Confused Seas: Searching for Maritime Security in an Insecure World

This article was originally published in the Australian Naval Review, produced by the Australian Naval Institute. Its reproduction here has been authorized by the Council of the Australian Naval Institute. The copyright of the article published remains with the author, and the copyright of the Australian Naval Review remains with the Australian Naval Institute.

By Jimmy Drennan

In 2008, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, argued the world was entering an Age of Nonpolarity. He suggested the world had progressed from the bipolar Cold War era, past the unipolarity that followed the United States’ victory, and even the multipolar era of multiple competing nation states that many believed had emerged in the early 21st century. Although Haass underestimated the rise of China, more than a decade later many of his assertions prove remarkably prescient. He identified cross-border flows (e.g., information, disease, people, energy, and lawful and unlawful goods) as primary drivers of power diffusion, and the importance of pragmatic diplomacy to form situational partnerships based on common interests. Haass’ nonpolar world depicted an international system governed by an undefined number of power brokers – none of whom would be able to establish enduring influence or leadership over the system itself. Much like a ship rocked by waves coming from all about, caused by strong, rapid shifts in wind direction, the international system is experiencing turmoil as a lack of global leadership exacerbates a number of destabilizing conditions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the maritime sector.

Almost all nations have a shared interest in international maritime security, but absent global leadership, individual actors myopically pursuing their own interests are making the seas less secure. The global economy depends on the free flow of shipping through key waterways and the world’s major ports, yet a few coastal states or even small militias could threaten access to these critical chokepoints. State and non-state actors alike exploit weakly governed waters for illicit gain, wreaking havoc on local economies. Beneath the sea floor, massive stores of natural resources invite confrontation among governments that claim dominion under various laws and precedents. Then, there is the ubiquitous power struggle between the United States and China that permeates all of these issues. The specter of armed conflict at sea affects all maritime nations. 

Leadership is necessary to steady this tumultuous international system, and since it may be impossible for a single nation to consistently influence the system in Haass’ nonpolar world, groups of nations and actors with common interests must form as needed. While it is impossible to achieve unanimity on any issue in international affairs, the idea that the high seas should be free for use by all is worth defending. 

The Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) exists to foster discussion on securing the seas. Granted, not all of the world’s problems can be solved with dialogue, but without it, solutions often tend to be messy, wasteful, and sometimes tragic. Just as confused seas will eventually yield to a prevailing weather system, today’s turbulent maritime security environment will certainly give way to the most dominant forces. Whether those forces are aligned with the principles most maritime nations share is decidedly less so. CIMSEC aims to facilitate the exchange of international perspectives in order to help establish organizing principles under which groups of like-minded nations and actors can pursue maritime security.

Contributors to Maritime Insecurity

Perhaps the largest contributor to today’s maritime insecurity is the burgeoning competition between the United States and China. The ascendance of China is not necessarily to blame, but rather the fact that neither country seems particularly motivated to assume global maritime leadership, outside of escalatory naval activities and a burgeoning missile arms race. At the 2020 Singapore Summit in September, foreign policy and economic experts discussed how “a leaderless and divided world will be the new normal.” Ngaire Woods, Dean of the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, argued the struggle between the United States and China creates “an opportunity for other countries to start playing off those superpowers and push further for the changes they’ve been wanting.” 

This is causing instability in the maritime sector, and leadership will be required to unite these individual interests into actual progress. It remains unclear whether the United States will provide that leadership. Today, no one, inside Washington, D.C. or out, can meaningfully describe America’s maritime strategy. The U.S. Navy struggles to even settle on a future force plan amid the transition of Presidential administrations. The United States uses “preservation of the rules-based international order” as a rallying cry, yet refuses to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea due to dubious fears of sovereignty infringement. In the private sector, as John Konrad, founder of, put it recently, “American shipping interests are an anemic … waste” and “the shipping world is failing” as a result of “a total lack of … leadership.” 

Meanwhile, China appears more concerned with power and wealth accumulation, rather than global leadership, as its Foreign Minister recently stated China has “no intention of becoming another United States.” In fact, China contributes directly to instability through the activities of its commercial fishing fleet worldwide. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is quickly emerging as a major problem for littoral economies, depleting a resource that has long provided for millions. Without effective international governance mechanisms, illegal fishing and other maritime crime (not just by China) could easily escalate regional tensions into conflict. In the Arctic, tensions are exacerbated as actual changes to the physical environment complicate the geopolitical environment. In Europe, entirely different factors pressurize the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, as Turkey competes with its neighbors over claims to abundant subsurface hydrocarbon resources, and threatens to rewrite the rules for international access to the Black Sea through the Turkish Straits. 

The 2015 migration crisis, which fueled such deep division in areas like the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas, threatens to resurface. Asyura Salleh, Special Adviser for maritime security to the Yokosuka Council for Asia-Pacific Studies, writes that Myanmar’s “increased violence is causing mounting civilian fatalities, displacing villagers and pushing migrants out to the Andaman Sea” while neighboring “countries reject migrants for fear of spreading unidentified infections.”

The COVID-19 pandemic of course drives enormous instability in the maritime sector. Opportunistic elements are taking advantage of global preoccupation with the pandemic and a perceived gap in ocean governance to pursue maritime crime and illicit activities. For example, as of August 2020, piracy and sea robbery incidents in Asia rose by 38 percent over 2019. Furthermore, the pandemic’s economic impact is not only damaging the maritime industry, but it is also forcing countries around the world to divert funds away from national defense, creating more space for instability and maritime insecurity. Aristyo Rizka Darmawan of the Center for Sustainable Ocean Policy at the Faculty of Law University of Indonesia writes:

These effects are already being felt in the realm of maritime security. Indonesia has announced nearly $590 million in cuts to its defense budget. This significant budget reallocation from the defense sector will have a direct impact on the budget of the navy, which is at the forefront of Indonesia’s maritime security and maritime domain awareness. And Indonesia is far from alone—many countries in Asia have cut their 2020 defense budgets in response to Covid-19. Thailand, for instance, has cut its defense budget by $555 million. Other key maritime countries in the region such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are also facing the same constraints.

Bucking the trend, Australia actually raised its defense budget by A$1 billion as part of a COVID-19 economic stimulus package, reflecting a strategic recognition of the need to support regional security in the Indo-Pacific.

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas

Amidst all of these destabilizing conditions, CIMSEC seeks to foster international discussion as a catalyst for desperately needed leadership in maritime security. In the spring of 2020, CIMSEC initiated Project Trident, a year-long series of topics covering the future of international maritime security. For each topic, CIMSEC partnered with leading maritime organizations to solicit articles from the CIMSEC community, and featured subject matter experts on its Sea Control podcast. Project Trident is ongoing, but the results so far are encouraging. The first three topics have produced 45 articles filled with creative, thought-provoking ideas, which in the aggregate, begin to set the conditions for collaborative leadership and illuminate a path toward improved maritime security.

First, Project Trident set the geopolitical stage with the Chokepoints and Littorals Topic.

Chokepoints and littorals magnify the influence of nearby states, or even non-state actors, who are traditionally viewed as less influential than global powers. Yet in times of conflict or crisis, global powers could very well come to depend on these littoral nations for critical support and access, nations whose political sensitivities can powerfully constrain diplomatic, economic, and military options. For example, Colonel Kim Gilfillan, Commander of the Royal Australian Army’s Landing Force, discussed on Sea Control how the ability to project power into the Indo-Pacific littorals is crucial to Australia’s economic prosperity and national security strategy.

The world is also witnessing major changes that are redefining the chokepoint and its value. For example, Turkey’s plans to build the Istanbul Canal to bypass the Bosporus Strait between the Marmara and Black Seas could alter the regional balance of power by giving Turkey greater control over which nations can access the Black Sea. In fact, Paul Pryce, the Principal Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary, suggests “the Istanbul Canal may have been introduced to circumvent the Montreux Convention, the longstanding international agreement that regulates naval access to the Aegean and Black Seas through the Turkish Straits. 

To the north, the Arctic is melting away, revealing a complex mosaic of chokepoints and littorals that will lend themselves toward new lines of communication for global commerce, as well as new zones of competition. Robert C. Rasmussen, a Foreign Affairs Specialist with the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, recommends a three-fold policy for the United States to shape the Arctic: increase funding for scientific research; invest with allies in the economic development of the Northwest Passage to compete with the Russia-dominant Northern Sea Route; and establish NATO military superiority over the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap and Aleutian Islands. Rasmussen astutely notes “promoting consensus prevents room for conflict.

Next, Project Trident continued with the Ocean Governance Topic. 

Maritime powers are employing hybrid tactics that seek to exploit the seams of legal frameworks and norms that constitute ocean governance. Non-state actors such as pirates, smugglers, and others are constantly innovating to advance nefarious activity. On Sea Control, Professor Christian Bueger described the need for a “Blue Crime framework that integrates all of these activities to help states more effectively govern the maritime domain. Indeed, the trends are troubling. Dr Ian Ralby, Michael Jones, and Errington Shurland used a variety of maritime domain awareness techniques to show that maritime crime in the Caribbean Sea has actually increased amid an overall drop in legitimate activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. They concluded that “maritime criminality is relatively unimpeded by the restrictions that have curtailed legal activities during the pandemic, and “economic hardship may in fact be a growing driver for illicit activity.

The rules and standards that underpin good order on the high seas must keep pace with those who are keen to exploit them. For example, illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing is rapidly emerging as a major driver of instability. According to US Naval Academy professor Dr. Claude Berube, 40 percent of the world’s population relies on fish as a protein source, and 20 percent of global fish is caught illegally (worth as much as US$23.5 billion). Though not the only culprit, China’s fishing fleet is the world’s most aggressive and is fishing contested waters throughout Asia, Africa, South America, and elsewhere. If revised regimes and norms cannot restore the world’s fisheries, dwindling fish stocks may trigger conflict in regions already suffering from tension. U.S. Marine Corps Captain Walker Mills points to the late 20th century Cod Wars between allied Iceland and the United Kingdom as an example that fisheries can be, in the eyes of some, sufficient justification to go to war. 

Likewise, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing could be an ideal catalyst for multiple nations to pool enough resources and national will to provide a stabilizing influence on maritime security, banding together and pushing back against economically and environmentally destructive behavior. The Pew Research Center’s Gina Fiore and Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted on Sea Control that the world’s exclusive economic zones are far too vast for individual states to patrol and enforce jurisdiction on their own, even with contributions from larger navies. States must employ information sharing agreements like Fish-i Africa, a partnership of eight African countries to fight illegal fishing in the Western Indian Ocean, and commercial remote sensing services such as OceanMind to improve maritime domain awareness and tackle this growing issue.

Most recently, Project Trident ran a Regional Strategies Topic to examine small and medium maritime powers.

The global competition between the United States and China is profoundly affecting smaller powers who, in today’s chaotic maritime security environment, can in turn disproportionately influence geopolitics by seizing the opportunity to advance their own interests. For example, Turkey is leveraging its relative superiority in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to claim ownership of contested hydrocarbon resources beneath the seabed. Retired U.S. Naval War College Professor of Maritime Security Andrew Norris and his son, Alexander, explain that “this hegemonic strategy, domestically referred to as ‘Mavi Vatan’ or ‘blue homeland’ … manifested itself in Turkey’s deployment of the seismic vessel Oruç Reis with a naval escort to disputed waters south and west of Cyprus, which led to a collision between Greek and Turkish frigates. 

Turkey appears to be exploiting a vacuum in maritime leadership and although it faces international condemnation, one wonders if it would even attempt to execute Mavi Vatan, particularly against a fellow NATO member, if the United States were not preoccupied elsewhere. Ultimately, all of the nations involved have an interest in avoiding conflict and have expressed desire to negotiate; however, resolution will likely require Turkey to accommodate the Republic of Cyprus (which it does not recognize). This is a prime example of how the leadership of a few like-minded nations could advance international maritime security.

Finally, India’s strategy for securing the Indian Ocean has taken the limelight due to the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the June 2020 border skirmish with China in the Galwan valley of the Himalayan mountains. David Scott of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies writes

“Paradoxically, though COVID-19 has weakened India’s economic ability to fund its naval infrastructure and assets program for the Indian Ocean, it has enabled India to strengthen its links with Indian Ocean micro-states through the humanitarian assistance delivered by the navy. Meanwhile, land confrontation with China at Galwan has encouraged India to deepen its military links with other maritime powers operating in the Indian Ocean.”

Even though the pandemic has hindered India’s naval buildup, its apparent willingness to contest Chinese aggression and act as a guarantor of maritime security in the Indian Ocean have attracted international partners. On Sea Control, Abhijit Singh, Senior Fellow and the Head of Maritime Policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, and Collin Koh, Research Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, point to the strategic value of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Already used by the Indian Navy, these two chains of 572 islands in the eastern Indian Ocean could serve as international economic and naval outposts with southeast Asian partners, providing a key opportunity for cooperative maritime security. 

Meanwhile, India’s cooperation with other international partners has accelerated recently, highlighted by separate trilateral talks with Australia, France, Japan, and possibly Indonesia, and a potential invitation for Australia to join Naval Exercise “Malabar with India, the United States, and Japan. The increased cooperation between India and Australia reflects a mutual strategy of extending maritime security throughout their respective areas of influence and, as David Scott points out, “it reduces naval dependence on just cooperation channeled via the United States. This is a prudent approach, especially if one accepts the premise that the world has transitioned from a unipolar, or even multipolar, to a nonpolar era.


Regardless of how many poles comprise the international system today, the turbulence and insecurity in the maritime sector clearly point to a crisis in leadership. The two most capable candidates, the United States and China, seem to have other priorities in mind, and regional powers like India and Turkey adapt to or exploit the leadership void. Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic and hybrid challenges to longstanding ocean governance regimes, including smuggling, migration, piracy, and illegal fishing, these factors could be a recipe for disaster. And as 21st century great power competition begins to take shape, one can look to the world’s maritime chokepoints and littorals for potential flashpoints. 

Building consensus based on common interests will be critical to advancing maritime security in such a volatile world. Free and open exchange of ideas is the first step, and CIMSEC will always use its platform to foster discussion on securing the seas. To this end, Project Trident is continuing in 2021, addressing topics such as maritime cybersecurity, infrastructure and trade, and emerging technologies. The project will not produce maritime security straight away, but CIMSEC hopes it will expose the ideas and generate the dialogue necessary to align maritime powers to the goal of free, safe, and secure seas.

Jimmy Drennan is the President of the Center for International Maritime Security. Contact him at

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (July 24, 2008) The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) prepares for flight operations under stormy skies. The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group is participating in Joint Task Force Exercise “Operation Brimstone” off the Atlantic coast on July 24, 2008 . U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Laird (Released)

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