The Maritime Dimension at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) February 2019

Some conferences are as famous as they are indispensable to understand the state of the world. Already the second time the Centre of Excellence for Operations in Confined and Shallow Waters could co-host two roundtable discussions at the MSC. Under the Chatham House Rule the global political, diplomatic and military elite, who has been present at the Munich Security Conference, was attracted by these side events. Like last year, the COE CSW provided intellectual support and its worldwide network to discuss developments in two important potential maritime conflict zones. Although being thousands of miles away from each other, both maritime regions belong to the same strategic chess field. They are shaping the world order in the 21st century and they give relevant insights into the state of the great power rivalry and the position of medium sized and smaller states.

The first Roundtable on the evening of Friday, 15 February, on “Bridging troubled waters – Deconflicting the South China Sea Disputes” guided more than 30 high ranking politicians, diplomats, soldiers and media into the most populated area on earth and the busiest sea lanes. The South China Sea disputes have the capacity to lead from rivalry into confrontation and even into a kinetic conflict. Behavioral patterns currently displayed in the South China Sea are a source of increasing tensions. These tensions are an issue of serious concern affecting regional stability and have potential global repercussions. Looking at the overall pattern of confrontation in the maritime domain in the South China Sea, it appears that traditional customary mechanisms for managing such disputes might no longer be adequate. How unclear the situation is became clear in a frank exchange of views between the participants. All panelists shared the understanding that UNCLOS should be the international basis for solving maritime disputes. However, apparently China favours a self-fomulated view on territory, which is based on the idea of land claims and sovereignty. That argument culminated in even refusing third nations rights to navigate close to the 12 miles zone around Chinas islands because “it is too close”. The question “how close is too close” remained unanswered.

That reefs do not provide the basis for territorial claims with the resulting restrictions on the free use of the sea is a second dispute between China and the world. The fact that the special rights claimed by China in the South China Sea contradict its own argumentation related to the Arctic was pointed out as a connecting element of these different regions.

Saturday morning the Arctic Security Roundtable took place. More than 50 participants, including an acting and a former State President, a Prime Minister and two Minsters of Defence, several high ranking diplomats and military discussed current developments in the Arctic. The topic “Ïn from the cold: The end of Arctic Exceptionalism” challenged one particular stereotype on arctic discussions. So far, the Arctic has been discussed under the frame of being a zone of Exceptionalism, where cooperation and not confrontation is the fundament for problem solving. Entering a new era of great power competition, previous assumptions of the Arctic as an exceptional region of peace and cooperation are increasingly being challenged. This might lead to a clearer understanding that the Arctic is in fact not different from other regions in an interconnected world, with global dynamics having simultaneously constraining and enabling effects. Part of the discussion was the question what or who is the elephant in the room. Be it climate change, Russia’s military buildup or Chinas claim to be a near Arctic State with the right to be heard on all issues.

The maritime topics discussed at the MSC will continue to be of great international importance. Therefore, end of March a follow-up event in Berlin, organised by the COE CSW, will provide the opportunity to further discuss Arctic and South China Sea issues and their impact on global maritime security. As part of the MSC Arctic Security Series, the next roundtable will take place in Helsinki, Finland, in May 2019. The COECSW is planning to visit the Arctic Circle Conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, October 2019 for the sixth time, to monitor the current developments.

Photograph by NDR
Photograph by MSC/Karl-Josef Hildenbrand
Photograph by MSC/Karl-Josef Hildenbrand
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