Report of the Working Group on Oceans Ocean Frontiers: the pragmatic search for peace

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The Ocean, our global commons has long been divided by territorial conflicts and competitive claims over marine and seabed resources. Zealously guarded and patrolled by naval vessels and surveillance aircraft, nationalized seas and transnational waterways of the Arctic, Indian, Atlantic, and the Pacific are not just utilized as natural resources of food, transport and trade but also as a militarized medium for asserting national and transnational power. Human history has not just been about medicinal science and technological advancement of weaponry, nor just about the evolution of global trade contracts. Human civilizational progress, migration, territorial conquests, and trade has predominantly been about the strategic use of oceanic realms as sites of inter-state naval battles, risky places of piracy and plunder of trade goods, and common passages of human and weapons trafficking. In the new millennium, oceanic realms are also feared to be spaces of terrorism by non-state actors, and therefore nationalized seas and transnational waterways have rather responsively evolved from being treated as just earth’s planetary resource to national and multilateral maritime defense spaces against both terrorist networks and inter-state rivalry. Furthermore, the testing of nuclear weapons and drones at sea, undersea nuclear submarine activity, undersea leakage of spent nuclear fuel callously deployed in flawed submarines, undersea deployment of sea mines and construction of artificial islands to function as militarized outposts at sea have now emerged as part and parcel of military infrastructure building processes for various nation-states. Some of the most controversial instances of militarized infrastructure building that has turned peaceful waterways and islets therein into strategic frontiers of missile defense, endangered human security and violence are Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea region of the Western Pacific, the Barents Sea and the Northwest Passage in the Arctic.

Predominant Issues of Ocean Frontiers
Ocean frontiers fall into two broad categories: 1) strategic sea passages with militarized islets for maritime defense, and 2) industrialized ocean spaces that are protected militarily as national security areas and as nationalized exclusive economic zones for harvesting marine resources and extracting minerals as well as energy sources from the seabed. The global commons of oceans space has recognizably devolved from its ideal vantage as the common heritage of mankind into divisive areas of continental shelf regions, nationalized territorial seas and state-owned industrial economic zones in maritime passages. In the territorially divided ocean spaces, there are two fundamental issues undermining peace:

i) The first issue is territorial boundary disputes at sea, which emerge from multiple claims of coastal states over the same resource rich waterways in strategic maritime and mercantile parts of the sea, in order to build and expand transnational maritime defense, nationalize and own marine and seabed resources while claiming the airspace above them to assert national air defense zones. Widely reported cases in public news on these types of territorial boundary disputes are those between the Arctic nation-states in the Canadian North, and the South China Sea disputes between China and the Southeast Asian coastal states.

Maritime boundaries in the Post-WWII period are predominantly established by the geodetic science of surveying distances seawards from land, and dividing water boundaries of two adjacent coastal states by measuring the meridian and equidistant lines between them. However, there are uncertainties in the way measurements are done, i.e. how and where the points of measurement of a coastal terrain is chosen for seaward measurement, especially when the coastal terrain is uneven with numerous protruding coastal ridges above and below water. Asserting the certainties of watery geographical boundaries can be challenging as writing on water, and unlike borders that can be drawn on terra firma. Measuring the maritime zones and territorial boundaries of an archipelagic nation with numerous islets is even more tricky, but not impossible. Yet, national territorial claims of sea passages also do not strictly abide by scientific measurements of boundary divisions, and tend to be based on historical claims of pre-world war occupation of the region by former dynasties, and civilizational stake in the region such as China’s historical claims in the South China Sea, alienating other coastal states in that region.

ii) The second issue is extra-territorial assertion of transnational power by maritime states in high seas and also within the maritime boundaries of another nation-state. The freedom of the seas has come to be accepted as a customary principle of navigation by maritime states since the Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius published Mare Liberum (Free See) in 1609; and the freedom of navigation is now a codified tenet of international law since the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) – Yet, when the freedom of navigation of one maritime nation-state is being used for surveillance, conducting military exercises, testing of military equipment, particularly testing of nuclear powered submarines within another country’s maritime boundary or close to another country’s coastline, it alerts and provokes the defense of that country close to which the transnational military prowess of the maritime nation is being demonstrated. Such cases reported in public news include disputes of Russian activities near Norway and Denmark boundaries, and the U.S activities in and near China’s claims of a maritime frontier in the South China Sea.

Each ocean frontier issue, though local to a country or continental shelf region, is essentially transnational in scope, involving bilateral power struggle and/or multilateral claimant states. The impact of ocean geopolitics is international in impact due to the weaponization of waterways and militarization of outposts at sea. The peace threatened by militarization of oceanic realms is not just at the political level of nation-states, but also involves endangered human security of civilian communities that live close to disputed boundaries and travel across conflict regions at sea such as fishermen, civilians employed as maritime militia, tourists and travelers by sea and air travel. Civilian aircraft disasters above disputed and militarized maritime space is another indicator of an alarming lack of human security. The predominant question in favor of armed defense has however been on the line of skepticism, querying if disarmament can ensure national security and protection to citizenry – in short, what security can nations have without military power of defense? Military security can however be argued as human insecurity!

The pertinent question, in contradistinction, that needs to be asked globally is what can science and technology do to ensure human security and international peace? If nuclear missile stockpiling at sea, for the purpose of regional maritime boundary disputes, can threaten the world at large with its mass destruction capabilities, what antidote can science and technology invent, develop and nurture to ensure international peace through complete disarmament? As opposed to blind idealism, these questions are about a tangible and pragmatic search for scientific, cultural and technological developments that would help root out conflicts through cyberspace and through innovative socio-technical programs without involving devastating explosive weaponry. A world of complete disarmament would also mean a world of cooperation based on legally binding agreements for mutual and international peace, of multilateral institutional governance of standards of cooperation and accountability, joint development of natural resources and regulation of science and technology for peaceful purposes.

The Call for Peaceful Science & Technology
What scientific advancement, as opposed to weaponry, will ensure peace in the embattled and perilous zones of Ocean Frontiers? What regulatory governance of science and technology can ensure peace in conflict ridden maritime frontiers? These questions are not only futuristic, calling for national and international investment in strategic peace R&D, but are also central to the research of the Ocean Affairs Working Group. Though non-traditional security such as rising sea levels endangering small island-states are of interest to this working group, the main preoccupations are two-fold: i) science and technology for peace; and ii) conflict and peace studies of perilous ocean frontiers. Constituted as a research and educational group in 2015, this working group is guided by the following mandate:

This working group will share research knowledge on the scientific and technological practices that affect the stewardship of ocean ecology, maritime security and international peace, in order to facilitate and promote knowledge production on emerging issues in ocean space and resource governance.

This mandate stems from the recognition that the global commons of the Ocean is, today, not only a major source of oxygen and food for the human race, but also a critical space for enforcing national security, transnational maritime cooperation and international peace.

Working group methodology will include expert roundtables, educational workshops and scholarly publications. This research group welcomes inter-disciplinary studies that engage with a range of critical approaches, including policy level research, epistemological and legal inquiry, geospatial analysis, political and environmental issue-based studies.

Integral to this mandatory guidelines for research and education on ocean frontiers studies, is the vision to promote inquiries into S & T research for peace, and S&T regulatory governance for establishing peace. The most important and overarching point of course is how we understand, construct and practice peace. The final frontier questions that cannot be evaded are these: What do we mean by peace? When do we reject military dominance and deterrence? Whose version of peace gets enforced or rejected? What are the necessary steps to the governance of peace and human security in our divided global commons of the ocean?

Venilla Rajaguru is a PhD Candidate in Science & Technology Studies at York University, and the Chair of the Working Group on Ocean Affairs at Science for Peace; she can be contacted via:

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ISSN 1925-170X (Print) | ISSN 1925-1718 (Online)


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