Today, authoritarianism is challenging democracy and its liberal, democratic values in every physical and virtual sphere: cyberspace, broadcast systems, space, land, air, and sea.1 It is this last area that most troubles the global economy and threatens open markets.2 A nonpermissive maritime environment can stop the gears of progress, trade, cultural expansion, and foreign relations. Authoritarian practices on the high seas must be countered, for as authoritarian regimes tighten their grasp on the world’s oceans and vital waterways, the world suffers. These practices are manifest in many regions: the East China Sea and South China Sea; the constricted Black Sea; the Strait of Hormuz; and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait are all vital global shipping lanes for much of the world’s enterprises. No single country threatens them, but they are all threatened by authoritarianism.
Authoritarian practices on the high seas negatively affect global commerce, yet they support and strengthen the regimes that partake in such behaviors. Authoritarian practices include the dispute and expansion of exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and air defense identification zones (ADIZ), the blockade of vital chokepoints, and the control and manipulation of passage. To this end, authoritarian practices seek to control the commerce on nearby waterways and regions for selfish and sinister means, such as bolstering authoritarian economies—a primary source of their power and stability.
What Authoritarian Regimes Seek
Authoritarian practices bolster regimes’ economies and expand their influence over global commerce by controlling natural resources and freedom of navigation, respectively. For example, expanding a regime’s EEZ claim could afford it more natural resources to boost its economy, while the expanded territory and air space offers control over other states’ freedom of navigation in those waters. These two vital categories and their aspects are elucidated below.
- Fishing: In 1992, the East China Sea provided 4.2 million tons of fish per year; 65 percent was landed by China. That amount of fish and the commercial enterprise confer a serious economic advantage to the key stakeholder. The battle for East China Sea resources increases regional tension over EEZs and affects the ecosystem in the form of overfishing. National Geographic highlights that “major disputes in the South China Sea are putting critical habitat—and the food supply of millions—at risk.” Consequently, the short-term gain for the victor can have long-term effects on the ecosystem and the fishing industry. Regimes with extralegal EEZ claims to enforce their economic will implement authoritarian practices on the high seas.
- Oil and Natural Gas: The East China Sea has an estimated reserve of more than 7 trillion cubic feet of gas and 100 billion barrels of oil, and in the last decade significant biogenic gas discoveries have been made in the Black Sea. Consequently, China’s expansive EEZ claims and Russia’s annexation of Crimea afford greater access to offshore resources and strengthen their economies, legitimizing their governments with their own populations and tightening their hold on critical regions.
Freedom of Navigation
- Sea: Roughly 60 percent of maritime trade passes through Asia and 30 percent through the Middle East. Practices such as blockade, military threat, or sea mining can cripple the global economy while bolstering authoritarian governments.
- Air: As a country claims excessive EEZs, it grows its ADIZ. This authoritarian practice affords these regimes greater control and manipulation of the peaceful shipping that traverses these waterways. China’s ADIZ expansion with advanced radar and missile-defense technologies in the East China Sea poses a serious risk to commerce and freedom of navigation (FoN).
The Department of Defense (DoD) and, more specifically, the Department of the Navy must bolster their efforts to halt the authoritarian constriction of these waterways. The way forward must include immediate actions and long-term objectives to combat authoritarian practices on the world’s oceans and waterways. The immediate actions include a stronger international approach with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a harsher targeted sanctions program, and a strengthened DoD commitment to the Navy’s strategy.
First, NATO must strengthen cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners such as Japan and Australia, to increase security in the region. NATO has focused on terrorism and Russia for many years and has neglected the growing presence of authoritarianism in the Indo-Pacific region. NATO’s energy and resources must focus more on authoritarian practices on the world’s waterways. NATO could build a collective of like-minded countries to preserve peace and open commerce on these threatened waterways by identifying authoritarian practices, their negative outcomes to globalization and the world economy, and courses of action to combat them. This concept is very similar to how NATO has addressed terrorism. By giving these practices a definition with parameters, NATO would be better equipped to address concerns such as the expansion of EEZs and ADIZs at NATO–European Union consultations. Ultimately, this approach gives NATO the legitimacy to fund and deploy a maritime task force to deter such behavior on the open oceans, and it also lays a foundation for diplomatic actions such as sanctions.
Second, sanction regimes must be refined and developed to halt authoritarian gain on the world’s oceans. In the event global commerce is immobilized by authoritarian practices as mentioned above, heavy economic sanctions should be placed on those regimes or governments. This scenario unmistakably requires swift and severe action, and the United States and partners have a strong record of doing so when this scenario is likely. Where they lack effective action is on the smaller more incremental authoritarian activities, such as small island reclamation and creation—Chinese practices in the East and South China Seas. Clearly, severe sanctions are not warranted, desired, or enforced effectively in these cases, but something needs to be done to deter such behavior. Authoritarian regimes rely on timid or no response from such transgressions. Where should the line be drawn?
Consequently, excessive EEZ claims and attempts to enforce them should result in highly targeted sanctionssmart sanctionsto cripple these regimes’ efforts to attain greater control. Smart sanctions are highly selective penalties that place economic pressure on specific groups while avoiding the unintentional distress most often caused by general embargoes. An example regarding China’s island reclamation activities would be sanctions that target the shipping company that transports the sand from Thailand to the East China Sea.
Third, a continued commitment to FoN operations and exercises, as captured in the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, is crucial to quell authoritarian hold on vital waterways but not sustainable in the long term given current force laydown and growing great power competition. Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy must continue to bolster its forward presence, partnerships, and maritime security on these vital waterways.
These objectives can best be achieved by increasing the frequency and duration of FON exercises and operations in at-risk regions. This is easier said than done, given the limited resources that are already spread thin and the extended deployments that result in exhausted crews and overtaxed ships. Restructuring and prioritizing the Navy’s current force to meet the demand may be the short-term answer: shifting ships and personnel to the required fleets.
The Navy’s future moves are critical to suppress the growing authoritarian hold on the open oceans. Authoritarian navies, defense systems, infrastructure, and cyber capabilities are expanding at an ever-increasing rate, and the United States could fall behind. However, there is still time to shift the balance and the Navy is moving in the right direction. Specifically, distributed maritime operations is a system-of-systems approach that will provide the force of tomorrow and superiority at sea. However, two vital aspects need to be resolved before the acquisition process and force laydown can be realized: command, control, computers, communications, cyber-defense, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting (C5ISRT); and a robust cyber force.
To realize distributed maritime operations’ lofty objectives, such as unmanned systems, the Navy must have a state-of-the-art infrastructure that is bullet- or hacker-proof. Whatever the C5ISRT technology may be, such as iridium or a variant of 5G, it must be secure. Post-quantum cryptography technology meets the mission now and for decades. With quantum computing on the horizon in just five to ten years, the future fleet and its communication systems must have the hardware and architecture to support quantum computing proof software—post-quantum cryptography.
To put this in perspective, today, a conventional computer would take the time equal to the the age of the universe to crack a product key card encryption. A quantum computer would achieve this in hours. Although DoD is taking initial steps in this direction, it needs to move faster by setting cryptography standards and bolstering development of the algorithms and methods used to achieve post-quantum cryptography.
Finally, people matter. In particular, the cyber warriors who are going to protect and defend critical networks and infrastructure. The Navy’s cyber warfare engineers are the gate keepers of these systems and will be vital to the future of distributed maritime operations and C5ISRT efforts. This cadre needs to rapidly expand, as they will face future threats that could leave communications unreliable and weapon systems ineffective. In addition to officer recruitment, the Navy should establish an enlisted training pipeline for sailors to support the software development and cyber security demands and requirements of the future fleet.
Authoritarian practices on the open oceans, and especially the vital waterways, are becoming more prevalent. At a minimum, DoD needs to identify and define such practices to establish the necessary authorities to act on the international stage. From this flows smart sanctions and force laydown adjustments: put the assets where the threat is. The future Navy needs to be lean, technologically cutting edge, and ready for the fight of tomorrow. Distributed maritime operations afford the Navy these attributes; however, it must first reinforce its networks and invest in the talent to develop, maintain, and defend them.
- A. Puddington, Breaking Down Democracy: Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians (Washington, DC: Freedom House, 2017).
- A. T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783 (Norwalk: The Easton Press, 2001).