In recent weeks there have been a growing number of reports about territorial disputes between various nations in South East Asia, including Japan, Korea, the Philippines and China. These disputes seem to be marked by common features, namely the use of maritime assets in near conflict to push the case for a nations sovereignty over a particular island group or Archipelago. There has been plenty of film footage shot of warships, coastguard vessels and even protest groups publicly coming close to blows to pursue various nations territorial claims.
The purpose of this short article is consider whether there are any emerging lessons for the wider maritime environment coming out from these disputes. Humphreys view is that they have highlighted a number of points worth remembering.
The Vessel is the Nation, the Nation is the Vessel.
One thing clearly emerging from these disputes is the continued place at the heart of national pride held by many nations’ navies. The loss of face caused by a vessel being boxed in, or the stubborn unwillingness to up anchor and leave, represents both national pride, and a desire to avoid humiliation.
Many of these on-going disputes would arguably have had far less public impact had they involved two Companies of soldiers facing off against each other. It is easy to film a warship from a distance, far harder to show troops dug in and prepared for action. A warship represents a very visible sign of a nations determination to push a particular course of action, or to assert its claim. The old maxim of ‘sending a gunboat’ remains true to this day – dispatching a vessel shows a nation is willing to stake national prestige over an issue in a manner which the dispatch of ground forces, or over flights cannot do.
The first lesson identified would be this:
1. Warships will continue to be the most physical representation of a nations security policy, and the desire to avoid humiliation may cause escalations in tensions.
Sustainability is everythingIn the disputes over the various island groups, archipelagos and groups of rocks in the region, one thing remains common; the complete reliance on external assistance by people based on these locations to sustain their way of life. Unlike other island groups elsewhere, most of the disputed territories are barely able to support human life, being short of arable land, potable water, and the other necessities of life. Anyone landing on these islands to make a political protest is utterly reliant on the sea to provide them with their support.
For nations seeking to put forward an assertive policy, it is not enough to put people onto these islands, control of the sea lanes remains essential too. Any nation wishing to support their people, and prevent them starving to death, will have to possess the ability to exert sufficient control to get supply vessels through on a continual basis. Therefore, the second lesson identified would be:
2. Future island based territorial disputes will rely on effective maritime force to be sustainable. A nation without the ability to sustain a distant territorial claim will face certain humiliation.
The Sea is a BattlefieldOne key factor in these disputes has been the sight of vessels practically ramming each other or blocking each other’s ability to manoeuvre effectively. Again this shows the importance, and danger, of maritime power – aircraft would not be able to engage in such manoeuvres, at least not without causing a crash, while land forces exchanging blows would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
The maritime environment permits nations to engage in proxy conflict in a manner unthinkable in other domains. At the same time, it has potential to cause even greater accidental escalation when things go wrong. All it takes is poor weather jolting a ship at the wrong time, or a misjudged decision to both turn into each other’s course (thus ignoring the Rules of the Road), and suddenly catastrophe looms. Look at the collision between HMS ARK ROYAL and a Kotlin class destroyer in the Med in 1975, or at various RN warships with Icelandic trawlers during the ‘cod war’ – these sort of disputes can cause real damage to vessels, and in the worst cases get people killed. This returns to the first point- where national pride is at stake, the sea can be a dangerous place to have a disagreement. In 1904 the Russians nearly came to the brink of war with the UK when they mistook a trawler fleet for Japanese torpedo boats, opening fire and killing many innocent fishermen. The same could occur in this sort of dispute – poor timing, or poor judgement on the part of an Officer of the Watch could see his nation on the brink of war. This then leads to further lessons:
3. Confidence building measures at sea are essential to avoid conflict. Nations in dispute need to invest in ‘hotlines’ to try and ensure accidents are not mistaken as an act of war.
4. There needs to be effective training of, and trust invested in, junior officers to give them the confidence to carry out ship handling without worrying that it could start a war. Good training is everything.
The Navy is not always the answer – but ensure you have joined up Government
5. Investing in joined up government, building trusted relationships between departments, and ensuring common approach to ROE is essential to avoid escalation of maritime disputes.
6. Government investment in effective Maritime constabulary will be of increasing importance in the 21st century, as a means of demonstrating concern, without resorting to military involvement.
7. The nature of conflict in the maritime environment means it is less likely that shots will be fired, but that any ramping up of the stand-off could rapidly escalate out of control.
OPVs are neither glamorous or sexy, but they have staying power
A strong case can be made that frigates, while vital to high end naval capability, are probably the wrong vessel for the sort of blockade duties we see occurring in the region. A frigate is a highly complex vessel, capable of projecting power and defending itself against a range of threats. Is it the best vessel though to try to spend weeks or months in a standoff with another nations rusty old tug or NGO supporters in a boat? Similarly, if things turn more physical and ships start colliding, the potential loss of a frigate to heavy damage, forcing it to depart from the scene would not only cause national humiliation, but reduce many nations front line force. By contrast, the presence of OPVs, able to maintain station for long periods of time, which are not hugely complex, but which can sit and engage in stand offs with other nations are likely to be increasingly important. They can take damage without the same loss of pride or capability, and can spend days, weeks or months sitting in a region without reducing wider naval high end capabilities.
8. Investment in OPVs will be an increasing priority for some nations, probably ahead of higher end capabilities. Similarly, supply and replenishment vessels extending the ability to remain at sea will become more important.
ConclusionIt's clear that there will be more of these disputes over time, as nations grow more assertive over sovereignty, and resources diminish. There will be more such disputes in the future, and although they may not meet the more popular image of naval combat, they reflect the continued and age old tradition of ‘blockade’. There is a danger that without proper investment in command and control, better co-ordination of a complex range of government assets, then situations could rapidly spiral out of control. Nations are unlikely to take the loss of a major warship or vessel lightly, so although shooting wars between countries over territorial disputes remain highly unlikely, when they do occur, then the consequences could be very grave indeed.
This is just a quick set of ideas, designed to try and think out about the potential implications of the growing number of maritime territorial disputes in the world. They were formulated in the authors head during a long running session recently, and reflect possibly some quite ‘immature’ thinking. Humphrey would welcome comments from readers as to whether they agree or disagree, as this is an area where a very healthy debate can be had.