Maritime Disputes a Likely Source of Future Conflict

Yesterday, the U.S. and China were involved in a nuclear exchange. The cause of this conflict was a war brought about between China and the Philippines after the Philippines seized several of the Spratly Islands to secure natural resources and the sea lanes traversing the South China seas, both of which it would use to advance itself in the global economy. China refused to accept this action and attacked, and the U.S. was dragged in after the president was pressured by Congress and American allies to honor America’s mutual-defense agreement with the Philippines. The result was disastrous.

While this is a hypothetical example, similar scenarios are becoming increasingly probable.  Due to increasing economic competition and climate change, a source of future conflict will be the contest for control over the seas. The U.S. must adequately plan for future contingencies to avoid any surprises and to discern what it needs to do to prevent the worst-case scenario from occurring.

Economic competition on the seas can be seen most clearly in terms of port construction. As it stands, over 90% of all goods measured by weight or volume are transported by cargo ship, and port construction greatly increase a nation’s access to foreign markets and appeal as a manufacturing center. Conversely, a nation’s investment in ports reduces the amount of goods traveling to other nations, thus damaging their economies. Unlike other forms of infrastructure investment, maritime infrastructure implicitly affects international security.

This competition has already created conflict in the Middle East. Bilateral efforts to improve relations between Iraq and Kuwait were scuttled earlier this year after Kuwait announced it was investing heavily in building a new port (the Mubarak Kabeer) only 20 kilometers away from a port Iraq was building (the Grand al-Faw). Rapprochement swiftly ended over Iraqi fears of economic strangulation and calls for eternal brotherhood were replaced by curses. Nowadays, rumors abound that Iraqi and Kuwaiti forces are infiltrating the border areas and Iraqi militants have already launched rockets from Iraq into Kuwait and threatened to kidnap the contractors building the Mubarak Kabeer port.

While threatening, this conflict is unlikely to explode as Iraq is in no shape to wage war and labors under a history of belligerence it is trying to expunge. But what if a similar sequence of events occurred in Southeast/East Asia, where GDP is growing an average of 6%-7% a year(with China at 9.1%) and states can operate more freely? The U.S. is investing more resources in the region at the exact moment when growing economic competition make conflict more likely.

Secondly, climate change will soon have a massive impact on the world’s coastal areas. Global sea levels are likely to rise between 80 to 200cm at the end of the century and would submerge large tracts of land, displacing millions of people and wiping out urban and agricultural areas.  Since they are built on the coast, this would also damage or destroy many ports worldwide and jeopardize international commerce as we know it. These losses would be difficult to replace given the increased environmental pressures Southeast/East Asian states would face as well as the spillover problems that would arise as low-lying countries sink into the sea and collapse. Competition over the ports that survive will be fierce as whoever possesses them would likely dominate the sea lanes and international commerce for some time, leading to regional dominance.

Similarly, economic competition and climate change are going to going to cause havoc on the military industrial base supporting naval power in the region. It is expensive to build a competitive navy, and many states will be unable to afford it if they need to constantly adapt to economic and environmental pressure. China and India are already building up their naval forces and will likely be naval powers into the foreseeable future, but the U.S. will gain a lot of allies in the future struggling to get the U.S. involved in every security dispute they have. Like WWI, someone may gamble incorrectly, and a conflict that starts as a minor incident may explode into something much greater.     

The U.S. consequently needs to utilize all facets of American power, from military to diplomatic to foreign aid, to confront these complex challenges and prevent them from escalating out of control. We need to promote broader acceptance of free trade on the open seas as well as democratic governance to limit the appeal of coercive power and the ability to use that power arbitrarily. We need a way to maintain the strength of our alliances without getting sucked into conflicts we don’t want, besides selling more weapons that only make war increasingly likely.

Regardless of the exact policies, policymakers need to start thinking ahead on how it will deal with the implications economic competition and climate change are going to have on maritime power. Intelligent observers of the Middle East knew for years that the authoritarian status quo was unsustainable, yet no plans were made to respond to the collapse of those regimes and our response could have been better. Current trends indicate that the current status quo in Southeast/East Asia is equally untenable. Do we have a plan in place?

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy