CONTESTED SEAS, STABLE INSTABILITY, AND WAR
Maritime geography enhances the potential for instability at sea, since it allows actors in competition or in conflict to interact to a greater extent than is possible on land. This section argues that this instability should be expected unless maritime boundaries are agreed to or strategic competition is rendered inert. Further, it shows that, despite this instability, sustained vertical or horizontal escalation past any initial incident is unlikely.
Disputed Maritime Rights
In the case of contested territory or strategic competition on land, the role of a state’s armed forces is to defend demarcated borders or to seize and hold enemy territory. Control of territory brings about the capacity to govern both the land and the people and to use both for economic advantage. It is only during times of war that borders dissolve, the armed forces of competing states interact, and the control of territory becomes uncertain.
At sea, the type of control that allows for the maintenance of land borders is not possible. Except for areas close to shore, the sea is controlled permanently by no one. Sovereign boundaries—such as those delineating territorial waters, contiguous zones, and exclusive economic zones (EEZs), as defined under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—are not demarcated by the permanent presence of navies or civilian agencies; rather, they are maintained by political agreements on land.
If a party chooses to ignore UNCLOS or parties have differing interpretations of its parameters and the obligations it imposes, the possibility for clashes is heightened, since in contested areas at sea any exercise of administrative control is fluid and limited. If one power vacates an area of the sea, control does not transfer automatically to another party; rather, it is left vacant. Parties who possess the requisite naval or maritime capacity easily can enter disputed waters to contest control or undertake resource-exploitation activities.
To maintain legitimacy in contested waters, states are required to undertake operations to assert and defend their perceived rights. This can take the form of sailing through disputed waters, exploiting maritime zones for economic purposes, or performing law-enforcement and naval operations consistent with sovereign control. Absent an intervening authority such as the United Nations, political agreement on land, or compatible interpretations of the UNCLOS regime, this can create substantial friction, leading to clashes among military vessels, other state-controlled vessels, and civilian vessels such as fishing boats.
This friction has been illustrated in a number of clashes between democratic countries over maritime economic exploitation rights. The “Lobster War” between Brazil and France in early 1963, the “Cod Wars” between Iceland and the United Kingdom in the mid-1970s, and the Canadian-Spanish “Turbot War” in 1995–96 all saw democratic countries deploying military force to assert their perceived maritime economic rights against other democracies. Similarly, a 2006 incident between South Korea and Japan over exploration in a potentially lucrative fishing zone surrounding the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima Islands saw military and maritime law-enforcement assets being deployed to assert both countries’ claims.