Maritime power shapes the world order – and is undergoing a sea change

Recent attacks on commercial shipping and warships in the Red Sea by Yemen’s Houthi rebels have brought the ocean back to the forefront of international security.

Western global leadership was the result of centuries of sea mastery. Controlling the global ocean enables the projection of military power all over the world, as well as securing the free flow of goods at sea.


This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines


The prosperity and security of trading nations strongly depend on the stability of the global maritime supply chain and thus on freedom of navigation. But now western maritime superiority is being challenged by other rising powers and by insurgent groups.

Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea have incurred substantial costs for the global economy. They have prompted a rise in insurance premiums, while many ships have had to be rerouted via the Cape of Good Hope raising costs and causing delays and container logjams.

The fact that the US and UK have gone as far as launching airstrikes on Houthi positions – a move that brings major risks, given how volatile the region is – shows how seriously the two countries view anything that infringes on freedom of navigation. The Houthi rebels and their Iranian backers are well aware of this leverage. What would happen to the global oil market if similar tactics were to be employed in the Strait of Hormuz (the choke point commanding the route to and from the Gulf), which, unlike the Red Sea route, cannot be bypassed?

Elsewhere, at the beginning of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia attempted to leverage its control of the northwestern Black Sea to blockade its neighbour. This initially raised grain and wheat prices. But Turkey quickly invoked the Montreux Convention which allowed it to close the Turkish straits to warships. Together with Kyiv’s efficient use of missiles and drones against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, it limited Russia’s ability to disrupt Ukraine’s maritime trade. This is now back at pre-war levels – Moscow’s blockade has failed.

Russia also poses a threat to western undersea infrastructure – mainly communication cables and energy connectors, as well as offshore infrastructures such as oil rigs and wind farms – in the Baltic and North Seas. A successful attack would directly affect energy and national security.

Power projection

Western dominance has always relied on its ability to project military power across the globe via the sea. The Ukraine war has demonstrated what strategists and planners have been discussing for more than two decades: that surface warships are increasingly vulnerable to land-based missiles and drones.

This raises questions about the west’s ability to project power and forces into contested theatres such as the Taiwan Strait because they’d be vulnerable to attack from the Chinese mainland. In the Black Sea meanwhile, this has played out in Ukraine’s favour. Ukraine’s ability to target Russian naval assets in the Black Sea and Crimea prevents the Russian navy from contributing to land operations or blockading Ukraine (except with submarines, which can still operate relatively safely underwater and launch cruise missiles).

In the Indo-Pacific, China has been developing capabilities to counter US projection forces. In case of an invasion of Taiwan by China, western warships would be at the mercy of China’s land-based missiles and drones. However, reciprocally, Chinese forces attempting a landing could also be threatened by Taiwan’s own land-based asymmetrical means of defence.

Civilian seapower

Unlike Russia or Iran, the power base of China’s regime is much more dependent on the global supply and value chains – China is a trading nation. So it’s not in Beijing’s interest to contribute to an unstable maritime order. This explains China’s balanced stance on the Red Sea crisis and reports that Beijing has been pressuring Iran to bring the Houthis under control.

China does not want to disrupt the global maritime order, it wants to lead it. To that effect, China is developing its naval power, including projection capabilities such as aircraft carriers. But at the same time, China is using its commercial and financial assets to peacefully, though proactively, extend its maritime power.

China has invested in European ports and terminals (in Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands and Poland) via private ventures. Yet, Chinese private companies have close ties with their state, entailing risks of meddling with European critical infrastructures including espionage, policy obstruction and political interference.

Elsewhere, in the South China Sea, Beijing has mastered the art of blurring the boundaries between civilian, military and legal means and objectives – this is defined as “grey zone” tactics. At sea, this involves using commercial stakeholders (such as the Chinese fishing industry) to justify assertive coastguard or naval presence in, and legal titles over, claimed maritime areas of economic and geopolitical importance.

For whosoever command the sea…

Sir Walter Raleigh’s old dictum: “For whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself” has until recently characterised the western, liberal world order.

My research has demonstrated the timelessness and universality of seapower. Seapower proceeds from a combination of naval and commercial maritime assets and isn’t limited to the west. Seapower can and is being developed and exercised by other countries such as China.

So there is an increasing risk that western nations might lose their maritime dominance in the 21st century. This might open the doors for a new, illiberal world order, most likely one that is dominated by China. But like any trading superpower China is reliant on freedom of navigation, so Beijing will want to dominate the sea, not to make it less secure. The sea and seapower will play a key role in shaping the future world order.The Conversation

Basil Germond, Professor of International Security, Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Professor, Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University.
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Peter S
Peter S
4 days ago

Perhaps the lesson both from 20th century and more recent conflicts, is that the best way for smaller navies to counter more powerful ones is to rely on submarines. In WW1, the Kriegsmarine, large though it was, was swept from the open sea by numerically, not technologically superior, mainly British forces. German surface forces achieved little. The U boat campaign, though politically disastrous in provoking US entry into the war, was dangerously effective. From a much weaker overall naval position in 1939, German submarines posed an even larger threat, tying up significant allied resources to counter. These results were achieved… Read more »

SailorBoy
SailorBoy
3 days ago
Reply to  Peter S

If SS numbers are, as you say, the thing, then some SSKs based off our excellent sub building wouldn’t go amiss. I’m sure there’s a Baltic country that would leap at the chance to exchange AIP tech for British sonar and stealth in a joint project for 6-8 SSKs. They would be a slightly more visible but more persistent way of doing the GIUK gap and also a means of sending a sub out to far-flung places without putting too much of a strain on watching the Russians. There have been reports that SSKs are in many cases actually more… Read more »

ChrisLondon
ChrisLondon
3 days ago
Reply to  SailorBoy

I have often thought a few AIP boats would be useful. This is usually just after reading a piece on UKDJ about one of our too few Nucs been used to land an SBS team (they normally operate in 4s or 8s I believe). Our effort to just jump back into designing them did not go well. Building four to a joint design is one way back in. Another would be to just buy a license to build two of the best around every 10-12 years. Either way it is a relatively cheap way to add bulk to the sub… Read more »

farouk
farouk
3 days ago
Reply to  ChrisLondon

Anybody want to inform Chris from London regards this tosh he posted at me yesterday how he fell at the first hurdle: “”I suspect as an avowed Christian with a history of homophobic and transphobic comments on here you were just trying to rape a Lesbian or beat up/murder a Gay man by proxy.”” Naturally I replied in the positive: Chris,You claim that anybody who wishes to go through my history can see my homophobic posts, do us all a favour cut out the middle man and cut and paste them with link.I’ll await your reply. Then had a little… Read more »

ChrisLondon
ChrisLondon
3 days ago
Reply to  farouk

Hello Farouk, After the initial Hamas attack you claimed on this site that a Lesbian and Gay group had endorsed the attacks. This surprised me so I checked it out and found nothing. I asked you for your source. No reply. I waited a week and was considering reporting it to the Police as a possible hate crime so checked again in case you had replied without citing me. The exchange had all been deleted. I corresponded with George Allison about this and it had been deleted after others had complained on various grounds. I left the matter with him.… Read more »

Airborne
Airborne
2 days ago
Reply to  ChrisLondon

Give your head a wobble! Report to the police as a possible hate crime? I find Farouk a decent regular poster who has vast knowledge and can provide links and sources to his various subject matter knowledge. It’s a shame that an opinion can now get the “distressed thought police” chomping at the bit, at a comment they don’t like! I suppose the next phase was/is to make an effort at cancelling him? Ah this great democracy we now live in! As he suggests why not dig through his posts, cut and paste the offending comment and show all here?… Read more »

ChrisLondon
ChrisLondon
2 days ago
Reply to  Airborne

That’s bollocks Airborne,

After the Hamas attacks a lot of good people were livid with good reason; Very easily provoked into doing something they normally would not do.

Are you really suggesting inventing a bogus claim should not be a crime until a Lesbian gets raped or a Gay man gets beaten up or murdered?

If it was an honest mistake just provide the source of the misinformation. If it was manufactured to provoke hate it is genuinely akin to attempted murder.

Airborne
Airborne
2 days ago
Reply to  ChrisLondon

Nice start to the reply. I disagree, as you are using terminology yourself which can inflame stating that Farouk was wanting a Lesbian to be raped or a gay man murdered! I also like your previous post regarding the Pro Palestinian marches: ChrisLondon 2 months ago Reply to Spyinthesky I think he is right to see support of these marches as support for terror and anti-semitism. Let us look at an analogous situation. Say in WW2 if the holocaust had been public knowledge and ongoing. You join a march against the allied bombing campaign. Only that. Are you being pro-Nazi?… Read more »

Airborne
Airborne
1 day ago
Reply to  ChrisLondon

I see no answer to the cut and paste post I utilised regarding your comment you posted about the Palestinian marches, yet you try to grip Farouk about the same! But I see you have posted 3 more comments after my response to you, about other chuff, while ignoring your own offensive post! Would you like to explain your post or should I wait about a week and report a possible incitement to violence possible section 18 offence? Ah Lib Dem’s, even those right of the party, so changeable much like the weather 😂

ChrisLondon
ChrisLondon
1 day ago
Reply to  Airborne

Sad times for right wing loonies spewing hate.
I believe Farouk made it up. What did I make up?

Airborne
Airborne
1 day ago
Reply to  ChrisLondon

Did I say you made anything up? Please refer me to the part I say you made something up and please cut and paste it in your next reply! I proposed you have also incited possible hate by stating those protesting against the bombing in Gaza are promoting terror and anti semitism! Please verify where I have stated a none factual or verified posted response! Ah Lin Dems, so nice but……

farouk
farouk
22 hours ago
Reply to  ChrisLondon

I see the gobsite is still peddling lies and misinformation. I keep asking you to post anything homophobic or even transphobic that I have knocked out and you have yet to respond. No wait, you did, you claimed you didn’t want to. Gee what does that say about you. What is even more damning for you is how you and not I is the truculent one. I’m not the one attacking posters on here as traitors demanding the mods to ban them, I’m not the one who gets so offended at what people write, that I have to resort to… Read more »

ChrisLondon
ChrisLondon
19 hours ago
Reply to  farouk

Hello Farouk,

In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks you claimed a Lesbian and Gay group had endorsed the attacks. I researched this and found nothing.

For the fourth or fifth time now what was your source for that claim? As long as you refuse to provide any explanation I will believe you made it up to promote hate, prejudice and probable violence.

That fits your long standing posting history here.

Pathetic attempts at abuse from the likes of you and the other far right trolls on this site cannot disguise what you did.

farouk
farouk
18 hours ago
Reply to  ChrisLondon

Chris opined: “”Pathetic attempts at abuse from the likes of you”” So to recap shirt button of not even a walt who openly throws vile abuse at others, cries like the mummies boy he is when somebody gives as good as he like to dish out. Regards your pathetic claim, Ive asked you to publish anything I have written at anybody else which falls into the category of sexism ,homophobia or even Transphobia, and for some very strange reason not only have you been unable to do so, you actually stated you wouldn’t , So Mr “I did 6 years… Read more »

ABCRodney
ABCRodney
3 days ago
Reply to  SailorBoy

Firstly I have to say I am more than slightly biased when it comes to the Historic Argument the RN had between Conventional vs Nuclear submarines. However there are very simple reasons why we don’t have a mixed fleet and these are all linked to what we are and others aren’t. The UK is a Nuclear Armed Nation, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and our entire Nuclear Deterrent is Submarine based. An SSBN is quite simply the most destructive, complicated and expensive single weapon system in the History of Humankind. It has the ability to dive deeper,… Read more »

ChrisLondon
ChrisLondon
3 days ago
Reply to  ABCRodney

Thanks for the update on AIP. That means I would prefer two conventional SSKs instead. For the same tasks you mention them being better at. We cannot have any more Astutes. We have moved on to building the new SSBNs. They are going to max out at 7, then decline to 5 before we can get any AUKUS. That assumes they come through on time. Every couple of months we have an article on Nuc boats being used to drop off SBS teams. 8K of boat with 85 personal on board to drop off teams that are 4-8 strong. I… Read more »

ChrisLondon
ChrisLondon
2 days ago
Reply to  ChrisLondon

without delaying (sic)

DJ
DJ
2 days ago
Reply to  ChrisLondon

Two would not be worth building. D/E submarines are generally regarded as being closer to the rule of four than the rule of three of surface ships. Four should be the minimum (if an actual build was to go ahead).

ABCRodney
ABCRodney
1 day ago
Reply to  ChrisLondon

Honestly just where you get the idea we will go down to 5 Astutes before we receive replacements is beyond me.
How do you come to that conclusion ?

Last edited 1 day ago by ABCRodney
ChrisLondon
ChrisLondon
1 day ago
Reply to  ABCRodney

I think we found with Vanguard that refuelling a sub not designed with that in mind is very expensive and time consuming. The Astutes were designed for a 25 year life cycle. First one out of service 35, second one out 38, third one out 41. First Dreadnought expected early 30s (cannot find exact date anywhere), third first steel cut 7yrs later, fourth not started yet. If we see an AUKUS on time to keep the Nuc fleet at 5 it will be because build speeds have speeded up dramatically. This is quite possible but the timescales are very tight… Read more »

ABCRodney
ABCRodney
17 hours ago
Reply to  ChrisLondon

OK I see where you are coming from and you’re making assumptions that are just plain wrong. Just because Open Source material says something has a design life of X doesn’t mean it can’t be extended to XX or even XXX. You may find this hard to believe but after designing 7 classes of Boats and their Power plants BAe and RR do actually know that is a possibility and make allowances. The life of a reactor core isn’t actually time dependant its usage dependant. Which is also one of reasons it’s a bloody stupid idea to pause building Nuclear… Read more »

ChrisLondon
ChrisLondon
12 hours ago
Reply to  ABCRodney

Thanks for that good info. I had thought that moving on to the PWR3 meant the Astutes were going to go out to schedule. Now we just have to hope the govn. of the day coughs up the money (as they should).

Cripes
Cripes
1 day ago
Reply to  ABCRodney

Thanks Davey and ABC for v useful info that puts submarine force in perspective. I think there is nonetheless a good case for acquiring a squadron of lithium-powered SSKs for service e in Eastlant. Basically, the Russian surface fleet poses very ittle challenge to NATO. navies, though that may change with the advent of hypersonic and other advanced cruise missiles. Where we are short is handling the Russian submarine fleet. It may be miles smaller than it used to be, but so are our escort ASW numbers. We basically have nothing spare in the way of SSNs to go sub… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan
21 hours ago
Reply to  Peter S

As with all things it’s a balance, SSNS are profoundly deadly..but there are many things an SSN cannot do that a surface vessel can..an SSN cannot keep a sealane open, it cannot initiate and maintain a legal sea blockade according to the laws of war, it cannot defended against air power…and it can sucks eggs in the litoral environment….putting an SSN in an enclosed shallow sea under the enemies air power is asking for it to be killed….like many things the individual components of a navy are weaker than the whole, if you just go for one you loss as… Read more »

DaveyB
DaveyB
3 days ago

There are number of surprising actions missing by both the Houthis and Russia. Starting with the Houthis, if they were really serious about closing off the Red Sea. Then surely they would have been dropping off mines. As these are the greatest risk to shipping and will seriously interrupt the flow of trade. Similarly the Russian’s have submarines (minus one) in the Black Sea fleet. How come they haven’t been used to attack commercial shipping or drop off mines in the routes leading to Odessa. Ukraine do not have a means of interdicting Russia’s subs when they are at sea.… Read more »

Last edited 3 days ago by DaveyB
ABCRodney
ABCRodney
3 days ago
Reply to  DaveyB

Yep it’s an obvious one and in the narrow waters of the straits of Hormuz it did a lot of damage.
The problem is the Houthi do try and Target specific ships and they do get it wrong, hence India getting involved !

Mines are non targeted they are indiscriminate and can you you imagine Chinas reaction if a large Container ship of theirs gets hit !

China lives or dies by trade !

farouk
farouk
3 days ago
Reply to  ABCRodney

ABC wrote: “”The problem is the Houthi do try and Target specific ships and they do get it wrong, hence India getting involved !”” The interesting thing about India, is the incident which saw them deploy 12 warships to the region was the attack on the Liberia-flagged, Japanese-owned, and Netherlands-operated chemical tanker CHEM PLUTO, 200 miles off the coast of India by a missile/drone launched from Iran on the 24th of Dec.` The warships deployed include guided-missile destroyers: INS Kolkata, INS Kochi, INS Chennai and INS Mormugao as well as multi-role frigates like INS Talwar and INS Tarka . With… Read more »

ABCRodney
ABCRodney
1 day ago
Reply to  farouk

Yep I have been watching the Indian response with interest. It’s India really stamping both feet but as they say the devil is in the detail.
The 3 Kolkata and following 4 Visakhapatnam class may just look like an improved Delhi but appearances can be deceptive they contain something that is a real game changer.
An Indian developed CEC system which means that they join the USN with that capability.
Those 3 ships can control and launch each others missiles and have a complete picture using each others sensors.

Yep the Indians have arrived in the Big league.

farouk
farouk
22 hours ago
Reply to  ABCRodney

Rodney, Thanks for that, I didn’t know about that CEC capability (had to look it up) very impressive , so I suppose the P8 and MQ9 mesh into that network. Funny enough, I have been totally engrossed in the first 3 books of the Starfire series by David Webber these past few weeks. Set in the far future where Earth with allies face off against a genocidal arachnid empire. (currently at the 70% Kindle mark on book three “The Shiva Option”) Basically book 2 and 3 is the Pacific (WW2) war in Space . But what I find interesting is… Read more »

ABCRodney
ABCRodney
17 hours ago
Reply to  farouk

Yay I’m a Spinner too. Old knees get too cold in winter for my road bike.
As for India they have 7 new Type 17A Nilgiri Frigates under build and their new carrier on trials all with CEC.
And their build rate is improving a lot.

Jonathan
Jonathan
20 hours ago
Reply to  ABCRodney

They have to be, the PLAN are setting up a number of bases in the Indian Ocean and the Indians are unsurprisingly a bit paranoid about China.

Jonathan
Jonathan
21 hours ago
Reply to  DaveyB

The Houthi are specifically trying to target western ships so as not to piss off the Chinese…mines blowing up chinas ships will see Iran have to answer to china and they will not want that.

DaveyB
DaveyB
8 hours ago
Reply to  Jonathan

I agree the Chinese are the Joker in the pack. The question is how the Houthis respond to directions from Iran. Will they ignore Iran following the UK/US attacks?

China and Iran have major trade agreements, especially in oil based products. China will have some leverage with Iran. Which may reign in the Houthis and make them target specific ships. Plus I guess it depends on how effective the U.K./US targeting has been. How badly has it degraded the Houthis ability to attack ships?

Airborne
Airborne
3 days ago

Maritime has always been more important for us as an Island nation, than the Army, alas just another inconvenient truth when it comes to politicly motivated spending cuts!

Barry Larking
Barry Larking
3 days ago
Reply to  Airborne

Precisely. Our geographic position alone is of great potential. I agreed with the late Anthony King that for a country of our size we should model our forces on the U.S. Marine Corps. We have a good, even superb, historical record for expeditionary warfare.

ABCRodney
ABCRodney
3 days ago
Reply to  Barry Larking

Good luck telling the Army.

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
2 days ago
Reply to  Airborne

I tend to agree but it is always the army that has had the greatest exposure to warfighting and other kinetic operations.

Airborne
Airborne
2 days ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

Agreed mate, we do the messy work, but the RN are the force multipliers, enablers and the means of getting somewhere 👍 cheers

farouk
farouk
3 days ago

“”What would happen to the global oil market if similar tactics were to be employed in the Strait of Hormuz (the choke point commanding the route to and from the Gulf), which, unlike the Red Sea route, cannot be bypassed?””   That’s a very good question , but its not going to happen anytime soon from Iran despite all the bellicose rhetoric emanating from the Mullahs in Tehran. The thing is iran is skint , yes it is major oil and gas producer  but the simple fact remains it spends more money than it earns, its Oil industry is its… Read more »

farouk
farouk
3 days ago

The interesting thing about warfare is it adapts. Be it the rifle, machine gun, Aircraft, Tank, Aircraft carrier every time somebody brings out a war beater, somebody comes out with a work around. For example, in 1967, the INS Eilat formerly the RN Z class destroyer HMS Zealous was struck by 3 Styx missiles (P-15 Termit) launched by Egyptian missile boats situated inside Port Said harbour, she sank after 1 hour for the loss of 47 souls. At a stroke Naval Warfare was changed forever. Then 6 years later during the Yom Kippur war, Israel took on the Syrian Navy… Read more »

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
2 days ago

Professor Germond is being a little obtuse in part.

…” western nations might lose their maritime dominance in the 21st century”.

Which western nations? There are only three bluewater navies in the world – the USN, RN and the French Navy. I doubt the RN and the French Navy could be held to have maritime dominance, although both can do Carrier Enabled Power Projection in a somewhat modest way.

So does the Prof just mean the USN?

David Barry
David Barry
1 day ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

Sir, the Chinese put several ships into the North Sea just a few years back.

I’d like them to be sunk and creating diving reefs, instead they teamed up with the Rus to sail off the Alaskan sea board a couple of months back.

Meanwhile, QEC is pier side and so is her sister.

We need fighty canoes not QECs and B2 OPVs.

However, I expect nothing being improved by an incoming Labour Govt.

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
23 hours ago
Reply to  David Barry

David, I could not find a reference to the Chinese Navy in the North Sea, but I did find references to Chinese merchantmen using the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which connects the Baltic Sea to the Bering Sea through Russia’s extensive Arctic, during ice-free periods – and speculation that the Chinese Navy might also want to transit the NSR in future. Also, according to a single, unverified report in Oct 2023 the PLA Navy’s 44th task force arrived in Kuwait for a five-day visit after spending several days in Muscat. The report said that the arrival of a replacement escort… Read more »

ABCRodney
ABCRodney
17 hours ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

Good will visits in 2015 and 2017 to the North Sea, Atlantic and Med they even visited Portsmouth and Canary Wharf in London.

Google Chinese Warships visit London. Nice pics.

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
1 minute ago
Reply to  ABCRodney

Ok, but doing a few port visits does not make them a bluewater navy, according to the industry standard definition. They will get there before too long though.

Chris
Chris
2 days ago

This is one of the reasons why I firmly believe that publishers should have at least a B at GCSE English (Lang & Lit).

ABCRodney
ABCRodney
1 day ago
Reply to  Chris

Shouldn’t that be the Authors ?

Chris
Chris
18 hours ago
Reply to  ABCRodney

Tomato tomato

Ian
Ian
1 day ago

After WWII there was a commonly held view that controlling the skies was the key to military supremacy. Practically speaking the integration of land, sea and air assets with a decent C4ISTAR capability is probably what matters now.

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
23 hours ago
Reply to  Ian

I think during WWII too. That’s why Germany launched the Battle of Britain air attacks with intent to destroy the RAF as a prelude to invasion.

Air supremacy or local Air superiority is still a prerequisite for a successful amphibious landing or land offensive.

Other things are important too including your integration example.

Ian
Ian
7 hours ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

Yes, I was suggesting that the events up to the immediate post-war period heavily reinforced that belief.