Maritime spaces and international security

(To Renato Scarfi)

The strong competition for access to marine and submarine natural resources and the consequent claims on areas of interest show how maritime spaces have become fundamental for the economic (and therefore social) well-being of states. The tensions that arise from this vehement competition show, once again, how the economic aspects have serious repercussions on contemporary international relations and, therefore, also on the security aspects of each nation.

By now, very few countries (and no powers) aim for a purely or predominantly continental economy, while all the others have understood the potential and benefits of the "blue economy". Finally, it is being understood that the race for access to submarine energy resources is added, for example, to the need to ensure freedom of navigation along commercial maritime routes, to the need to provide for the security of submarine lines of digital communication and pipelines that carry gas and oil from the extraction point to the processing points. Essentially, anything that allows a country to grow and provide for the welfare of its citizens. Maritime spaces have therefore become an indispensable source of wealth and growth, which is worth protecting, in every sense.

It is also for these reasons that diplomacy, in order to ease frictions and create a network of security relations, is increasingly placing the emphasis of its action on the maritime aspects both in bilateral and international relations.

In this context, we can identify three sectors which, more than others, constitute a topic of specific interest and which could trigger crises of a certain importance: the territorialisation of the sea, the challenges posed by illegal fishing and maritime crime, the threats to the freedom of navigation .

The territorialization of the sea

The ability to access marine and submarine resources is acquiring increasing importance on national agendas and is at the basis of the development of tools designed to safeguard national, economic and security interests in the maritime domain. The exploitation of fish, energy and mineral resources of the sea potentially multiply the reasons of international tension, at the basis of which there are often claims of illegal expansion of their marine areas, which do not take into account international law.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which blew out 2022 candles in 40, has introduced rules that make it possible to delimit maritime spaces and to identify the rights and duties of coastal countries. Despite the general common wording, some countries, such as India, China and Brazil, however, have adopted different interpretations.

In a nutshell, UNCLOS defines three types of maritime spaces. The territorial waters, which extend up to 12 nautical miles from the baseline (or coast). On these waters there is the right of harmless passage (ie without carrying out any activity) for ships flying a foreign flag. Then there is a Contiguous Zone, which extends for an additional 12 nautical miles. On these areas facing the coast, the coastal State can exercise police, customs, health and immigration controls. There is also an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends up to 200 nautical miles, and within which the coastal State is the holder of a series of rights and duties (read "Exclusive Economic Zone and maritime power").

Its economic and geopolitical importance appears clear: in this area the coastal State exercises, among other things, sovereign rights to explore and exploit, conserve and manage the natural resources of the seabed as well as the overlying water column. In this area, the State also has exclusive jurisdiction and rights on the installation of artificial islands, on scientific research and on the prevention of marine pollution.

This codification of the maritime areas has, however, allowed the principle of total freedom of the seas, which has governed maritime traffic since the time of Grotius, to be somewhat revisited, in order to provide international juridical instruments of guarantee and controls that would allow regulating access to increasingly sought-after marine resources. In this way, if on the one hand freedom has been able to be preserved on the high seas, the definition of maritime limits has on the other hand allowed thethe emergence of new grounds for dispute between coastal countries, eager to increase their economic and strategic potential, and favored the phenomenon known as territorialization of the seas.

However, the sea surface and the underlying waters are no longer the only ones that have commercial, industrial or geopolitical significance. With technological progress, in fact, even the resources at very great depths and under the seabed are no longer unreachable and this will predictably give rise to further disputes for their exploitation. As for space and domain cyber, then also the deep sea will increasingly represent a sector of significant economic and strategic interest and, therefore, a source of possible challenges to international security.

Illegal fishing and crime at sea

The maritime domain, more than other domains, highlights the frictions deriving from the exercise of national sovereignty. Such are, as mentioned, the rights to exploit coastal areas, the recognition of Exclusive Economic Zones and access to resources found on the high seas, as a common good.

But maritime spaces are also a fragile environment, which must be defended and respected, precisely because it is a source of universal well-being. There illegal fishing, for example, is a scourge that depletes both fish stocks and marine ecosystems. A practice that has a worrying economic impact because it not only deprives regular fishing communities of work and profit, but could also lead to threaten the food security of entire populations and, therefore, it could be the trigger for deep international crises. The phenomenon is not negligible since, according to the US non-profit organization Global Fishing Watch, accounts for about 20% of global annual catches. Added to this are the illegal captures of protected fish and aquatic mammals and the real violence that leads to killing animals for the sole purpose of removing part of them (see shark fins).

In addition to the actual looting of the fish fauna, there are other insidious threats related to the interests of criminality that operates on the sea and destabilizes the precarious international balance. Such is the piracy phenomenon which, thanks to the decisive action of some military fleets, has reduced its threat, but which has not disappeared from the maritime trade routes and is still characterized by a high level of danger. In this context, it should be emphasized that the Gulf of Guinea area, important for oil traffic with coastal terminals, is known as one of the most dangerous areas in the world for commercial shipping. To give the dimensions of the phenomenon, according to theInternational Maritime Bureau (IMB) in 2020 in the Gulf of Guinea alone there were attacks on merchant vessels which led to the kidnapping of 128 crews, who were held hostage to guarantee the payment of the ransom. And that only refers to 25% of boardings in the area (read "African instability and its geopolitical consequences"). For the other sensitive areas of the planet, it should be remembered that, in 2021, out of the 317 acts of piracy reported in the world, the Indo-Pacific area (Singapore-Strait of Malacca area) totaled 57 incidents. This is not surprising, as i chokepoints they are the preferred spots for attacks on merchantmen. Such is, for example, the area of ​​the Horn of Africa which, since 2010, has also seen in this area the continued effective commitment of Italian military units to tackle the problem.

In fact, international trade is constantly fueled by an incredible volume of trade, which occurs mainly by sea. It is no coincidence that the expression "no shipping, no shopping", to underline the impact that maritime trade has on our way of life. Today, therefore, piracy remains the main threat to trade flows by sea. It is a multifaceted threat, which no longer only involves boarding of the merchant vessel and the subsequent ransom request, but which may include the possibility of using remote-controlled bomb ships to threaten the shipowner "remotely".The taking of control of the merchant vessel, through the penetration of the electronic security and navigation of the target, represents a further dangerous novelty, which requires a careful updating of the countermeasures adopted so far, in order to increase the IT security of the on-board systems.

Finally, it should be underlined that the phenomenon of piracy goes hand in hand with the threat of terrorism jihadi, far from extinct, for which the proceeds of the pirates' actions represent one of the sources of financing. Example is the group Boko Haram in the Niger Delta and the group Abu Sayyaf (affiliated with the Islamic State) in the Philippines. In this context, the terrorists would be applying a sort of "attack on the world economy", of which maritime flows are one of the main pillars, if not the main one. The growing collusion between piracy and terrorism, which allows the nautical knowledge of pirates to be combined with the planning and execution capabilities of terrorists, could have a multiplier effect, with significant human and economic consequences, fueling the reasons for international conflict.

Threats to freedom of navigation

The whole complex of these criminal activities does not fail to negatively affect the security of maritime trade routes and, therefore, the world's national economies. Indeed, any restriction on the freedom of navigation has a direct global effectnot only in the short term but also in the medium term. The Suez Canal crisis, for example, (read "The economic and geopolitical importance of the Suez Canal”) proved how much the current supply chains are dependent on the free usability of maritime communication lines, through which 90% of the world's goods travel, according to data from International Maritime Organization (IMO). It is a huge traffic of goods that travels these liquid highways on a daily basis.

Due to its enormous dependence on the supply of resources and raw materials, Italy is particularly exposed to any actions that interfere with the free accessibility of maritime communication routes. In 2018, for example, 79,3% of Italian goods exported to the world traveled by sea, a percentage that rises to 95,9 if we consider only non-European Union countries (read "The protection of national interests on the sea").

A situation that can be observed (with varying degrees of intensity) also for the rest of the world and, in particular, for all the industrialized countries which, without the possibility of importing raw materials and exporting manufactured goods by sea, would suffer a domino effect which would bring the respective economies to one serious crisis in a very short time.

To ensure freedom of navigation in the areas where merchant ships pass through, the states concerned are actively mobilized mainly through joint multinational initiatives, with the aim of increasing the overall effectiveness of the intervention but also reducing the related costs.


To ensure national prosperity, all coastal countries stand improving their Navies and intensifying surveillance and control activities at sea. Among these are not only those that have centuries of maritime traditions, but also countries that have recently appeared beyond their coasts. Like for example China, which in a few years has created a quantitatively and qualitatively significant fleet (read "China adds a pawn to the Indo-Pacific chessboard"). But it is not the only one, given that India, South Korea, Japan and Turkey are also projecting themselves with conviction on the world's maritime theaters (read "India looks towards the sea","The renewal of the Japanese Navy","The two faces of the Turkish attitude").

The seas and oceans of the world therefore see an ever-increasing presence of military ships to protect their respective national interests. The global trend is to build multipurpose units by integrating new technologies (drones, robotics, artificial intelligence) that they add operational value to the "vessel system", which has always been the only tool with real capabilities expeditionary.

Among the Navies of the world, those few able to operate with aircraft carrier groups, which allow the power projection at a considerable distance from the mother country. It is a very small group of countries, including Italy, which can operate for a long time in maritime areas of national interest.

From an operational point of view, excluding a high-intensity conflict between the main fleets, it is a question of having the capabilities to prevent actions of Anti Access / Denial Area (A2/AD) by any adversary in particular areas of national interest.

The search for one status of naval power also affects organizations such as the European Union, interested in establishing itself as a global actor in the maritime sector interested in contributing to international security. It is a fact that 90% of the Union's external trade and 40% of its internal trade is carried out by sea. From this derives the awareness that the security of the seas and oceans is of the utmost importance for the EU's free trade, economy and standard of living. In geopolitics, in fact, the international image and the ability to project power mean having contractual weight in major strategic issues.

In 2014, therefore, it approved its own Maritime Safety Strategy (EUMSS), a strategy that is continuously updated on the basis of the evolution of the international situation. It is a document which allowed the initiation of the community measures necessary to update the tools necessary to face the threats to navigation and illegal trafficking (drugs, weapons, piracy,…).

One model is the EUNAVFOR Somalia (Operation "Atalanta") which, in the waters of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean, can count on ultra-modern naval units and aircraft for surveillance, recognition and countering of suspicious activities attributable to the phenomenon of piracy and provides an example of one extremely active and effective naval diplomacy. In this context, in the 12 years since its activation, the Navy has participated with 26 surface units and, 8 times, the Operations Command has been entrusted to an Italian Admiral, meaning the important role played by the Armed Forces in a fundamental basin for national interests and for the cluster Italian seafarer.

But the maintenance of a modern fleet capable of countering the adversary's activities requires an economic effort for the planning, study, construction and operational maintenance of the ships which allow the State to be present on the seas of interest, protection of national merchant traffic and to ensure overall national security. An effort that must find an answer in the support from politicians and citizens, through the understanding of the dynamics related to the international economy and the awareness of one's dependence on the sea.

In a world increasingly characterized by exasperated competition (energy, trade, etc…), international security passes through the security of global maritime spaces. Politics must take note of this situation and therefore allow the tools at its disposal, which operate with high professionalism and competence in the maritime domain, to take on a configuration in line with the threats ahead. In short, politics is called to understand that, in the coming decades, the air-naval instrument will be at the forefront to defend national interests and to make, once again, its significant contribution to international security.

As James Donald Hittle stated “…the path traveled by man through history is littered with the failures of nations which, having achieved prosperity, have forgotten their dependence on the sea…”.i In a historical period in which competition for energy resources and access to markets is multiplying on the sea and transnational threats are strengthening, in which activities connected with organized crime, trafficking in human beings, piracy and the terrorism, who often resort to flags of convenience or simply flout the rules of international law, there is noThere is no doubt that the gaze of the political decision-maker must be directed with extreme attention mainly towards the seaboth in order to be able to make our contribution to international security and in the interests of our commercial traffic and the whole complex of our fundamental national interests.

i Brigadier General JD Hittle (June 10, 1915, June 15, 2002), speech given in Philadelphia, October 28, 1961.

Photo: US Navy