A high-ranking commander of the Canadian Navy has proclaimed the advent of “a new oceanic age” characterized by surging maritime commerce, global power politics, the impact of climate change in the Arctic region, and the challenges for the United States especially of China’s expanding involvement.
Rear Admiral Art McDonald, Commander of Maritime Forces Pacific, Royal Canadian Navy, presented a sweeping overview of developments on the world’s oceans during a keynote address to the Sept. 19-21 Annual Conference of the Association of Canadian Port Authorities in Vancouver.
“Not since the great era of exploration in the 16th century,” he said, “have oceans played as important a role in global affairs as they do today. Unprecedented levels of commerce move across the world’s oceans, great power politics are being played out at sea, and oceans are central to the health of the planet in an age of profound climate change.”
McDonald stressed that the oceans have become a global highway, accounting for 90% of world trade, with “the meteoric growth of the Chinese economy” constituting “a driving factor to this expansion.”
“As evidenced by China’s economic rise, Beijing has come to fully appreciate the flexibility, mobility and authority of seapower…manifested in the appearance of a powerful new Blue Water navy.”
Among other things, McDonald said, this “has meant that the existing hegemon, the United States, and the aspiring hegemon, China, find themselves competing for power and influence in the same oceanic realm – creating a context in great power geopolitics that has not previously coexisted with globalization.”
What is more, he continued, “we will increasingly be called on to operate in new maritime environments that will challenge our assumptions, test our resolve and require our collective commitment to governance.”
He singled out the Arctic as presenting such a case, adding: “Indeed, for the first time in human history, we are on the cusp of acquiring a new ocean.”
The steady recent diminution of polar sea ice, McDonald said, promises to Canada and the whole world “a new and navigable ocean. The vast and remote nature of the North represents a unique challenge and the opening of this marine passage will have a large impact on marine transit. Already, there is notable international interest and activity from those wishing to exploit the commercial and economic potential of the region.”
In this connection, he alluded to this past summer’s circumnavigation of the Arctic via Canada’s North West Passage by a Chinese research vessel.
But he then injected a cautionary observation. “And yet, despite historic pretension and modern curiosity and opportunism, one needs ask if marine trade exploitation (across entire Canadian Arctic) will ever be viable and desirable.”
Meanwhile, McDonald said, it was “vital for Canada alongside its fellow Arctic Council member nations, to work together in a concerted way to ensure that the region’s future is managed properly with consideration of the security, prosperity, environment and other elements germane to the deliberations.”
On another subject, he said, that in view of the growing environmental risks in the new oceanic era, the Canadian Navy was taking steps to lessen its environmental impact – “an activity as important to us as it is to ports and shipping lines.”
The latest example has concerned the protection of marine mammals off British Columbia’s coast. The Canadian Navy voluntarily committed to participating in the Haro Strait vessel slowdown trial. It is the first study of its kind, focusing on the relationship between slower vessel speeds, underwater noise levels and their impact on the southern resident orca whales.
Generally speaking, with “various disturbing causes and rogue states” threatening international peace and normal maritime commerce, McDonald said the Canadian Navy has through the years actively supported security operations in such areas as the Gulf of Aden in addition to regular participation in NATO exercises and partnering with the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard in countering drug trafficking operations.
During the three-day conference, some 150 top executives from 18 Canadian ports and other industry officials attended business sessions ranging from community relations, infrastructure financing, environmental sustainability and cybersecurity issues.