The Fight for the Seas and Straits: Top-7 Hotspots of the Planet
Anton Rovenskyy, Master of International Relations, International Political Scientist
The destruction of the world order and the erosion of the global security system leads to the increase in a number of conflict points not only on land, but also on sea. The international sea law is in crisis, which leaves the matter of disputed sovereignty and imperfect competition in oceans, seas and straits without proper regulation. In the material below, we will take a glance look on the most explosive crises in the World Ocean.
The Sea of Japan
The antagonism between the DPRK and the US drives the tension in the Sea of Japan. Pyongyang considers the US military presence in Japan and South Korea as a threat, regularly testing missile weapons in the Sea of Japan, including those capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
While the Trump administration started negotiations on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which reduced the risks for the region, the Biden administration considers communication with Pyongyang as the periphery of its foreign policy. In its turn, the global change in the geopolitical landscape from 2020 as well as the global crisis of the security system and economic relations predetermine the Sea of Japan as one of the most explosive regions in the world.
Moreover, the recent passage of Russian and Chinese warships during joint exercises through the Tsugaru Strait between the islands of Hokkaido and Honshu, which caused a nervous reaction in Tokyo, demonstrates the Sea of Japan to become an arena of confrontation between four nuclear powers simultaneously.
The South China Sea
In late October 2021, Li Keqiang, the Premier of the State Council of the PRC, stated that China and the ASEAN countries should speed up consultations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in order to conclude it. In the meantime, the South China Sea is one of the main stumbling blocks in relations not only between the PRC and the ASEAN countries, but also between the PRC and the US. Thus, the United States accuses China of militarizing the South China Sea and erecting artificial islands in the region, increasing Beijing’s military capabilities and, accordingly, reducing the combat potential of American aircraft carrier groups in the region.
Considering the establishment of AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) and the escalation of tensions between China and Taiwan in the South China Sea, in the short and medium term a rather difficult operational situation will remain. And it is unlikely that the signing of the above Code of Conduct will be able to change the status quo.
The Persian Gulf
The high conflict potential of the Persian Gulf is due to many factors: from huge hydrocarbon deposits to the military presence of outer states to the historically tense relations between the Middle Eastern states. A number of Gulf countries (in particular, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) are among the countries that spend the most on military needs in relation to GDP globally. In fact, there is an ongoing arms race in the region, which will intensify if the sanctions against Iran would be lifted and, accordingly, Tehran's financial capabilities would expand.
At the same time, extensive US military presence also characterizes the region. The main base of the US 5th Fleet, responsible for the region, is Bahrain. Starting from the Arab Spring of 2011, the country is the de facto protectorate of Saudi Arabia, which helps the Bahrain ruling dynasty to stop the conflict with the Shiite majority. The Shiite factor in Bahrain is viewed by Saudi Arabia as one of the opportunities for Iran to put pressure on Riyadh, Tehran's main rival in the region.
The Red Sea
In recent years, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia come closer together, which determines the water area of the Red Sea region as relatively calm in comparison with the Persian Gulf. For example, a few years ago, Egypt handed over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia as part of a bridge project crossing between Sinai and the Arabian Peninsula. Relations between Egypt and Israel, which have learned from the military conflicts of the middle of the last century, are improving steadily.
There are two possible destabilizing factors in the Red Sea. First, the lingering terrorist underground in the Sinai Peninsula. One should point out, in early 2017 the ‘Islamic State’ took responsibility for the missile attack on the Israeli resort of Eilat from the territory of the Sinai Peninsula. Despite the massive military and police forces used by Egypt to suppress terrorist activity in the peninsula, the situation is far from the complete eradication of risks.
The second factor is Sudan itself, which in the recent years has been regularly shaken by military coups, as the country has become an arena of confrontation between the US, Russia, China, and France. Many powers want to gain a foothold in Sudan and deploy a naval base, but Sudan’s permanent internal instability prevents the implementation of such an idea. One should point out, in the past few weeks, the work of the only seaport, Port Sudan, located in the Red Sea governorate, has been practically paralyzed as part of the interclan and intertribal struggle in Sudan.
The Arab Spring, which resulted in the wars in Syria and Libya, has increased tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. The discovery of large gas fields and control over them, which will become one of the key subjects in the Eastern Mediterranean in the next decade, is an additional factor in increasing the region’s conflict potential. At the same time, Turkey, which consistently promotes its interests in the Middle East and North Africa, has expanded its geopolitical ambitions over the past 10 years. Turkey is opposed by Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France, and Israel, but at the moment they cannot curb Turkish expansion in the region.
Migration flows from Africa and the Middle East is also one of the uncertainties for the Eastern Mediterranean region. Pursuing their narrow corporate interests, some states of the region are trying to use this factor as an instrument of pressure to obtain additional financial resources.
The Strait of Gibraltar
There are a bunch of contradictions in the Strait of Gibraltar, which is pivotal to the global sea trade, that can turn into local armed confrontations.
On the one hand, one should point out the contradictions between Spain and Morocco related to the latter's challenge Madrid’s sovereignty over Ceuta, a semi-exclave located on the northern coast of Africa, directly opposite Gibraltar. The degree of conflict rose at the end of 2020, when the head of the Moroccan government stated that ‘Ceuta and Melilla are as Moroccan as Western Sahara is’. While Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara is an ambiguous question due to the norms of international law, the Trump administration recognized Moroccan rights over this disputed territory, which in a certain sense freed the hands of official Rabat. However, the reaction of the Foreign Ministry of Spain followed immediately: Madrid made it clear, it would not allow Rabat to bring to challenge the ownership of Ceuta and Melilla to the public. One cannot but recall the situation in 2002, when Spain using its force ousted the Moroccan police and cadets of the naval school from the tiny island of Perihil, which is also the subject of a dispute between Rabat and Madrid.
On the other hand, Spain disputes London's sovereignty over Gibraltar. Brexit (moreover, in 2016 96% of Gibraltar residents voted to remain in the EU) strengthens Spain's position in this dispute. In particular, there is additional room for maneuver in terms of increasing the economic influence of Spain on Gibraltar.
The Gulf of Guinea
While for the last 10-15 years the coast of Northeast Africa was considered the most pirate-dangerous region in the world, the center of pirate activity has recently shifted to the Gulf of Guinea. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMM), from 30 to 50% of the incidents involving pirates have occurred in the Gulf of Guinea. Oil tankers and container ships, as well as cases of kidnapping of ship crew members for ransom, are the main target of sea robberies.
The greatest influence on the Gulf of Guinea basin countries is projected by the former colonial powers, represented by France and the UK. The US, Russia, China, Turkey, and Pakistan also have a keen interest in the region. A rivalry between the above states is possible for the right to become a donor of security for the region and to ensure unhindered maritime navigation. Such a state (or coalition of states), which would solve the above problem, would also receive additional pros in the world maritime trade system and the corresponding rent.