Recent Developments in Ocean Governance: Understanding the Broader Geopolitical Significance of Recently Emerging Maritime Actors

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Recent developments in ocean governance

By Dr Jessica Larsen

Issues relating to ocean governance are growing in attention. Ocean governance includes fighting maritime crime, such as piracy and weapons smuggling, as well as managing marine resources, such as countering Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing (IUU). Following recent international efforts to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia between 2008-2014, the political attention of states is increasingly turning towards broader governance concerns regarding the world’s oceans. This is first evidenced by the growing trend of states and international organisations to create maritime security strategies, with major maritime actors such as the US, UK, Denmark, the European Union and the African Union among them; and second, it is reflected in the current advancement of the so-called Blue Economy, a policy agenda advocated by in particular littoral and small island states that are dependent upon the sustainable use of ocean resources.

This emerging issues piece addresses a future trend of significance in the policy planning of issues relating to ocean governance. It focuses in particular on the emergence of new maritime actors, which may affect conventional patterns of practice and collaboration among donors with long-standing stakes in the maritime domain.

Governing the oceans is a complex endeavour. It entails a multiplicity of actors and transboundary action, for instance when human smugglers cross national borders and activate several states’ authorities and legal regimes. Existing efforts in relation to ocean governance centre prominently upon increasing the law enforcement capacity among states in the Global South, since this is where many of the challenges to safe and secure oceans lie. Increasingly, states and international organisations are realising that it is a task that no single actor can achieve alone but which requires coordination and collaboration.

In the case of maritime piracy off the coast of Somalia, Western states especially became involved not only in patrolling the Indian Ocean for piracy suspects, but also in the capacity building of regional states to support and augment their law enforcement efforts. Such activities involved not only the UN, NATO and EU but also donor states, such as the UK, US, France, Denmark and the Netherlands. In other words, ‘conventional’ like-minded donors were involved in development assistance and global governance aimed at better securing the Indian Ocean.

Somali piracy was a particular concern to Western donors from around 2008 due to its disruption of international trade and the plight to seafarers. By 2014, the scale of attacks on shipping had dwindled and the counter-piracy efforts of such donors was considered to have been a great success. Analysing why, it is clear that collaboration was relatively easy: donors were largely the ‘usual suspects’ of like-minded donors with long-standing experiences of cooperation through multilateral systems, with a common goal (if for varying reasons) of bringing the public good of maritime security within the agreed frameworks of UN Security Council resolutions and 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

However, an increased presence of new actors was also detectable, which continues to be the case. So-called ‘emerging states’ were seen to enter the maritime domain off the coast of Somalia during the height of counter-piracy activities. Some deployed warships alongside the EU, NATO and the US-led coalition ‘Combined Task Force 151’. This included states such as China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, South Korea and from the Gulf. Especially from the perspective of Western governments, these states have traditionally displayed less apparent legacies on matters of multilateralism, and their foreign policies have commonly proved less compatible with the liberal norms governing multilateralism. Yet collaboration around counter-piracy is generally considered a great success, not least because customary adversaries were suddenly united around a common cause.

The emergence of new actors in the context of counter-piracy illustrates a growing trend in ocean governance, which has consequences for the policy planning of existing donors in the region; recently, some of these emerging states have sought to position themselves in the role of donor. In particular, China and some Gulf states are increasing their presence in the Horn of Africa region. Under the general cause of countering maritime crime, these states are increasingly moving into the Indian Ocean by concluding bilateral agreements on capacity building with regional states. From Turkey bringing humanitarian aid to Somalia, China constructing its first foreign military/logistics base in Djibouti, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) building critical infrastructure in Somaliland, these agreements arguably reveal a broader policy interest than the global good of maritime security, most prominently military and economic cooperation.

As a general observation, this trend reflects recent shifts in the world order, where multilateralism and liberal democracy increasingly are being challenged by utilitarian partnerships. But from a policy perspective, the development has consequences for how the security landscape in the maritime domain is currently taking shape – and thus how it should be responded to; it raises significant questions, such as how the policy planning of those states and international organisations already present in the region with stakes in its governance should account for this trend.

The Chinese Belt and Road initiative launched in 2013 is a case in point. It is China’s new mark on the world. It aims to build roads, railroads, bridges and ports to establish major trade corridors across 60 countries at the cost of several billion dollars. Importantly, it will enhance existing routes through neighbouring Myanmar and expand through Pakistan to gain access to the vital international trade routes in the Indian Ocean. If viewed as a development programme to these countries, the extent of the project surpasses the Marshall Help after the 2nd World War. It reflects China’s ambition to become a leading economic power. Presence in the Indian Ocean region is necessary to achieve this. China is employing multiple strategies to accomplish this, including through development aid, economic partnership and military presence in the western Indian Ocean region.

Similarly, Gulf states are making efforts to establish a presence in the Indian Ocean region. Somali piracy seemed to spark UAE eagerness to protect the very waters through which Gulf countries transport their oil. But their engagement is currently seen to be extending beyond concerns of maritime security. Already present in Djibouti as the manager of terminals in Doraleh Port, the UAE has recently entered into an agreement with Somali authorities to develop port infrastructure to connect an economically ailing region to prosperous global logistical networks.

However, the implications of such infrastructure investment are not confined to improving maritime infrastructure in the Horn of Africa to better service international container traffic and bring economic growth. Indeed, these emerging actors and related investment trends in the wake of counter-piracy are interlaced with not only economic objectives but also significant security agendas that extend beyond maritime security. Both China and Gulf states have, in addition to their economic foreign policy focus on the Horn of Africa, also increased their military presence in the region. China and Saudi Arabia are in the process of establishing military bases in Djibouti. Most recently, the UAE is in the process of doing likewise as part of their port construction agreement with Somalia. This will allow the UAE – and its ally Saudi Arabia – to be in the vicinity of Yemen, where Houthi rebels are fighting authorities and creating regional unrest in the Gulf. The consequences of this are yet to be seen, but it seems that the emerging states’ economic investment and strategic presence in the Indian Ocean states may draw together the economic and security policies of two regions that are already volatile in and of themselves, let alone through their new and hitherto untested alliance.

In other words, for existing maritime actors in the region planning ocean governance policy, this unfolding development further adds to the securitisation of an already volatile region. While all states operating abroad are driven by domestic agendas, the presence of these new actors presents a shift in the traditional fabric of the maritime domain along the East Coast and Horn of Africa especially. Such activities and trends demand not only the more detailed attention by states with a traditional presence and interest in the region, but also concerted action to address the impact of these activities. The matter is pertinent, as ocean governance grows in attention: in contrast to counter-piracy, other areas of ocean governance are less clearly defined in terms of applicable legal frameworks and the expertise of like-minded donors. This includes, for instance, IUU, drugs and arms smuggling, human trafficking and marine conservation.

When it comes to ocean governance, learning from past experiences alone, for instance countering piracy off the coast of Somalia, only gets us part of the way. In new areas of ocean governance, individual donor interaction with regional states requires an awareness of which other donors are on the scene, in particular what their broader policy objectives are and what the likely true reach of these might be. It entails that future alliances and means of collaboration need to be carefully recalibrated based on the constellation of states – and policy agendas – present in this theatre of operation. It is thus necessary, such as when planning capacity building programmes, to not only pay attention to the local context and the needs of beneficiaries, but also to glance over the horizon to identify which other actors are, and are becoming, involved, to incorporate their likely broader agendas and actions into policy planning and activities. Current shifts emerging on the horizon of the maritime domain hold their own particularities and create new challenges, including where security and economic policies of disparate actors converge. It begs us to pay dedicated attention to developments on the world’s oceans. The key lessons learnt, however, are not confined to ocean governance related issues, but will be of wider economic, development and security significance especially for traditional Western alliances.


Dr Jessica Larsen is an Associate of GSDM, who specialises in maritime security, ocean governance and related capacity building activities in the Global South.

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