To Rule the Waves

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From Policy Magazine 

To Rule the Waves

By Bruce D. Jones

Simon and Schuster/2021

Reviewed by Colin Robertson

December 14, 2021

If oceans were once the boundaries of our existence, today they constitute the front lines of commerce, climate change and the new geo-strategic rivalries that are shaping the twenty-first century. These themes are all included in Bruce Jones’ To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers.  For Canada, with three oceans to our north, east and west, this new paradigm presents challenges but also opportunities, if we can seize them.

Dr. Jones directs the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. His book combines history, geography, economics, science and technology and if you enjoyed Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander series, you will like To Rule the Waves.

The book is also a travelogue taking us from the Amazon to the Arctic, from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. Jones travels on the Madrid Maersk, the second biggest container ship in the world. He visits a submarine pen in northern Norway, that could be a James Bond set, but that is once again re-occupied by NATO,  There are stops in the world’s biggest ports, including Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, but as Jones notes, the US no longer has a port in the world’s top 10.

When we hear the word “globalization”, writes Jones, it means that 85 percent of global trade moves by sea, and roughly two-thirds of the world’s supply of oil and gas is either found at sea or moves by sea to its final market. Most of it is bound in bulk carriers and mega container ships like the Maersk Madrid and as the pandemic has demonstrated when this complex web is disrupted it plays havoc with supply chains. It’s why you can’t find what you want in the store or on-line.

To give you a sense of how shipping has improved in productivity and efficiency, Jones says Maersk’s founder, Peter Maersk, sailed a cargo ship around the Baltic Sea at the beginning of the 20th century. It held the equivalent of 20 containers worth of goods, and it had a crew of 26. The Maersk Madrid can carry 25,000 containers with a crew of 23.

When we hear the word “globalization”, writes Jones, it means that 85 percent of global trade moves by sea, and roughly two-thirds of the world’s supply of oil and gas is either found at sea or moves by sea to its final market.

The oceans are also vital to telecommunications. Few recognize the relationship of our oceans to the or finance or communications with more than 90 percent of global data flowing through a complex grid of more than four hundred seafloor cables linking every major market in the world. The cables were first laid in the 1850s, at the height of British maritime power and they require continuous replacement and upgrading. In 2017, Microsoft and Facebook collaborated to lay the fastest cable yet  across the Atlantic, capable of transmitting data at a rate of 160 terabits per second. These are vital links, but as former NATO Commander, Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman write in their recent thriller 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, it does not take much to disrupt them.

One of the most important features of American power is to provide this global good of freedom of navigation on our oceans.  China depends on the ocean-bound commercial and energy flow and this creates its “Malacca Dilemma”. As China grows, the more dependent it becomes on the US Navy and so, after a five-century gap, China is once again becoming a naval power.

The result, says Jones, is that sealanes in the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea are rapidly becoming the most important zone of confrontation between the world’s great military actors—the United States and China – but also Russia, Japan, India, and others. China’s navy is establishing a presence and reach out to the western edges of the Indian Ocean while Russia has bolstered its presence in the Arctic, from where it reaches down into the North Atlantic. So far, writes Jones, we’ve not seen great power tensions rise to the level of direct military confrontation; but the “tidal pull that precedes a tsunami is gaining strength”.

China’s naval fleet is expected to rise from 355 in 2021, to 460 by 2030, as compared with 297 ships currently in the US Navy. China is also expected to surpass the United States in numbers of submarines. The US Defense Department’s latest report on China’s military power, projects that by 2030, Beijing will possess 187 major surface combatants, and 70 attack submarines.

If China continues to expand its reach and ambition, the US will have to forge a kind of “alliance of alliances” that links the capacity of NATO, the EU, the Quad. The US must push its allies to think hard about how they would respond to a Chinese military bid to reclaim Taiwan.

To meet the China challenge, Jones recommends a “multi-geography” response using America’s continuing global reach, and that of its allies, to deter China by creating risks and costs for Beijing far from its shores.

The Allies can take advantage of a new China dilemma—the more its global reach grows, the more it has far-flung vulnerabilities. Putting pressure on vulnerabilities, like its fishing fleet in Angolan waters or its oil interests in the Strait of Hormuz, is likely a lower risk than confronting China in its own maritime backyard. A retooled NATO, writes Jones, can be a useful buttress to American power in the Arctic and the Atlantic. But this will require the allies, including Canada, to augment their sea power.

Fronting on three oceans – the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific – Canada’s  coastline is the world’s longest. Our oceans are deeply integrated into our lives and our livelihood and if we are to diversify our trade we will depend on the oceans for transportation.

At the end of the Second World War, having helped secure the North Atlantic, Winston Churchill would say of the Battle of the Atlantic, the war’s longest campaign,  that it was the “only thing that ever really frightened me during the war”. By war’s end, Canada had the fourth largest navy in the world with 95,000 sailors and 434 commissioned vessels. Today, Canada has around 15,000 sailors with twelve frigates and four submarines. The first of our new offshore patrol ships, HMCS Harry DeWolfe, recently sailed through the North West Passage. Our15 new surface combatants, are expected in the 2030s.

Climate is a peril to our oceans and it is visibly changing our Arctic. Sea level has never risen as fast as it is rising now. Approximately 680 million people (nearly 10 percent of the 2010 global population) live on coastal land that is less than 33 feet above sea level.

The AUKUS agreement that will see the US share its nuclear submarine technology with Australia. Canada turned down the opportunity for nuclear submarines during the Mulroney government, mostly for reasons of cost, but as we look re-evaluate our own commitments in the Indo-Pacific, we should, at a minimum, seek admission to the technology discussions of both AUKUS and the Quad. We should also build a security relationship with India and continue to enhance the defence partnership with Japan especially as we look to our next generation of submarines.

We think of the South China Sea as a trade route but it is also a source of fish stocks, with several hundred million Chinese and South Asians looking to it as their source of protein. Globally, industrial-scale fishing has depleted an estimated 90 percent of open-water fish stocks.

Climate is a peril to our oceans and it is visibly changing our Arctic. Sea level has never risen as fast as it is rising now. Approximately 680 million people (nearly 10 percent of the 2010 global population) live on coastal land that is less than 33 feet above sea level. This number is projected to reach more than 1 billion by 2050 because the world’s ice sheets and glaciers are losing large amounts of ice. The resulting water flows into the oceans. At the same time, ocean temperatures are rising, and warmer water expands and takes up more space than cold water.

We face the triple dilemmas of inequities caused by globalization, the naval arms race, and climate change all of which profoundly affect Canada. Deglobalization, says Jones, is not the answer Instead the US and its allies should “reanimate their engagement with globalization”. The benefits of globalization, writes Jones, and the cost of reversing it, combined with the “reality that all countries’ fates are tied together, make it tempting to hope that logic rather than fear will prevail” not just for inequity and also for climate change, where we can also apply technology, one area where the US and West have an advantage. As for the arms race, Jones says we must rely on diplomacy.

To Rule the Waves is a compelling read: lucid, illuminating and sobering. The Canadian code of arms bears the motto ‘A Mari Usque ad Mare’ – from sea to sea, to which we must now add another sea. Once aspirational, it now reflects a reality that Canadians must appreciate if we are to sustain our livelihood, our climate, and our security.