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The new maritime era and its geopolitical implications

The Ivey Business Journal has recently published an article (which can be found here) written by IWP Advisory Board member Stephen Climczuk-Massion which recognizes the birth of a new maritime age. The article “looks to the horizon, hoping to inspire managers to think about the rising influence of seaborne activity and related waves of change that will impact global commerce, including some with the potential to sink unprepared operations.” It bears dramatic implications for the work of the geopolitician as well. Stephen Climczuk-Massion and his co-author Erik Peterson began their work by reminding the reader of the vital importance of maritime activity in the past and present, and then proceeded to forecast the radical changes to take place in the near future.

The main takeaway from this article is to be found in their segment on the future. Peterson and Climczuk-Massion submit that “Now is the time to explore the emerging opportunities that will come with climate change and the rising influence of seaborne economic activities. Now is also the time to plan for disruptions to any part of the maritime ecosystem, which could create a big, unexpected shock to national economies while imposing serious damage on private-sector operations.”

In 2013, the MS Nordic Orion became the first vessel to traverse a real version of the fabled “northwest passage.” Thanks to ice melt in the arctic region, this voyage is now possible. As the ice continues to recede, more passages will open, dramatically altering the shipping routes of our planet. The Suez and Panama canals will be superseded by the Northwest passage, Northeast passage, and eventually the direct Transpolar route.

Canada already considers the Northwest passage to be part of its sovereign waters despite protest by foreign nations. Denmark and Norway are currently expanding naval capabilities in anticipation of the new routes. Denmark (who notably holds sovereignty over Greenland) has recently laid claim to the North Pole. It is expected that Canada and Russia will dispute this claim. Russia has already planted a Russian flag beneath the Pole in 2007.

Furthermore, “90 billion barrels of oil and 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are believed to be located in the Arctic, representing an estimated 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered gas.”

Former Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison has contributed greatly to Canadian arctic naval strategy. He envisions a litany of security concerns to accompany the new routes including “contested claims to seabed resources to piracy and sophisticated contraband smuggling by international criminal organizations.” He also predicts attempts by others “to rob coastal states of their rights to grow, to become more prosperous, and to contribute to making the global system stronger.” His final advice is to “prepare for the worst and focus on logistics.”

Peterson and Climczuk-Massion include familiar lessons from more-studied periods of history. Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Walter Raleigh are quoted. The history of the twentieth century is cited as well. The boom in seaborne commerce of the 1960’s is explained to support their thesis.

The writers contend that even today, in the digital age, the sea is the most powerful highway of communication.  “95 per cent of intercontinental emails, telephone calls and financial transfers travel via “submarine” fibre-optic cables, which lie on the seabed.” While goods can now be ordered at an exponentially increased speed, “a very material world still underpins all our online transactions.” The supply chains that support these transactions include a dense network of seaborne trade routes. As the transactions increase, so do the shipments.  The digital age has spurred maritime development. “Simply put, seaborne trade has reached levels never before seen in human history.”

Peterson and Climczuk-Massion do well to outline the current political struggles for maritime supremacy. The United States, China, India, Australia, and Russia “are making major new investments in naval power with varied motivations.” Particular attention is paid to Southeast Asia. “As the late prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew pointed out, about one-third of all world trade passes through the South China Sea.” The Chinese-Indian competition for dominance in this region is communicated to the reader. The classic Russian drive for a sophisticated navy is also highlighted.

Click here for the full article.