Seas without a sheriff

No sheriff in town.

Now, in 2011, would be the worst of times for the US Senate to ratify the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS; or, “Law of the Sea Treaty”: LOST).

Ratification would presuppose an internationally agreed maritime order into which the US was buying.  The nature of that order is tacitly supposed to be one of agreements, definitions, and legalities; in essence, the form of international order to which the United Nations was intended to give impetus.

Realities of maritime order

But no such order exists, nor has it ever.  There is no overarching order for the US to buy into: nothing that exists independently of the use of force and the expression of credible intent by the most powerful nations.  That is why the early indicators of the demise of the Pax Americana are appearing in the maritime realm.  The great oceans are much like the old American frontier: regulated largely by custom and the firearm, sometimes unsafe for the vulnerable bits of civilization, and held in check by the vigilance of hanging judges and the threat of visits from the Army.

For the basis of order to change, the assumptions and activities of key players have to change.  Roving criminal bands have to perceive that their opportunities are increasingly closed off by a stronger order: that the cost of crime outweighs the benefits.  Strongmen have to accept the supervision of a civil order in which they may suffer losses or have to compromise on what they want.  The vulnerable have to be satisfied that they are safe if they relinquish a posture of armed vigilance.

Only the United States – a continent-size maritime power and the sheriff of the seas for the last 65 years – and America’s formal allies have been able to cultivate the open-minded, complacent attitude required of participants in a meaningful UNCLOS.  The basis of UNCLOS was American dominance of the seas; without it, UNCLOS is meaningless.  No independently-motivated power will voluntarily adhere to it where it requires compromise and the relinquishing of national purposes.  We are seeing that with unvarnished clarity in the Eastern Mediterranean and the South China Sea.

Turkey and China worry everyone in their neighborhoods.  Turkey is not a state participant in UNCLOS; China is.  But their attitudes toward the maritime rights of their neighbors are basically identical: neither regards international custom, UNCLOS, or the UN as an arbiter that can limit their claims or purposes.  So they behave as if international expectations don’t even exist.  Their neighbors take refuge in claims lodged with the UN, in alliances of convenience, in diplomatic protests.  Turkey and China respond with force and threats.

Cyprus, the next act

The drama off Cyprus, where US firm Noble Energy is drilling for natural gas, is now six weeks old and showing no sign of diplomatic resolution.  Turkey’s exploration ship K. Piri Reis was reportedly set to wrap up seismic profiling in the past week, but a second and third ship have been dispatched to “conduct exploration” for Turkey in Cyprus’ economic exclusion zone (EEZ).

The significance of that is overshadowed in most media reporting by the excitement of the related military activity.  But the important thing that’s happening is that Turkey is operating ships in Cyprus’ EEZ, for economic-exploitation purposes, and no one is doing anything effective about it.  The meaning of having an EEZ claim registered with the UN is thus being eroded before our eyes.

The additional ships contracted by Turkey are the Norwegian-flagged survey vessels Bergen Surveyor (now in the Black Sea following operations off Cyprus) and Oceanic Challenger, which are working for the Paris-headquartered corporation CGG Veritas.  That is interesting in itself, of course, since it’s easy to detect that the work is being done in Cyprus’ EEZ, but without the approval of Nicosia.

Cypriot sources reported Bergen Surveyor as active in the Republic’s EEZ, off the Western end of the island, as early as 6 October.  Cypriot bloggers suggested their government was appealing to France and Norway to keep their assets out of the dispute, and some concluded in mid-October that the appeal had been effective, since Bergen Surveyor was operating outside of – or no closer than the extreme northwestern tip of – the oil-and-gas deposit zone (see the blocks outlined on the map).

Outline of oil/gas blocks in the Cyprus EEZ, Levantine Basin

But the area of operations by the Turkish-contracted ships is inside the Cyprus EEZ, as that EEZ is designated under UNCLOS.  It is further noteworthy that the Cypriot exploration to which Turkey objects – taking place in Block 12 (“Aphrodite”) of the Levantine Basin deposits – is well outside of any Turkish maritime claim (or any potential claim by “Northern Cyprus,” for that matter.  See the map of Turkey’s idea of proper maritime-claim delineations).

Turkey’s move is thus not motivated by a claim to the seabed deposits in the area south of Cyprus; she has made none.  It’s not a matter of muscling Cyprus away from a gas deposit claimed by Turkey or Northern Cyprus.  It’s a general power move that places Turkey at odds with the international system of maritime claims by which Cyprus is operating.  Turkey is registering non-acceptance of maritime claims in EASTMED in general.

EASTMED EEZ claims registered with the UN under UNCLOS

I don’t assess this to be a confused, abstract move on Turkey’s part; I believe the Erdogan government sees maritime claims as a key security and power issue, and views the claims of all parties in the Aegean and off the coasts of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel as of integral significance to Turkey.  This is a geostrategic view that appreciates the importance to Turkey’s security of the maritime approaches – and their importance to Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman aspirations.  By the lights of the Ottoman legacy, the coasts of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel are as much Turkey’s concern as the Bosporus, the Aegean islands, and the waters off Antalya.

For Turkey to operate from this visceral, historical sense of things is not nefarious in itself.  Geography and history are what they are.  But Erdogan is not “picking his battles” in a defensive security policy; he is starting new ones, for purposes beyond security and self-defense.  As a member of NATO, Turkey started out with presumptions in her favor, and might have approached her concerns with Cyprus and the maritime claims of EASTMED very differently.  But Erdogan has instead chosen confrontation and tacit rejection of international conventions.


Author annotation of original map by Turkish Marine Research Foundation; see other image for unannotated TMRF map, reflecting TMRF view only

Russia to the rescue, Israel over EASTMED

Because Erdogan’s NATO allies aren’t taking order to him, the other nations of the region are beginning to show force and advertise their alliances.  As previously announced, Russia sent an amphibious landing ship full of Russian marines (naval infantry) to join Greece in a naval commemoration at the end of October.  The RS Tsesar Kunikov docked in Alexandroupolis, near the Turkish Straits:  a pointed allusion to the city’s brief history.  It was built by the Ottoman Empire and called Dedeagac – a waypoint on the Ottomans’ 19th-century railroad extension into Europe – but captured by Russia in an invasion in 1877.  The Ottomans reclaimed it in 1878, but it went first to Bulgaria and then to Greece in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars (1911-13) and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22.  The Greeks renamed it Alexandroupolis in honor of their king at the time, Alexander I.

In last week’s commemorative ceremony, Russian naval infantry marched through Alexandroupolis with Greek marines, and the Greeks don’t appear to have been so excited about anything for a long time.  (Reportedly, anti-government protesters suspended their activities in favor of the ceremony.)  More than one website retails the story of how the enlightened Russian occupiers built a system of broad avenues through Alexandroupolis during their brief reign there in the 1870s, as opposed to the crabbed labyrinth of culs-de-sac favored by the secretive Ottomans.   If there isn’t an aphorism about how it takes the Turks to make you appreciate a Russian invasion, there ought to be.

In Cyprus, meanwhile, Israel last week dispatched a force of 16 fighter aircraft, tankers, and six IDF helicopters to conduct a military exercise with the Cypriot armed forces.  (The Turks responded but kept their distance.)  Israel has multiple security concerns for which having access to Cyprus would play a useful role; protecting her own offshore gas activities is certainly an important one.

Exact (unannotated)Turkish Marine Rseacrh Foundation view of EastMed EEZs

Israel and Cyprus have in common their resistance to living under terms dictated by Turkey, whether the subject is the gas trade, their maritime claims, or their general security.  Besides her gas deposits, Israel is eying the threat from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in Syria; even with respect to the asymmetric threat growing in the Sinai, Israel will benefit from an expansion of her geographic options.  So Shimon Peres is heading for Cyprus this week.

On the other side of Asia

Across Asia in the South China Sea, the confrontation between China and her neighbors continues at a low boil.  Unlike Turkey, China is a state participant in UNCLOS, and has registered a set of wildly excessive maritime claims with the UN.  China’s claims (see map) would leave her neighbors with little opportunity for offshore development, but accord Beijing the ability to hold almost the entire body of water at risk with coastal cruise missiles.

China's excessive maritime claims (UNCLOS-based claims in blue)

The Philippines has proposed, in the ASEAN forum, a concept for joint economic development in disputed areas of the South China Sea (SCS).  Vietnam endorsed the Philippine plan when President Truong Tan Sang visited Filipino President Benigno Aquino last week, signing agreements on naval and intelligence cooperation and committing to a hotline between the coast guards of Hanoi and Manila.  The Philippines has moved forward with a proposal for a special session of ASEAN defense ministers to discuss the joint-development concept – which, with momentum building for it in ASEAN, is the main idea on the table right now.

China is not a member of ASEAN, however, and a few days ago a state-owned media outlet, Global Times, issued yet another threat to China’s SCS neighbors.  An editorial in Global Times warned the “little countries” to “prepare for the sound of cannons [sic],” causing the Philippines’ foreign secretary to issue a stern rebuke.

Fishing disputes

But the SCS nations aren’t the only ones who think Global Times was referring to them.  Granted, the Philippines has been dealing for some time with Chinese fishing boats operating – with Beijing’s blessing – in her EEZ, and on 18 October, her coast guard had an accidental collision with a fishing mothership that was towing fishing boats near one of the disputed Spratly Islands.

South Korea, however, announced detaining three Chinese fishing ships, with 31 crewmembers, on 21 October, because the Chinese were encroaching on South Korean waters (a persistent problem for the Koreans as well as for the Philippines).  The ensuing brouhaha prompted editorialists at Chosun Ilbo to suspect that the “sound of cannons” comment was directed at Seoul.  And Japan had a minor incident of her own on the 25th, when the Japanese coast guard confronted two Chinese fisheries-patrol ships operating in the contiguous zone off the Senkaku Islands.

An absentee sheriff

As with the EASTMED dispute, the US is a negligible quantity at the diplomatic and strategic level.  Leon Panetta, making his first trip to Asia as secretary of defense last week, was recorded assuring ASEAN members that the US would maintain our military presence in the Pacific as a counterweight to China.  This is the kind of thing that is already less than credible if you actually have to say it.  It’s certainly not the centerpiece of a positive policy.  The momentum in the Pacific is with China and the jostling Asian powers – which ought to give us pause, in the US, since we do maintain a still-significant military presence there.

As with the NATO alliance and our defense alliance with Israel (indeed, our defense cooperation with Egypt and Jordan as well), our alliances in East Asia will begin to back us into confrontations we are not making the requisite strategic effort to ward off.  If we aren’t taking the lead in influencing events, using all the tools of state power, our alliances and military deployments can begin to look like absent-minded vulnerabilities – or ill-conceived provocations.

The US Marines, for example, conducted an annual landing exercise earlier in October with their Philippines counterparts on the west-central coast of Luzon, the northernmost of the major Philippine islands.  The coast fronts on a region of the SCS which Manila disputes with Beijing; Marine Corps spokesmen declined to address any idea of political overtones to the exercise.  As with US Naval exercises with Vietnam held in the summer, the joint events are always “annual” or “previously scheduled,” and are left otherwise without strategic context: left to communicate, in a changing geopolitical environment, whatever China and other regional nations want to divine from them.

This may sound clever to the sensibility of some people – it has Robert S. McNamara written all over it – but that doesn’t make it wise or sound policy.  The strategically significant message we want to send China isn’t actually “We will put our Marine Corps in your face and you can read what you like into that.”  That’s a negative, triangulating kind of message, one that gives hope to no one and shape to nothing.  If we are going to keep US military power in Asia, we should not be there to, in effect, provoke China, nor should we be there merely as an enforcer – a hired goon squad – for the initiatives and security emergencies of our Asian allies.

Ensuring that we and our allies are agreed on basic objectives is, of course, a process of give and take.  We are as interested in their goals and concerns as we are in ours.  But ultimately, we have a military presence in East Asia because we have our own objectives there.  We’re not there to intimidate China on behalf of Vietnam and the Philippines – or at least, if we are, we are behaving according to a separate set of rules from those of statesmanship and accountable policy.

China is watching developments in EASTMED.  Beijing will take lessons from whatever happens there, and the principal lesson will be the involvement of the US – or lack of it – and the extent to which we shape the outcome or have it handed to us.  If Turkey is able to change the security regime to her advantage, China will be emboldened to try the same.

It’s still not too late for the US to weigh in with Turkey, bringing NATO and our bilateral relations to bear.  One of the best favors we could do UNCLOS is get Turkey to honor it in her dealings with her EASTMED neighbors.  As long as major nations like Turkey and China see UNCLOS as either a negligible obstacle or as something to be exploited, the convention itself is meaningless without assertive enforcement.  Where there is no sheriff, the law is a matter of convenience for the strong – and no protection for the weak.

*NOTE*  Please see comments section for a statement from the Turkish Marine Research Foundation regarding its EEZ map of EASTMED.  I have added the unannotated TMRF map to this post and changed the caption of my annotated map, which was included with the original post, to clarify that my annotations were added.  Be further advised that, as emphasized in Dr. Ozturk’s comments, the view reflected on the unannotated TMRF map is that of the Turkish Marine Research Foundation and is not to be attributed to the government of Turkey.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

11 thoughts on “Seas without a sheriff”

  1. Just a quick comment, not fully expanded.
    Agreed that the ultimate arbiter on the high seas is (still) the USN. I disagree that the Senate should bury UNCLOS. Although not perfect, this is the prevailing framework and it offers many tools to counter Chinese expansion in the Pacific, if read correctly. It will also be difficult to justify US intervention in cases such as Turkey’s or China’s, when the US is not even a signatory to the treaty being violated. Few people in DC are observant enough to realizes the analogous situations between Turkey/EASTMED and PRC/PACIFIC. (There is also the question of Taiwanese islands off the Chinese mainland). Luckily the French and curiously enough the Russians, will ultimately defend Western interests in the EASTMED, if America will not.
    If Turkey sets a precedent in the EASTMED, we will pay dearly in the South China Sea in the near future. Unless of course other policy directions have already been accepted. Why for example is Erdogan’s Turkey being allowed access to F-16 source codes, Predator UAV’s, etc.? This can’t only be about the X-band radar sites in Turkey. Or can it? Do they seriously believe their “moderate Islam, Arab Spring” propaganda back in DC?
    Governance 101: “Never believe your own propaganda”. These guys have to go back to school, and fast.
    There is something rotten in the Kingdom.

  2. If the Turks ever bothered to read your earnest irony-free lecture they would all be rolling on the floor – helpless with laughter.

    Turkey took the measure of NATO when a number of its NATO citizens were murdered by the military of a foreign, non-NATO power, while going about their lawful business on the high seas. I presumed this incident, and our reaction to it, encouraged the Turks to pursue their present policy of dining a-la-carte on NATO – just like we do.

    You might also notice how our European NATO allies don’t share your concern as to the legality or otherwise of allowing the involvement of their “assets” in Turkey’s oil-exploration.

    You will, however, be happier to know that Russia, no less than ourselves, is entirely helpless in stopping the Turks exploiting their offshore economic area (including, offshore Cypriot Turkey) unless they intend starting a war. The Ruskies have no such intention. Neither have utterly bankrupt Greece or the equally bankrupt Greek Cypriots. In fact, they would love the Ruskies to assist them with exploration and drilling expertise and assets. Unfortunately for them, this is the one thing Moscow won’t do. As they say, talk and naval parades are cheap.

    By the way, your map seems to show Block 12 having moved eastward to overlap Israel’s EEZ. I presume this map was fed to you by one of your handlers in Tel Aviv.

    1. I wouldn’t judge the perceived non-involvement of European NATO allies and Russia by (non)reactions to the pointless cruising of Turkish chartered research vessels off Cyprus.The fact is Cyprus is drilling, Turkey is not. It will be interesting to see who gets drilling licenses issued by the Republic of Cyprus in the next round (believe it will be a combination of Russian, French and US interests). Then we will have a better idea about their level of involvement. There are ways to curb Turkey’s appetite short of war you know. Otherwise we’d all be at each others throats, all the time.
      As for bankrupt Greece, She’s been here before. Salamis you know about, the Battle of Navarino maybe not. With a little luck, Western interests will converge on Greece once again.
      BTW, this is about defending American interest and the Wests in general. But you might not see this, being that Turkey wasn’t ever part of the West anyway.

  3. A general welcome to readers arriving from the LSE GWOT round-up site.

    The LSE site states that I “argue that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is counterproductive.”

    That is inaccurate. I argue that without great-power enforcement, it has no force.

    Please feel free to comment. There is a one-time delay in the first comment from a new commenter, but once you’re identified as “not spam,” you’ll be able to join the fray any time.

  4. Readers, I have edited this post in response to the following email from Dr. Bayram Ozturk of the Turkish Marine Rsearch Foundation:

    To Theoptı

    I am Director of the Turkish Marine Research Foundation.

    I read your blog titled Seas wıthout a sheriff posted on 31 October 2011.

    You referred to our map on Turkish EEZ on our website. However your quotation was wrong since obviously you have modified our map in the following points

    putting extra information (i.e. seismic exploration and drilling)
    we did not state Rep.of Cyprus on the island of Cyprus
    it is the view of our foundation, not of Turkish in general or Turkish government
    You can see the correct information in my paper as attached.

    We appreciate if you can make this correction on your blog.

    Thank you for your attention and let me know if you have any questions.

    Best regards,

    Prof.Dr. Bayram Ozturk


    Turkish Marine Research Foundation

    For a view of the original, unannotated TMRF map used for the third graphic in the post, please see here:

    As mentioned in the new “Note” at the end of the post, the EEZ map is the proposal of the TMRF and is not to be attributed to the government of Turkey.

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