While tensions over the South China Sea often prompt headlines, attracting a great deal of attention by analysts, the dispute over Gibraltar has a much smaller presence in the media and specialized publications. However, given its location at a vital chokepoint, the conflict over the Rock cannot be ignored by naval and maritime observers. Furthermore, for the student of comparative conflict at sea it is interesting to look at some of its features, including disputes over the law of the sea and resort to non-lethal asymmetric warfare, which we also find elsewhere. A third reason is Gibraltar’s role in the air reinforcement strategy for the defence of the Falklands, an issue that China watchers are increasingly paying attention to, given Beijing’s growing interest in the South Atlantic, including Namibia.
Just like in the South China Sea, one of the aspects of the dispute over Gibraltar concerns the concept of “Innocent Passage”. In the case of the Rock, intruding warships have often claimed to be engaged in this regime, recognized by international law, both customary and UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). However, Gibraltar’s authorities have rejected such claims, arguing that they were a mere excuse to justify incursions into British Territorial Waters. In order to reinforce their case, Gibraltar’s government announced in November 2014 that it had commissioned an expert legal opinion on the definition of innocent passage under UNCLOS. The latest string of incidents prompted the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) to ask the Rock’s authorities whether the opinion had been received, and they replied confirming it had. According to the GBC, the opinion explains that “A vessel can only be considered to be on innocent passage through British Gibraltar Territorial Waters if it’s moving continuously and expeditiously, and is not engaged in any activities that are prejudicial to Gibraltar or the UK”, adding that “when it appears objectively from the foreign vessel’s behaviour that its purpose in passing through BGTW is to assert its country’s sovereignty claim over the waters, its passage would not be deemed to be innocent under international law.”1
On reading the GBC report, Luke Coffey, Margaret Thatcher Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, The Heritage Foundation, tweeted “Spain in violation of UNCLOS, Article19 (Meaning of innocent passage), paragraph 2C, 2D, 2J, probably 2K and 2L!!”.2 These passages of UNCLOS read:
“Meaning of innocent passage
1. Passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State. Such passage shall take place in conformity with this Convention and with other rules of international law.
2. Passage of a foreign ship shall be considered to be prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State if in the territorial sea it engages in any of the following activities:
(c) any act aimed at collecting information to the prejudice of the defence or security of the coastal State;
(d) any act of propaganda aimed at affecting the defence or security of the coastal State;
(j) the carrying out of research or survey activities;
(k) any act aimed at interfering with any systems of communication or any other facilities or installations of the coastal State;
(l) any other activity not having a direct bearing on passage”.
It could also be argued that incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters amount to a violation of paragraph (a) of the mentioned UNCLOS article, which reads “ any threat or use of force against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of the coastal State, or in any other manner in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations”, given that they take place in parallel with a denial of the British sovereignty over the Rock and her population’s right to self-determination.
However, innocent passage is a key concept in the law of the sea, and cannot be easily dismissed. Any attempt to deny that a warship moving through territorial waters enjoys it must be approached with care. This was made clear by James Kraska, a professor at the US Naval War College, who also commented on the Gibraltar report. Kraska stressed on Twitter that a “[t]hreat may not be implied based on mere presence, but must be overt, such as statement or action, such as fire control radar,” adding “See Jackson Hole Agreement; purpose of trip irrelevant; must have overt violation of art. 19 to be not innocent.”3 This refers to the 1989 USA-USSR Joint Statement With Attached Uniform Interpretation of Rules of International Law Governing Innocent Passage, known as “Jackson Hole Agreement”, whose text states that “All ships, including warships, regardless of cargo, armament or means of propulsion, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea in accordance with international law, for which neither prior notification nor authorization is required”, in accordance with UNCLOS.
A difference between Cold War maritime confrontations and the dispute over Gibraltar is that in the former, it was the limits of innocent passage, which were disputed, ultimately leading to the 1989 Joint Statement. However, in the case of the Rock, vessels violating her territorial waters claim that those waters do not exist. Another difference to take into account is that while ramming featured in a number of incidents during the Cold War, the context was mainly a threat of conventional war at sea. On the other hand, what we are now seeing in regions like the South China Sea is mainly non-lethal warfare, featuring a complex mix of coastguards and other state agencies, fishing boats, maritime militias, and oil rigs. In Asia, this phenomenon is called the “gray zone” between peace and war. This does not mean that the conventional force is irrelevant, since what we are facing in the South China Sea is a dual war akin to the Second Indochina War on land. Concerning Gibraltar, the fact that intruding ships purport to conduct “sovereignty” patrols means that their passage is not innocent within the meaning of Article 19 of UNCLOS. The very purpose of those incursions is to undermine the “peace, good order, and security” of the territorial waters of the United Kingdom.
Could the legal opinion provided to Gibraltar’s Government have any influence on the legal dispute over the South China Sea? As is often the case, lawyers on both sides may find something to support their respective views. On the one hand, maritime democracies are bound to benefit from any obstacle to further incursions into British Territorial Waters, which not only run directly against the concept of rule of law at sea and peaceful resolution of disputes, but make it difficult for the European Union to play a role in the South China Sea. On the other hand, China may expand the notion that a warship moving through territorial waters is not engaged in innocent passage when making a territorial claim, arguing that neither is she when contesting a territorial claim. The challenge, however, remains how to distinguish lawful innocent passage, no matter how disliked by the coastal state, from genuine threats to “peace, good order, or security” of the coastal state. Kraska underlines that for this analysis, we must fall back on the Charter of the United Nations, which forbids the “threat or use of force.” A factor not to be forgotten is Beijing’s permanent seat at the UNSC, meaning that whatever interpretation of the UN charter may prevail among maritime democracies, it is unlikely to make it into a Security Council resolution if it is seen by China as detrimental to her national security. Recent months have seen many proposals concerning a reinforced presence by maritime democracies in waters claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea, and the airspace over them, as well as a number of incidents involving warships and planes in those same waters. The former include a study by Scott Cheney-Peters on joint air patrols, whose main purpose would be “to counter excessive claims and rights not in accordance with international law.”
It would be interesting to see the full text of the legal opinion commissioned by Gibraltar’s Government. In any case, the information released about it should serve as a reminder that in a global, inter-connected, world, each maritime dispute may certainly be unique, but it makes sense to study them from a comparative perspective, among other reasons because in both diplomacy (including public diplomacy) and international legal and arbitration proceedings, anything considered as a precedent may be used to defend one’s position.
Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work, which includes “China’s Air Defense Identification Zone: Concept, Issues at Stake and Regional Impact”, Naval War College Press Working Papers, No 1, US Naval War College, 23 December 2013, available here, can be found at https://nagoya-u.academia.edu/AlexCalvo
1Source kindly pointed out by Michael J. Sanchez, founder of OP-WEST. An interview with Sanchez, where he explains the origins and work of OP-WEST, is available at A. Calvo, “OP-WEST: Open Source Intel in Contested Maritime Spaces”, Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), 1 April 2015, https://cimsec.org/op-west-open-source-intel-contested-maritime-spaces/15718
2 Tweet by @LukeDCoffey dated 18 August 2015.
3 Tweets by @JamesKraska dated 19 August 2015.