case scenario for rogue sea-based nations, and along with LT AJ Kruppa’s “Sea-based Nation Security” delved into the issues of warfare and maritime security among city-state platforms.  LT Kurt Albaugh took a similar tack and pondered the potential use of sea city-states as Afloat Forward Staging Bases and launching pads for military operations in “Bridging the Moat.”


Ian Sundstrom examined the question of “Who Would Benefit Most from Seasteading?” – particularly the numbers behind the hope proposing replacing low-lying islands threatened by climate change.  In “Ice-basing the Arctic,” LT Allen Tweedie questioned whether seasteads could harness the new round of excitement over trade routes and minerals in the Arctic Circle.  Meanwhile, LTJG Matt Hipple imagined a future of seasteads at the forefront of mineral claim-stakers in “Seasteaders: Mining the Sea, Mining the Future.”


Exploring the source and models of sovereignty also featured prominently in CDR Doyle Hodge’s “Sea-based Nations and Sovereignty,” Matt Hipple’s “SeaUnsteady: Personal Sovereignty” and Susanne Tempelhof’s “Why the U.S. Should Embrace Seasteading.”  This segued into discussions on the nature of citizenship and government in the last two articles –where seasteaders particularly hope to inspire new lines of thinking.


A few final thoughts:


International Law:

One common issue posters grappled with was the applicability of international law to the concept of seasteads.  As it stands, international law in the form of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) throws up many road blocks for seasteads and sea-based nations.


Ian Sundstrom pointed out that UNCLOS doesn’t grant man-made structures their own EEZs, reducing the resource incentives for a seastead to transition from a flagged vessel to a micro-nation; LTJG Hipple noted UNCLOS has established rules for the mining the deep-sea bed in international waters; and, multiple posters discussed both the necessity of flagging a seastead as a vessel (if only for their own protection) and the restrictive effects of existing states’ territorial waters, contingency zones, and EEZs on placing a new sea-based nation.  


All this illustrates the importance and real impact international law can have on maritime security and the health of a nation’s economy.  It also suggests the benefits to be gained by influencing international law to one’s own advantage – as Randy Henrickson himself pointed out.  This is something done through enforcement of international customary law, for example freedom of navigation transits through international straits, or by having a seat at the table when negotiating the terms of treaties or helping to enforce, interpret, or implement them.  True, a nation (even a sea-based nation) can violate the rules, but there are courts and international mechanisms which can make it very painful on the pocket-book to do so (whether or not a signatory), through negative trade rulings, banking sanctions, or exclusion from certain markets.  In short, those hoping to seastead or create a sea-based nation have a lot of work to do not only in creating new experiments in government, but in changing or gaining acceptance for new international norms.


A conveninent flag but a risky defense


The preferable flag for seasteads will vary based both on their location and their future intent.  Those seeking to eventually declare themselves a fully fledged micro-nation would do well to choose a flag of convenience.  While flags of convenience provide only the bare minimum of legal security against other states and criminal enterprise, they do promise minimal interference both in the short-term and the day when a seastead attempts to gain acceptance as a micro-state.  The navies and coercive powers of Panama and Liberia are, sorry to say, not particularly fearsome.  Additionally, the lack of security provisions of the flag state can be balanced by recourse to the legal systems (and militaries) of the seatead’s own citizens – at least until they become members of their new micro-nation.   


For those seeking to create a seastead near the EEZ of another nation, there are a couple options, each with its own advantage, if autonomy short of independence is acceptable. First, the seastead could seek the flag of the major port – this would greatly lower the cost of doing business with what will likely be the seastead’s major trading partner and critical logistical support hub.  Second, the seastead could seek the flag of a “champion powerful enough to coerce non-interference,” as CDR Hodges put it.  This could be a nation looking for a major trading hub, a nation looking for a military foothold in the region, or some combination of the two.


Sovereignty and Resources:

No matter what route seasteads take to attempt the transition to micro-nations or harness the resources of international waters, the difficulties they will face are daunting – but not insurmountable.  


A clear mechanism for the transition to micro-nation would be preferable.  Perhaps with minimum qualifications such as self-sufficiency, a written constitution, a minimum population level (and a hefty “application fee”).  Whether or not the sea-based nation was mobile would also factor in, with a permanent residence likely gaining greater acceptance.  A successful qualification could be awarded territorial waters an EEZ, and a zone in which it can mine the deep sea bed.  These distances could be specifically delineated on a case-by-case just as the 200nm EEZ was created out of whole cloth.  A sea-based micro-nation could be its own form of sovereignty with its own legal conditions rooted in international law.  Here I turn the question to you – what other sorts of qualifications do you think should be applied?


In reality we are likely to see more muddled development, with some seasteads gaining recognition by one set of nations, and others another.  The aforementioned powerful champions will likely aid those with cultural ties, hold out the promise of co-developing resources, or offer a military or economic foothold as described above – presenting seasteads with the trick of charting their course to true sovereignty in a sea full of sharks (but such is the case of diplomacy everywhere).


“I was promised a cabin with an ocean view!”


Lastly, seasteads may also experiment with what are really old models of armed forces, by requiring all hands or all citizens to be ready to defend themselves against attack (see picture), they may require new citizens to spend a spell in dedication to the nation (universal conscription), or they may just hire out mercenaries. The size, economic-base, wealth, technological level, form of government, and relative security will all play a role in determining the form of the armed forces.  


It’s also important to remember that not every seastead or sea-based nation will be floating, but many will, and that will make them particularly vulnerable to any sort of attack.  The morality of bombing/torpedoing such a target might be equated to sinking dual-use ocean liners and might force the type of hybrid maritime/urban warfare Viribus Unitis discussed – especially if the sea-based nation develops few offensive or stand-off weapons to justify an initial bombardment.  



We may hear more about sea-based nations in the future, with another interview or two in the works. And for those of you in the DC area, don’t forget our meet-up Wednesday, from 6-10pm at District Pi Pizza, where you’ll have a chance to meet a few of the posters and discuss in person the writing. We’ll also have an informal poll from the week for the Best Written, Most Original Thought, and Most Persuasive pieces.

Sea-Based Nations and Sovereignty: What Makes a Nation-state?

Not your typical pirate mothership

To me, one of the more interesting assertions made by Randy Henrickson in his CIMSEC interview was this: “To avoid legally being a pirate, seasteads will have to flag themselves with the flag of an existing nation and partner up. As seasteading matures and grows, we foresee seasteads eventually breaking off when they have enough of their own economic power and population to no longer need to be binded to existing governments, when they’re at a point where they can be recognized by others as a micro-nation.”


There are a couple of interesting elements here: first, the notion that activities which are legal and even encouraged when done under the aegis of a flag might be considered illegal if done without such protection (although, depending on the specific activities Henrickson contemplates, piracy might not be the specific crime); second why would a nation be willing to “spin-off” an economically fruitful “micro-nation” whether at sea or on land?


This second question underscores the ambition of the seasteading project.  Up to this point in human history, every time a new nation-state has emerged, it has been tied with a specific piece of territory.  And, unfortunately, most newly sovereign states have experienced some degree of violence in achieving their independence.  Whether independence was achieved by revolution, decolonization, or partition, a greater or lesser degree of political violence has frequently accompanied it, either before or shortly after independence.  Partly, this stems from the physical, historical, and emotional attachment that human beings have to territory.  Partly it stems from the challenges of identity in forming both a nation and a state.[1]  But it also stems from the economic benefit that the larger nation derives from activity within the smaller territory.   To suppose that a flag state would willingly give up the economic benefit they derive from a productive seastead may be a bit optimistic.


Of course, the flag nation willingly letting go is only half the problem facing a seastead as it tries to make the transition to micro-nation.  If the emerging nation is not recognized by the international community, either broadly, or at least by a champion powerful enough to coerce non-interference, the seastead is left for all practical purposes as a ship without a flag (which may be what Mr. Hencken meant by a pirate vessel).  Established U.S. statutory and case law, as well as some international law, suggests that such a vessel enjoys no protection against any state which seeks to exercise jurisdiction over it.  A flagged vessel enjoys the sovereign protection of the flag state; an unflagged vessel or a vessel flagged to a nation not recognized as sovereign has no such protection.


That sovereignty is really the heart of the question.  A seastead seeking to transition to a sea-based nation is trying to manufacture sovereignty where there previously was none.  On the day before transition, the seastead is effectively a ship—a little shard of another nation’s sovereignty acting on a global commons.  On the day after, the ship has ceased to be a shard of another nation and has become a nation in its own right—a small one, to be sure—but a nation with all the same rights, responsibilities, and sovereignty of any other nation.


Michael Walzer, an influential thinker on just war theory and international relations, offers a view on morality in the international system, centered on the concept of sovereignty.  Drastically simplified, Walzer offers the view that the only crime in the international system that justifies the use of force is aggression, which he defines as the violation of a nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  While some aspects Walzer’s theory are not universally accepted, he neatly encapsulate a powerful school of thinking which highlights a couple of challenges that the aspiring seasteader, especially of the mobile variety, must overcome.


First, sovereignty has traditionally been closely aligned with territorial integrity.  Inherent in the notion of territorial integrity is, well, territory.  How do you define sovereignty and territorial integrity in the case of a platform that is inherently mobile and not tied to any territory at all?  Whatever other challenges may attend the new nation of South Sudan, no one in the international community is worried that the nation will decide to pick up the country and move because they like the climate, resources, or economic opportunities better in Morocco.  If a seastead were to maneuver into the EEZ of a coastal nation, whose sovereignty would have precedence?  Outside of an EEZ, why should other sea-faring nations accede to a new entity exerting sovereignty over a portion of the sea that was previously open to everyone?  If the sea based nation wanted to move elsewhere on the high seas, would they exert sovereignty over that new location, too?


In search of a better deal

The Second—and by my view the more difficult challenge—is explaining the incentive for the international community to accept the sovereignty of a newly formed sea-based nation at all.  While the threat may be small, the aspiring nation offers a potential challenger for resources, ranging from seabed minerals to the tax revenues brought in by businesses.  With sovereignty comes the right to defend that sovereignty—what incentive does a coastal state have to welcome the introduction of another armed power into their region?  It would also be surprising if Palestinians, Kurds, or others national groups who lack both territory and sovereignty do not raise some objection to the justice of granting sovereignty to a seastead with little of the cultural, political, and social identity that marks a nation, while they themselves remain disenfranchised.   If a seastead wants admission to the club of nation-states, they will likely need to explain how the club will benefit by their membership.  While not insuperable, this will be a high bar to reach.


CDR Doyle Hodges is a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy. He has commanded a rescue and salvage ship in the Pacific and a destroyer in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Middle East.  He is the Chairman of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Seamanship and Navigation Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Naval Academy.


[1] For a good discussion of the challenges of statehood without nationhood, see Lemay-Hébert, N., 2009, ‘Statebuilding without Nation-building? Legitimacy, State Failure and the Limits of the Institutionalist Approach’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding’, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 21-45.  For a good discussion of the necessary components of nationhood see Anderson, Benedict Imagined Communities.  New York: Verso. 2006.

Who Would Benefit Most from Seasteading?


Would you trade this…

At its core, seasteading is designed as an alternative to existing nation-states. Its proponents understand, however, that for the foreseeable future seasteading must operate within existing legal and political structures.[1]  Early seasteads are likely to be simply converted ships, and a 2012 report by The Seasteading Institute (TSI) notes that under international law every ocean-going vessel must fly the flag of an existing state in order to operate legally and without undue interference.[2] Given concerns about avoiding external intrusion in the affairs of seasteads, this generates an inevitable connection between seasteads and the state system they are meant to escape as seasteads are flagged. Because of this connection, it is possible that states themselves might stand to benefit from exploiting the idea.


Seasteading could offer several benefits to states. Much as oil platforms allow the exploitation of undersea resources, seasteading could be used as a platform for aquaculture or fishing. This might be attractive to land-locked countries like Afghanistan or Switzerland, or to countries with poor agricultural productivity. Seasteads could also be used to address overcrowding in the likes of Singapore, Macau, or Hong Kong. These may be productive roles for seasteading, but the most compelling case for their use comes from the effects of climate change.


Estimates for the potential rise in sea level as a result of climate change vary widely, from a low of perhaps 13cm by 2100 to a high of 95cm.[3] Kiribati, the Maldives, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands all consist entirely of atoll islands, averaging a mere two meters above sea level.[4] If rising sea levels approach the higher estimates, all of these island states could be inundated or uninhabitable.[5] This would effectively end their national existence. The technology used for seasteading could offer a way for these states to escape their destruction.


…for this?

There are problems, however. First, there are legal issues. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not recognize man-made ocean structures or extensions of islands as having territorial waters or Exclusive Economic Zones. This prohibits states from using offshore platforms to game the system to their advantage. It would also prevent seasteads from having any legal control over sea resources or the waters surrounding them. Additionally, UNCLOS does not acknowledge uninhabitable islands as exercising any control over the surrounding sea. This is especially concerning from the perspective of island states attempting circumvent their destruction through seasteading. If, for example, the islands of Kiribati ceased to become inhabitable, its territorial waters and EEZ would disappear, even if Kiribati continued to exist as a state contained within a seastead. It is not at all clear that UNCLOS would protect the rights of formerly habitable or completely submerged islands.[6]


On top of the legal problems, there are cost concerns. Seasteading promises to be very expensive. TSI estimates that an average platform will run $300-400 per square foot of usable space. Annual maintenance costs are anticipated to be between five and 25% of capital value.[7] While this is not inordinately expensive when compared to property values in the affluent cities of developed countries, it is well out of reach for the island states which could most directly benefit from seasteading. Kiribati had a GDP of approximately $600 million and a population of 103,500 in 2011. At the estimated prices, Kiribati could build a maximum of between 1,475,000 and 1,996,666 square feet of seastead. This is, unfortunately, nowhere near enough space to house its population, much less host productive industry. Even if built, maintenance costs could run between $30 million and $150 million per year. On top of this, electricity is expected to be approximately two and a half times as expensive as on land.[8] Furthermore, the costs of keeping a seastead on a fixed station are difficult to determine. Possibilities range from about $20 per household per month to $1600 per person per month.[9]


While seasteading offers a way for island states to escape the consequences of rising sea levels, it is too expensive for these states to exploit it. Seasteading may prove beneficial for states which can use it on a smaller scale – such as for establishing fishing or aquaculture communities – but as a means for counteracting the destruction of existing island states it is not feasible.

Ian Sundstrom is an MA student in War Studies at King’s College London.

[1] Philip Steinberg, Elizabeth Nyman, and Mauro Caraccioli (2012), ‘Atlas Swam: Freedom, Capital, and Floating Sovereignties in the Seasteading Vision’, Antipode, Vol. 44, No. 4, p. 1544.

[2] Sean Hickman (2012), Flagging Options for Seasteading Projects, (The Seasteading Institute), p. 3.

[3] Michael Edwards (1999), ‘The Security Implications of a Worst-Case Scenario of Climate Change in the Southwest Pacific’, Australian Geographer, Vol. 30, No. 3, p. 313.

[4] Joe Barnett and Neil Alger (2003), ‘Climate Dangers and Atoll Countries’, Climate Change, No. 61, p. 322.

[5] Edwards (1999), p. 313.

[6] Edwards (1999), p. 315.

[7] Brad Taylor (2010), Governing Seasteads: An Outline of the Options (The Seasteading Institute).

[8] Eelco Hoogendoorn (2012), Seasteading Engineering Report, Part I (The Seasteading Institute).

[9] Hoogendoorn (2012), pp. 22-23.

Scarborough Fair

Keeping tabs on the neighbors.

While no longer making regular headlines, the stand-off over the Scarborough Shoal/Panatag Shoal/Huangyan Island continues. Since April 10th both China and the Philippines have maintained a presence in the area, but one limited to civilian agencies – the Philippines Coast Guard on one side, and the Chinese Maritime Surveillance agency on the other.

Rather than trading literal broadsides, China and the Philippines have fought this dispute mostly through the figurative variety in the diplomatic and economic spheres. Philippines President Benigno Aquino suggested exploring joint ventures in the area and sent envoys to Beijing to attempt to resolve the crisis. China meanwhile issued travel advisories for the Philippines, halted tours, scaled back commercial flights, and quarantined incoming Philippine bananas on pest-control grounds.

Both nations have issued fishing bans on the Shoal area in the past week. The Chinese most likely issued the ban because their own fishermen will stay away until monsoon rains abate in the fall, and the stay-behind surveillance ship snow have a pretext in the ban for enforcement. The Philippines, meanwhile, supposedly issued their own ban in order to protect depleted fishing stocks, but this adversely affects the economies of local fishing communities that depend on fishing the Shoal grounds year-round to make their livelihoods.

Making their case.

With personal financial stability and pride at stake, it’s no surprise that civilians at times seem readier to push the situation towards a conflict than the two nations’ governments. In addition to the wide-spread nationalism (and minor protest rallies) whipped up on both sides and given voice in online forums, some 20 protestors and camera crew planned to make the case for the Philippines by setting up a protest on the shoal itself. They were persuaded by President Aquino to allow the government negotiators in Beijing a chance to achieve a constructive outcome.

Despite what my colleague believes about the benefits of the U.S. sitting on the sidelines of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Scarborough Shoal stand-off is an apt example of how not having ratified the treaty can hamstring the U.S.’ ability to bring pressure to bear on another country (China) for failing to live up to its treaty obligations in pursuance of a peaceful and diplomatic resolution. For while the Philippines is building a case for the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), one of the UNCLOS conflict-resolution mechanisms, China, another signatory, refuses to abide by any rulings of the tribunal.

With the stand-off as a backdrop, both sides are expanding their naval forces. The Philippine navy is set to take possession of another U.S. Coast Guard vessel Tuesday, the ex-USCGC Dallas, of the same type as its current flagship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar. The Chinese Maritime Surveillance administration is also rapidly expanding in numbers (h/t Chuck Hill – CGBlog.org). This is the agency that intervened at the Shoal and prevented the Philippine navy from arresting the Chinese fisherman whose discovery began the current stand-off. While a nation with an expansive coastline and far-flung fishing interests has legitimate needs for a competent coast guard, the continuing Scarborough Shoal stand-off is just one more illustration that ships of this agency are enforcers of state policy, and Chinese maritime state policy has been rather uncompromising of late.