Ocean Diplomacy: The Case For A Maritime G7

By John Konrad (Servicio-Marítimo Editorial) In a world hastily retreating from globalization, the maritime domain has emerged as the critical arena for global peace, prosperity, and security. However, a concerning vacuum of leadership has formed in this domain, as it is fragmented across different industry segments, geographic locations, and naval interests. With individual maritime nations struggling to exert significant influence on their own, and diplomats and statesmen primarily focusing on land and technology-based solutions, there is a pressing need for a united front. Enter the M8, or Maritime 8, a G7-inspired organization dedicated to addressing maritime affairs.

This editorial will explore the benefits of creating such a coalition and will ask the critical questions: How would the M8 differ from the G7? How would it serve to navigate the complex waters of international maritime policy, and what criteria should be used to select its members?

Is the G7 Outdated?

The G7 has achieved notable success, but its original purpose as a group representing the world’s largest industrial producers has become outdated due to the shift towards knowledge work and services. Now, the G7 consists of the seven largest economies by GDP, excluding China and India. However, it lacks the necessary economic influence to effect change in today’s world, as neither industry, knowledge work, nor raw GDP figures provide sufficient leverage to maintain the security of the 90% of cargo tonnage that moves via sea. Instead, the key to addressing pressing global challenges lies in the hands of the most influential maritime nations.

Oceans Encompass Today’s Largest Problems

Today’s biggest problems manifest themselves upon the oceans. It was port congestion, that ignited inflation, maritime sabotage of Nord Stream that ignited Europe’s energy crunch, and the severing of Taiwan’s unprotected subsea data cables that made clear how vulnerable the world’s internet backbone remains. Mines in the Black Sea threaten world hunger, Chinese naval actions in the South China Sea have militaries on edge, the blockade of Taiwan was a naval action and tanker seizures and explosions threaten free trade.

Numerous other pressing issues can be traced back to the maritime domain, and the G7 has struggled to find effective solutions. In some cases, their efforts have caused more harm than good. For example, their most significant contribution to maritime diplomacy, oil tanker sanctions against Russia, has created a precarious situation. As Admiral James Stavridis describes it, a “ticking time bomb” has emerged, impelling the surreptitious use of an aging fleet of poorly maintained tankers operating without transponders. Consequently, the ships in this so-called shadow fleet evade detection, tracking, and the insurance, regulation, and national oversight required of legitimate commercial ships.

How did we get here?

reagan and thatcher with G7 leaders
Photo from the 1982 G-7 Economic Summit leaders at Grand Trianon Palace in Versailles France during the first Cold War when maritime and naval policy was a top priority.

Post-Cold War, maritime trade flourished most when governmental interference was minimal. Diplomats and naval leaders’ laissez-faire attitude toward shipping allowed private companies to grow expansively, with intervention sought only during crises, such as the Somali piracy peak, and control promptly reverted to companies post-resolution (In the case of piracy, via armed private security).

However, today’s scenario is markedly different. As the American merchant fleet continues its unabated decline, the US Navy engaged in a resource-intensive pivot to the Pacific and burdened with budget constraints following two decades of prioritizing Army and Air Force spending in the Global War on Terror, finds itself strained for ships to deliver aid. Concurrently, naval leaders and security think tanks, grappling to comprehend broader issues, are stretched thin and less able to support commercial entities. Heightened nuclear threats have further intensified concerns about escalation, leading to a cautious approach, particularly in regions like the Black Sea, leaving shipping companies – and the insurance companies that back them – largely on their own.

“A maritime presence can yield tremendous economic benefits,” says Brent Sadler author of U.S. Naval Power in the 21st Century. “Sadly, U.S. leaders failed to pair the naval presence with economic and diplomatic efforts. Years later, Beijing filled that vacuum, and smaller maritime nations have fallen deep into China’s orbit.“

Historically, shipping companies and marine insurers were forthright in seeking assistance when required. However, today’s intricate geopolitical climate – coupled with the need not to offend their best customer, China – has made the biggest players reticent about getting the United States involved, despite challenges surfacing in every ocean.

Maritime Policy Today

IMO-Podium London
International Maritime Organization session at its headquarters in London. Photo Via IMO.org

The G7 has long exemplified how diplomacy can lead to peace and prosperity. However, today – after decades of laissez-faire attitude that fueled unbridled growth in shipping – maritime policy is primarily ignored or handled by anemic government agencies like the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) or junior diplomats at the International Maritime Organization (IMO). As a critical diplomatic body under the UN umbrella, the IMO focuses on maritime affairs but has mostly pivoted in recent decades to be a technical body and currently faces significant limitations and remains configured to handle tactical regulatory issues rather than strategic global trade matters. China continues to usurp influence within UN agencies, including the IMO, which regulates global shipping rules.

The Communist Party of China has a track record of exploiting leadership positions in UN organizations to further its own interests, thereby undermining neutrality and international cooperation. One striking example is China’s manipulation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to block Taiwan’s participation and obscure a Chinese cyber-attack. Now, China is closing in on the IMO, which plays a vital role in global trade, environmental performance, and maritime legal matters.

If the world seeks to preserve the peace and prosperity that have been made possible through the freedom of navigation on peaceful waters, it is crucial for senior diplomats from G7 nations to prioritize an independent, empowered, and strategically relevant IMO but, while the IMO is essential, we must also elevate our diplomatic efforts to a higher plane in order to address the complex challenges of the maritime domain effectively. One way to unite efforts to accomplish this task is by forming the M8.

United States Diplomatic Seablindess

Regrettably, this undertaking poses significant challenges. The genesis of the G7 traces back to March 25th, 1973, when George Shultz, Nixon’s U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, arranged an informal meeting of finance ministers in the White House Library. The catalyst of the M8 will likely require United States’ leaders to take the first step however, America’s leaders appear to be detached from the shipping industry compared to their European and Asian counterparts, and US statecraft is grappling with a multitude of setbacks.

During the G7’s formative years, the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), a powerful entity within the Department of Commerce, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Federal Maritime Commission. The shipyard lobby held considerable sway and a dedicated House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries was in full sail. The U.S. Maritime Service was steered by a commandant deeply anchored in the Pentagon and State Department. Yet, today’s landscape is startlingly different. MARAD now sits in the less influential Department of Transportation, maritime concerns are confined to a subcommittee, and our investigation revealed not a single American ship captain within the Pentagon or any major national security or diplomacy think tanks.

Congress could fix some of these problems – most notably by reconstituting a full maritime Senate committee – but we can not address these problems alone and U.S. statecraft has failed to deter events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s actions in the South China Sea, and the United State’s reactive foreign policy based on “integrated deterrence” has proven insufficient. At the core of this problem is the American political leadership’s failure to understand and prioritize the maritime domain. The U.S. needs to rebuild its centers of power and restructure institutions to address challenges from China and Russia effectively. Naval Statecraft, a framework emphasizing naval and maritime power, could leverage America’s advantages in the maritime domain, showcasing U.S. capitalism and governance while delivering prosperity and growth. By integrating military, economic, and diplomatic actions, Naval Statecraft could be the key that unlocks further global peace and prosperity.

“Emphasizing naval and maritime power leverages America’s advantages in the maritime domain and presents our adversaries’ strategic dilemmas,” says Sadler. “Maritime diplomacy and presence can yield tremendous economic benefits. Naval Statecraft offers a framework for successfully competing with adversaries in peacetime, while deterring their worst behaviors. If we fail to recognize that the geostrategic tectonic plates have shifted under our feet, we risk sleepwalking into a war more costly than anything in our nation’s history. ”

How Do G7 Nations Rate On Maritime Affairs?

g7 leaders
Ocean Diplomacy: The Case For A Maritime G7

And the United States can not do it alone. The US Navy’s fleet of warships is aging, our US Merchant Marine has all but disappeared, our control over Flags Of Convenience set up by American intelligence to control vast numbers of foreign ships has waned, and our investments – and willingness to use American technology – in ports and maritime infrastructure are at low water marks.

The rest of the G7 hasn’t done much better. Germany has mostly ceded its control over maritime finance, France and Italy have prioritized EU maritime interests while Japan has lost a significant percent of its shipyard market share to South Korea and China. London remains the hub of maritime influence but for how long?

Canada – despite having the world’s longest coastline – spends only 1.4% on defense and a fraction of that money is spent on its Navy. That nation, largely dependent on U.S. military strength, faces serious security challenges in the Arctic due to the failures of the US Coast Guard icebreaker program. While joint US-Canada land and air forces do perform northern exercises, they fly in only limited supplies needed for training. In the event of a real conflict only protected ship convoys could deliver the quantity of fuel and supplies needed to defend Canada in a real conflict. But Canada does not have enough heavy icebreakers, arctic marine infrastructure or ice-class cargo ships either. Canada might be invited to join if it builds icebreakers and boosts its arctic maritime dual-use infrastructure.

The nations of the G7 all have significant maritime interests but they simply do not have the maritime influence needed to solve the growing threat of problems that all originate at sea. For this reason, I suggest the United States welcomes the most influential maritime nations to form the M8, an organization that takes the principles of the G7 but focuses solely on enhancing the competitiveness, and safety of maritime trade.

Who Should Join The M8?

The question then must be asked who, excluding China and Russia, has the most influence in the maritime domain? Who should be invited to join the M8?

The United States still has the most powerful Navy, a large and growing share of maritime finance, the most publicly listed shipping companies, the closest diplomatic relations with at least two of the largest flags of convenience, and the largest classification society. It should certainly stay.

The United Kingdom too remains an influential nation in the maritime industry with loose control over the tax havens shipping companies love and a wide variety of shipping services. Additionally, the UK’s strategic position and expertise in maritime law and insurance contribute significantly to shaping international maritime regulations and standards, further solidifying its lasting influence in the global maritime landscape.

Japan continues to be a prominent player in the maritime industry, excelling in areas such as shipbuilding, marine technology, and shipping operations. It has extensive marine finance, survey, and insurance networks. Japan relies heavily on its maritime trade, further strengthening its position within the global industry, and is on the front lines of geostrategic competition with China

Who else would qualify for the M8? France and Germany could make a case if they increase naval spending or double down on maritime investment but both come with serious concerns. For France the M8 would first need more clarity on Macron’s visits with Chairman Xi . For Germany, the first issue is selling a portion of its ports to CCP-controlled companies.

What Other Nations Might Qualify

Otherwise, qualifications for the M8 would depend on the metrics our diplomats use to determine nautical influence but first, we must determine who controls the ships. Ostensibly that’s the flag states but most ships are registered under the three largest flags of Convenience; Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands.

Those nations may not qualify if they continue to take a minimalist approach to regulation and control. Actually controlling the ships are the Captains who command them. The largest pools of Captains are in the Philippines, India, China, and Ukraine. Ukraine has bigger problems on its hands right now. India is a G7-sized economy that’s strategically located between China and its largest energy sources while the Philippines borders the South China Sea, has a large fishing fleet, and is already working closely with the US on these problems.

Singapore is a major force in the maritime industry, boasting one of the world’s busiest ports and a strategic location on global trade routes and naval choke points. A hub for maritime services and innovation, Singapore plays a vital role in shaping international maritime policies and regulations.

Corporate and financial control of shipping is critical as well. If you look just at container shipping it’s France (CMA CGM), Denmark (Maersk), and Switzerland (MSC). Switzerland also has deep financial and insurance ties to shipping. If you look beyond just containerships then Norway and Greece are prime candidates. Norway has a strong focus in all maritime silos.

Greece does too but may be unwilling to play ball. Membership in the M8 should not only be based on maritime influence – which Greece has in spades – but also willingness to foster mutual goals, maritime security, and peace. In these metrics, Greece falls short as many of its shipowners have sold into the ghost fleet and Greek diplomats have fought back against G7 sanctions. Including Greece would also upset Turkey which has also been playing both sides between Russia and the West. But maybe an offer to join the M8 with stipulations would convince Greece to make the difficult decisions it has avoided for too long.

There is no future for maritime diplomacy without the ability to build ships and in shipbuilding, along with location and a history of keeping a cool head with communist neighbors, South Korea dominates.

Other factors for membership could include maritime technology and innovation (e.g. USA, Netherlands, Norway, Israel, Dubai), offshore oil reserves (e.g. USA, Brazil, India Norway, Australia), raw material exports (e.g. Brazil, Australia, Saudi Arabia), food exports (e.g. USA, Ukraine, Indonesia), physical control of choke points (Singapore, Egypt, UK, Panama, South Africa, Taiwan), or arctic influence (USA, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden).

These are all considerations but the crucial question remains: Who holds the most positive influence in the maritime domain, and who should be invited to join this M8? The answer to this question will not be straightforward. It will require a nuanced understanding of naval statecraft, an appreciation for the intricacies of the maritime industry, and a willingness to make difficult decisions.

Moving Forward

Ultimately, the task of determining which nations hold the most sway over the maritime domain and how many nations get invited will fall to seasoned diplomats. As we face a future where the oceans will grow increasingly central to global challenges, it’s essential to identify and empower the freedom-oriented maritime nations equipped to lead the charge.

The maritime domain’s importance cannot be overstated, serving as a linchpin for global security, economy, and sustainable growth. Traditional statecraft has failed to appreciate this fully, creating gaps that adversaries are all too eager to exploit. A shift towards a maritime-focused approach isn’t just wise—it’s strategic.

The M8 coalition, if realized, could prove a powerful force for navigating the stormy seas of international maritime policy. This group could possess the maritime influence needed to drive impactful change in the face of escalating maritime threats. Their collective actions could chart a course toward better maritime security, global trade, and sustainable development.

However, the critical question of which nations should join the M8 isn’t easily answered. It will require a deep understanding of naval statecraft, an appreciation for the maritime industry’s complexities, and a readiness to make tough choices. The potential inclusion of a mix of existing G7 nations and others with strong domain knowledge suggests a balanced blend of naval, economic, and strategic influence. But membership in the M8 should go beyond maritime power to a shared commitment to maritime security, peace, prosperity, and trade. The M8 isn’t just an extension of the G7, but an evolution of it—built to confront a new era of maritime challenges and opportunities.

In essence, the M8 isn’t just a proposal—it’s a rallying cry for diplomats, naval leaders, and maritime industry experts. It’s a challenge to rethink our approach to maritime policy and our engagement with the world’s oceans. It’s an invitation to set sail on a new journey—one that could redefine global diplomacy, shape the 21st century, and provide the best means of deterring war.

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