By Elvira Tamus, Research Assistant

On 13 November 2023, the Centre for Geopolitics hosted a seminar on contested maritime space with Dr John Ash (who served in the Royal Navy as an oceanographer and was an Associate of the Scott Polar Research Institute) and Dr Colin Barnes (Fellow of the University of Cambridge Centre for the Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance). The event was chaired by Dr Donatas Kupciunas, the Centre’s Research Associate.

The two experts considered the geopolitical issues associated with maritime space in two very different regions, the Arctic Ocean and the Western Indian Ocean, and analysed the respects in which this space could be the cause of significant geopolitical tensions over the next decade. While distinct in oceanographic terms, these areas share some of the same geopolitical concerns, including tension between coastal states arising from competing defence strategies, access to maritime locations for biomarine resources, hydrocarbons, and seabed hard ores. As the century progresses, competition within maritime spaces is likely to increase, exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. The speakers examined challenges to current measures for maritime dispute resolution and prospective solutions through the lens of three key issues – access, information, and proximity.

Dr Ash stated that climate change could facilitate the introduction of China as a strategic nuclear power into the Arctic battlespace, but information resources may prove a deterrent to access. He asserted that attacks on information resources in the Arctic and unresolved conflict between the Law of the Sea and other legal regimes may amplify tension. The changes to the military geography of the Arctic brought about by the war in Ukraine could bring about pre-emptive action by Russia to protect its second strike capability in the Barents, but management of maritime space may provide mitigation against significant escalation.

Dr Barnes argued that in contrast with the Arctic region, the potential for geopolitical tensions and risks in the Western and Central Indian Oceans are less severe due to less coastal and island proximity between countries and because the current situation includes only one major NATO member, France. Nonetheless, he emphasised that this situation may change through several factors, such as the increasing competition between India and China as regarding ports and military bases and the establishment of new port and military facilities over and above the existing bases in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The Q&A session included questions about how Russia would cross Western ‘red lines’, coastal states, the position of Norway, international law for peace, British submarine force and capability in the Arctic, Chinese interests and activities in the Arctic region, as well as small islands’ defence and representation in the UN.

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