Maritime security: not all in the same boat
The Strait of Hormuz is a crooked stretch of water whose diminutive size is vastly outweighed by its extreme political and logistical significance. Twisted between a jutting peninsula shared by the United Arab Emirates and Oman, and crushed beneath the curving southern coast of Iran, the strait is at times barely 39km wide. And a quarter of the world’s oil passes through it.
Recent attacks on UK and US ships have made this piece of water a crucial focus point for NATO in recent times. Yet tensions are also rising elsewhere. Smuggling, aggressive naval spending by Russia, oil security and the safety of strategic trade routes; the challenges faced by NATO members are as diverse as the countries themselves. The Baltic states, which are increasingly concerned about the heavy presence of Russian ships, and the Mediterranean countries, where refugees fleeing from war are most likely to enter Europe, are also jostling for attention on the agenda. These two coastlines constitute the two other hot topics for NATO in the debate surrounding maritime security.
In this article, we look at these three main regions from the point of view of a country concerned by each issue.
The Baltics – Estonia
Estonia was understandably vocal at NATO’s Saturday session. Its delegate must try to balance the country’s small size with its strong vested interest in the issue of Russian aggression. President Putin has been on a naval spending spree since 2012, beefing up his country’s arsenal with 51 modern ships, 24 submarines and a sprinkling of ballistic missile submarines. As Estonia, over both land and sea, rubs shoulders with its giant neighbour, and has a not-so-distant history of Soviet rule, it is the country which is least at ease with these military developments to its east.
The delegate for Estonia demanded an all year round increase in the presence of NATO naval forces to discourage the emboldened Russian fleets. It is unlikely that the council will reach a consensus for this level of financial commitment. “The debate is a fight, an absolute fight,” admitted the delegate for Estonia.
The Mediterranean – Turkey
Straddling Europe and the Middle East, Turkey is surrounded by waters with vital, strategic maritime routes as well a host of dangers. The Mediterranean to the south offers a plethora of key trading routes as well as housing a hotbed of human trafficking networks, especially since the 2015 migrant crisis which saw many refugees arrive in Turkey by land or boat. Furthermore, the Black Sea to its north is a hotbed of Russian military build-up and smuggling.
No wonder Turkey has a strong interest in maritime security and wants NATO to play an active role in this. Its location at the Eastern border of the NATO leaves it feeling vulnerable. The country both fears the consequences of being a neighbour of areas of crisis to its east and wants to play a mediatory role. “Our greatest goal is that countries accept the role that Turkey wants to play in NATO,” emphasised the delegate for Turkey.
The Strait of Hormuz – the UK
The UK and the US have recently undertaken joint action outside of NATO – a rare occurrence – in this area after their ships were attacked, but now they are seeking support from NATO too. Even though the British ship was private, it carried a British flag. “This is the symbol of crown and country and we take the attack very seriously,” insisted the UK delegate. “It’s not just about the ship but about sovereignty.”
Others countries are also deeply concerned, especially those whose economies are most dependent on oil. Some delegates will remember the inflation and chaos caused by the oil shocks of the 1970s and will wish to avoid a replay of this at all costs. There was widespread agreement in the room on trying to foster cooperation and peace rather than aggression in this region.
“We recognise that multilateral action is the best way forward. We seek to strip back the red bureaucratic tape which is preventing NATO from ensuring proper protection of the strait,” said the UK delegate.
Agreeing on the need for cooperation is one thing. Taking steps to implement more protection is another. Agreeing on funding for this protection is another level again. The Estonian, Turkish and British delegates rightly claim that these issues are serious and warrant attention. It is unlikely that NATO will be able to meet all their demands.