The maritime environment is both a means of transport and a resource. The first aspect is obviously expressed through what is transported by ship: containers, oil, minerals, many objects and many resources of our daily life have passed through the sea before we use them. Data also crosses the sea, since submarine cables are the heart of the Internet, constituting the “real” face of the “virtual” world. For the second aspect, that of resources, it is either food, with mainly fishing, energy, fossil with oil and gas, or renewable with wind turbines and tide turbines, or minerals, starting from sand, whose exploitation is little known, but essential for many activities including construction.
It was from the fifteenth century, which corresponded to the beginning of the great discoveries, that the control of the seas became an important topic. At that time, the British Sir Walter Raleigh theorized its importance: “Whoever owns the sea holds the trade of the world; whoever holds the trade holds the wealth; whoever holds the wealth of the world owns the world itself ”. Gradually, the United Kingdom becomes the maritime superpower par excellence, supplanting a Spain and Portugal soon exhausted by the colonization of a South America too big for them and unable to compete with a France that is too terrestrial. At the end of the 19th century, Britain controlled major sea routes and her empire was vast, with the great outdoors of Australia and Canada and the British Indies.
But the entry into the twentieth century coincided with the arrival of a new actor in the oceans, the United States. The theorist in charge here is Alfred Mahan, who has updated Raleigh’s theory by specifying that control of the sea passes through that of sea routes and that in this matter everything is played at the level of the straits. The pivotal year in this sense is undoubtedly 1914: it corresponds to the inauguration of the Panama Canal, a maritime passage controlled by Uncle Sam, but also to the beginning of the First World War, which at the same time weakens the United Kingdom, due to of the energy spent in the conflict that does not compensate for territorial gains in Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific. The turning point that completes the transformation of the United States into the great maritime power of the second half of the 20th century is World War II. Europeans, including those belonging to the victorious camp, are too weakened to maintain their historical prerogatives, especially when colonial empires become complicated to maintain for political as well as demographic reasons.
The United States emerged from the war with a colossal military and merchant fleet (thanks, among other things, to the Liberty ships), and was able to reconstitute those of its new allies in the Western camp. Moreover, this aid does not prevent the Americans from making their own interests prevail over those of their allies, as with the Suez crisis where they countered the Franco-British intervention that had militarily managed to regain control of this strategic channel with diplomatic means. This domination of the seas was hardly contested by the Russians, reduced to an asymmetrical confrontation, symbolized by submarines. It is important to stress that Russia does not have direct access to the oceans, a resource of the United States.
In 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed, but a phantom threat already hovered over the almighty awakening of America, that of China. Under the impact of Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms, its economy was starting to become competitive and the country was using its huge pool of cheap labor to become “the factory of the world”. This economy is export-oriented and generates colossal shipping traffic, to which the Dragon is adding its touch: rapidly, Chinese shipping companies and shipbuilding are becoming key players in their respective sectors. From a military point of view, the Middle Kingdom had an almost insignificant navy in the late 1980s, but today it is second in the world behind the United States, even if the latter maintain a good advantage.
On land, the Chinese strategy consists first of all in controlling the space contained within a first chain of islands corresponding to the East China Sea and the South China Sea, even if in the latter it means not respecting the rights of other coastal states. or even intimidate Taiwan, the “rebel province”. The next step is to dominate the space within a second chain of islands located further offshore, which would put China in direct contact with US possessions, with the risk of confrontation that this entails. The so-called “pearl necklace” strategy, consisting in the development of Chinese infrastructures in the Indian Ocean, also connects the Middle Kingdom with another competitor, India, which wishes to assert its rights in this space that India considers its courtyard. Finally, China inaugurated its first overseas naval base in Djibouti in 2018, and others may follow in the years to come, such as Walvis Bay in Namibia. This expansion solidifies China’s rank as a world power, while Russia has lost most of its network of naval bases around the world with the collapse of the USSR.
The power of the sea is composite, made up of elements that multiply each other more than they add up. The first of these is access to the sea, without which nothing is possible. Therefore, the United Kingdom, an island country, is naturally predisposed to the projection of maritime power. The United States, bordered by two large maritime spaces, is also favored. For Russia, things are less obvious, as for China; in fact, the goal of the pearl necklace strategy is both to allow access to the sea from peripheral regions such as Xinjiang and to control sea routes. Moreover, in its time, Russia had tried to develop its access to the sea with “the race for warm seas”.
Once you have mastered access to the sea, it is necessary to be able to move, thanks to the sea routes and more particularly to the strategic passages. Today, the Americans retain control of it, although the Middle Kingdom tries to weave its web. For example, instead of wanting to get its hands on the Panama Canal, China is supporting a competing canal project in Nicaragua, even if the latter is stopped for the moment. Traffic also requires a merchant fleet, and China is among the champions of shipping and also shipbuilding, where Americans are largely left behind, held back by a protectionist Jones Act that maintains a significant merchant fleet, but marginalized in the globalization.
In general, where terrestrial space is largely controlled by our human societies, the sea escapes this phenomenon much more, to the point that it is still a space to be conquered in many ways. The polar regions, especially the icy Arctic Ocean, but also the seas surrounding the Antarctic continent, constitute a new frontier for humans. The seabed and its mineral resources are also often less known than terrestrial space.
Finally, one last consideration: the Italy – with the exception of the maritime republics – has not been able to exploit its projection of maritime power. And this is one of the reasons, certainly not the only one, that has prevented – and prevents – Italy from having a credible, authoritative foreign policy and above all capable of stopping Turkish hegemonic ambitions.