Strife on the Global Commons

 This article is a summary of a presentation made by the author at the National Defence College (India) on 20 June 2014.  It was first published in the author’s monthly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website on 14 July 2014 

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Keywords: Global Commons, Mare Liberum, Mahan, UNCLOS, China’s Comprehensive Power, South and East China Sea

The run up to the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) was marked by a  debate held in Sparta amongst the Peloponnesian allies to  determine whether war against the aggressive seapower Athens and the maritime Delian League was to be waged. Leadership of the warlike alliance lay with the powerful yet reluctant Spartan king Archidamus, a man of both intelligence and moderation. He questioned “What sort of a war, then, are we going to fight? If we can neither defeat them at sea nor control the resources on which their navy depends, we shall do ourselves more harm than good.” To Archidamus, clearly, the inability to access and control the Global Commons of his era presaged defeat.

Global Commons is a term typically used to describe international, supranational, and global common pool resource domains. Global Commons include the earth’s shared resources, such as the oceans, the atmosphere, outer space and the Polar Regions. Cyberspace also meets the definition, but for our examination we shall focus on the hydrosphere. The parameters for enquiry necessarily include physical tangibles of Height, Width, Depth and the awkward intangible of human history.

Mahan in “The Influence of Seapower upon History” underscored three prescient perspectives relating to the Commons. First, competition for materials and markets is intrinsic to an ever trussed global system. Second, the collaborative nature of commerce on the one hand deters war, while on the other engenders friction. Third, the Global Commons require to be secured against disruption and rapacious exploitation.

Our understanding of the Commons must not suffer from any delusions that explicit and recognized conventions have evolved over the centuries. On the contrary, till the middle of the last century what passed for a principle was Hugo Grotius’ 1609 notion of Mare Liberum, freedom of the seas.The concept that the sea was international territory and all nations were free to use it. The free-for-all state of the Commons becomes evident in the fact of the seaward limit of national sovereignty being defined by the cannon-shot decree which would suggest that it was the ability to control that defined dominion. By the middle of the twentieth century the collapse of colonial empires and the birth of new nations set into motion a dynamic that demanded a change from cannon-shot rules and lawlessnessto equitability and responsibilities in the Commons along with demarcation of territorial and economic zones. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS I, II & III) met 1954 to 1982 to hammer out and define rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans. The deliberations concluded in 1982 in and became functional in 1994. Recognizing that that the sea bed is the repository of vast and unguaged quantities of minerals, the Convention provided for a regime relating to minerals on the seabed outside any state’s territorial waters or Exclusive Economic Zone. It established an International Seabed Authority to regulate seabed mining and control distribution of royalties. To date it has been ratified by 165 nations. Significantly, the US Senate has snubbed the UNCLOS. What critically mars the compact is its imprecision, its illusory demand for the supranational and the absence of a structure to securethe Global Commons against disruption and rapacious exploitation.

The current distressed state of the Commons is discernable by the impact that globalization has had; strains of multi-polarity, anarchy of expectations and the increasing tensions between the demands for economic integration and the stresses of fractured politicaldivisions are symptoms. Nations are persistently confronted by the need to reconcile internal pressures with intrusive external impulses at a time when the efficacy of Power to bring on political outcomes is in question. While most nations have sought resolution and correctives within the framework of the existing international order, China emerges as an irony that has angled for and conspired to re-write the rule book.

China’s rising comprehensive power has generated an internal impulse to military growth and unilateral intervention in its immediate neighbourhood in the South and East China Sea and its extended regions of economic interests. It has developed and put in place strategies that target the Commons to assure a favourable consequence to what it perceives to be a strategic competition for resources and control of the seaways that enable movement. The consequences of China activizing artifices such as the Anti-Access and Area Denial strategy and geo-political manoeuvres to establish the String of Pearls in the Indian Ocean Region evokes increasing shared anxieties and resistance by players in the same strategic milieu. Particularly at a time when the North Eastern Passage through the Arctic is emerging as receding ice cuts the Asia-Europe route via the Suez by half (from 23000 kms to 11500 kms) and technology opens the Antarctic to economic exploitation. The paradoxical effects of China’s contrivances are to undermine its own strategic standing, hasten counter balancing alignments and urging a global logic of cooperative politics over imperious strategies.

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