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Rethinking Naval Diplomacy in a Contested Global Order at Sea: A Framework for Naval Statecraft

Professor Alessio Patalano

Co-Director of the Centre for Grand Strategy

16 January 2024

Why is it necessary to reassess and transition from the conventional concept of naval diplomacy to a more comprehensive framework termed naval statecraft? Professor Alessio Patalano delves into the evolving dynamics of the global order at sea, emphasizing the vulnerability and democratisation of responsibilities. He underscores the requirement for a revised concept of naval statecraft to adeptly shape international affairs.

Introduction: Setting the question – How important are navies to national statecraft?

Naval diplomacy is a fully fledged field of study in the broader strategic studies literature; yet, often, it sits at the margins of wider debates in international security – its absence is notable in recent studies on maritime coercion, especially in those referring to the so-called ‘grey zone’ activities. Indeed, the study of naval diplomacy would seemingly be confined currently to the debate over naval contributions to defence engagement.

Is this really what naval diplomacy is all about though? I do not share such a view, but I do recognise that the more recent work in the field of naval diplomacy has focused predominantly on capturing how navies can be diplomatic tools in the post-Cold War era. This focus, invaluable to articulate what navies do has nonetheless come to the detriment of exploring whether, and to what extent, the non-warfighting activities of navies because of the environment in which they operate – the sea – should not be regarded as an opportunity to define how a state approaches defence engagement to begin with. The question, therefore, should not be about how navies can support diplomacy. Rather, it should be about the extent to which national statecraft needs a navy to deliver diplomacy to maximum effects.

My talk seeks to address this question. I take a different approach to naval diplomacy; I question the utility of the expression altogether. Instead, I will argue that a more desirable way to think about the value of the non-warfighting activities of navies is through the notion of ‘naval statecraft’. I argue that today we live in a maritime century, one in which the ocean is central to how open societies prosper and progress. This is particularly true, as we have heard at this conference, in the Indo-Pacific. I also argue that such a maritime century rests upon a global order at sea in which material capabilities and normative behaviour, that is a conduct that is consistent with and reinforces the existing set of rules and principles enshrined in UNCLOS, are both central to legitimate naval activities and advance national objectives.

Against such a construct, I ultimately suggest that precisely how the sea has become to matter international affairs more generally, and to the Indo-Pacific specifically, the adoption of the notion of naval statecraft allows to shift the debate over the utility of navies away from a description of what they do, towards an engagement with how what they do relates to a strategy that accounts for the role of the sea in national security and prosperity.

The World of Naval Diplomacy: A Maritime Century

To understand why we need to think about naval diplomacy differently, we need to first address the extent to which the role of the sea has changed in modern societies. Today we live in a maritime century as a result of three interlinked reasons. First, maritime connectivity is a function of, and the driver behind, modern prosperity. We have heard yesterday that some 90% of global trade is carried by sea. It is less well known that 99% of world’s communications are delivered by 1.4 million km of submarine cables. Undersea infrastructure today includes also pipelines which are in many cases crucial to national energy imports. Of course, maritime connectivity has consistently, throughout history, favoured the development of societies. Yet, societies’ dependency on global supply chains and digital services is today unparalleled.

Second, ocean management is an inherent component of how societies are rethinking sustainable living standards. Some 56 million people, roughly the equivalent of twice the population in Australia work on fishing boats to meet global food demands. Half of the world’s population lives within a hundred miles of any coastline. Today, the ocean accounts for more than half of the oxygen supporting human life and fuels the water cycles that delivers fresh water. It supports pioneering efforts to generate clean electricity such as offshore wind technology, and it is able to store more carbon per unit than forests. It is no exaggeration to argue that the ocean stands at the heart of any environmentally sustainable future.

Third, ocean governance has not reduced the significance of the sea as a platform for power projection. Expeditionary missions for stabilisation and crisis response – from disaster relief to counter-piracy and escalation management – have showcased the potential of maritime access and manoeuvre since the end of the Cold War. Today, however, as debates in Beijing about overseas bases access renew the validity of this notion, they also remind us that when multiple states seek the means to acquire degrees of control at sea, contestation is to be expected. Chinese debates over ‘strong points’ are part of President Xi Jinping’s declared intention to transform the country into a maritime power in support of his signature infrastructural initiative known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Thus, as China’s quest for international relevance grows interlinked to maritime assertion, so is the probability of the return of contested sea control.

The Context of Naval Diplomacy: A Vulnerable Global Order at Sea

The above observations on the character of this century lead to a second set of reflections about the changing characteristics of the global order at sea in which diplomacy takes place. Since the acceleration in the importance of technology to build and maintain advanced navies at the beginning of the 20th century, order at sea has been understood as a hierarchical structure defined by material power. In 1898, Alfred Tirpitz explained to the Kaiser that his navy was the key avoid that Germany would ‘sink back to the status of a poor farming country’. Imperial Germany, as much as Imperial Japan represented key case studies about how states linked the reach and destructiveness of their fleets to the ability to influence international events and shape their outcome.

The first World War did not disprove this idea. On the contrary, in its immediate aftermath, the arms treaties of the 1920s further crystallised the link between navies, order at sea, and world politics. Arms control regimes set out to regulate the size and shape of ‘capital’ ships, literally codifying a country’s relative position on the world stage on the basis of their ‘allowance’ of fire power, reach, and lethality. The confirmation during World War II that the strongest naval powers succeeded in war helped reshaping world order in its aftermath, and renewed the link between the global order at sea and international leadership. During the Cold War, the exponential growth in range and lethality of combat systems deployed at sea (with nuclear weapons representing the ultimate manifestation of both factors) reinforced a core tenet of a world order that continued to be centred on a hierarchy of power, with few states exerting disproportionate influence.

Yet, throughout the Cold War, a new process emerged that undermined the idea of a global order at sea determined by arms alone. The 1958 Convention on the Law of the Sea marked the first formal step in redefining the ocean as more than just a space to project power. In 1982, UNCLOS captured the essence of this idea leading to a new awareness among states about the rights and duties of states in territorial seas, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), and indeed on the high seas. It also highlighted the need to meet challenges like illegal fishing, piracy and armed robbery, maritime terrorism and drugs and human trafficking. By the end of the 20th century, the global order at sea was no longer a matter for an elite group of leading countries with overwhelming military capabilities. It also concerned the maintenance of stable oceans with coastal states big and small, rich, and poor, working together.

A decade later, it was clear that the global order at sea had become less hierarchical in its responsibilities and more democratic in its opportunities. Larger and more powerful navies still exerted significant influence in world politics, and if states wanted to increase their international relevance, they still needed to pursue fleets of relevant size and sophistication. Yet, states had also an incentive in behaviours consistent with the law of the sea, whilst ensuring that vital functions to tackle transnational challenges were undertaken effectively. As the US Navy ‘Thousand-ship’ concept implied, no navy could do it alone. The flip side of this new global order at sea was that contestation at sea no longer applied solely to the pursuit of sea control and power projection. It now applied to unsettled maritime boundaries and sovereign claims as well.

The global order at sea was therefore more vulnerable in that ‘might’ still mattered, but now right and duties of states invited cooperation as much as additional contestation. How one justified actions mattered more than ever and crucially, in places where competing claims existed, it linked – as in the East and South China Seas for example – constabulary and law-enforcement contestation to wider issues of strategic competition.

The Thinking of Naval Diplomacy: The Need for a Paradigm Shift?

In this vulnerable global order of a maritime century of unprecedented dependency upon the ocean for sustainable prosperity, I believe it is time to re-conceptualise the non-warfighting functions of navies away from the approach originally articulated during the Cold War. In the 1970s, in part as a consequence of Thomas Shelling’s work on bargaining and strategic behaviour, three authors – James Cable, Edward Luttvak, and Ken Booth – set the analytical references for our current understanding of naval diplomacy. In particular, Luttvak and Booth were the first to systematically categorise the aims of naval activities, from signalling to reassurance, from deterrence to compellence. Booth identified ‘diplomacy’ as part of a ‘trinity’ of naval missions that navies carried out together with military and constabulary missions.

In the following decades, Geoff Till, Eric Grove, James Goldrick, and more recently Christian Le Mière and Kevin Rowlands, reflected upon what make navies suitable to advance foreign policy. Their contributions explored the cognitive dimension of naval action through manipulation and threats, or through invitation and collaboration, correlating single to multiple stakeholders. This literature has been essential to structure what a naval contribution to diplomacy can be. Yet, it consistently assumed why and how maritime order would matter to national security. Precisely because of its focus, this literature sat uncomfortably with doctrines stressing ‘joint’ and ‘integrated’ actions, inviting attempts at dismissing its value as inconsistent with the needs to capture the broader effects of ‘defence engagement’.

By assuming the case for the sea to be an inherent component of national strategy, the naval diplomacy literature remained a niche effort in a subfield of national security studies.

I believe this is why we need an analytical shift aimed at placing what navies do in a broader intellectual framework. The objective should be to articulate why what navies do has a unique strategic value that cannot be found elsewhere in a national military apparatus. Crucially, such an argument reflects a call to articulate specific brands of national statecraft in which the sea is recognised as a space of primary national security significance. I would argue that we should, for this reason, talk of ‘naval statecraft’. The word ‘diplomacy’ refers to a method of communication used by states. The word ‘statecraft’ invites to think instead about how effects connect to strategy. Naval statecraft forces us to think about how navies matter to states that place a premium on a national strategy in which the effects of military diplomacy are enhanced by naval capabilities.

Naval Statecraft as a Framework: The Art of Shaping International Affairs

How do we make such a case? This requires an attempt at defining naval statecraft to begin with. From my perspective, naval statecraft is, at heart, the ‘art of shaping international affairs’. A preliminary definition could therefore be as follow:

‘Naval statecraft concerns all the non-warfighting effects produced by naval platforms on the basis of how their capabilities are deployed in support of a national security strategy in which the sea is a significant factor in a country’s prosperity and international standing’.

Against this definition, naval statecraft is the result of the interaction of three factors: platform sovereignty, strategic fluency, and operational access. The first points to an often-neglected truth about a core feature of the main delivery platform of any navy: the warship. Warships are more than mere combat platforms. They are reproductions on scale of a state and of the political ideals and social principles informing its sense of sovereignty. They encompass all functions of daily life; their design are statements of national values, social architecture, and what they both stand for. Their existence takes a state’s political standing and capacity for influence at the heart of the maritime order from the moment they leave port. Paraphrasing British diplomat Eyre Crowe, in a context in which the sea is a space of interaction that matters to national strategy, naval platforms offer a unique opportunity to make a state ‘the neighbour of every country accessible by the sea’.

In today’s order at sea though, the value of a warship to statecraft extends virtually to any vessel, regardless of size and armament. As demands for ocean governance increase, so have the opportunities for state actors to exert degrees of influence. The experience of the Chinese Coast Guard in challenging the Japanese control of the Senkaku Islands, or that of the various fishing militias and coast guards around the South China Sea prove how irregular forces can keep a larger opponent in check. Dedicated ships, like hospital vessels or transport vessels, also have statecraft value – especially in their capacity to contribute to effective disaster management and crisis response. Multipurpose vessels too, like the offshore patrol vessels deployed recently by the Royal Navy and the Italian Navy in the Indo-Pacific, prove that statecraft depends upon how platform sovereignty is correlated to the intended effects.

This is why the second factor is essential. Naval statecraft is more than the sum of naval activities, and more than a method of delivery engagement. Its effectiveness rests on the existence of a clearly articulated worldview at the political level that offers the broader framework within which individual initiatives become intelligible. Such a vision allows allies and partners to support a government’s ambitions and inform perspective partners and competitors. Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative stands as a very good example of a vision that enabled Tokyo to maximise naval statecraft in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the South Pacific for more than a decade. Placed at the very heart of Japan’s National Security Strategy, FOIP it reveals the fluency that informs the ways in which Japan engages in foreign policy, with maritime being a pillar of its broader defence engagement. Strategic fluency to articulate how the sea relates to national security at the grand strategic level, therefore, is essential for naval statecraft to maximise effects.

Japan’s example leads to the third factor underwriting the concept of naval statecraft. Notwithstanding a considerable fleet, Japan elects to use naval statecraft as a regional power. Tokyo’s fleet trains and operates the world over, but its main operational space focuses on the wider Indo-Pacific. The country’s operational access underwrites the ability of naval activities to be sustained over time and to transforms political ambitions into a geographically defined reality. Operational access does not have to define the limits of a country’s naval statecraft, but it indicates where priorities are. The Chinese navy represents an interesting case in this respect since it is an increasingly globally postured force with a national mandate to protect overseas interests by means of a large fleet, overseas logistical facilities, and a prioritisation of how and where to allocate its resources. Yet, its main activities remain predominantly at the regional level.

A national strategy that identifies the ways in which the sea matters to a state is therefore crucial to ensure that the navy can meet the demands of statecraft. Within this context, the size and shape of navy need is a function of political objectives and national perceptions. For example, France and the UK possess navies capable of performing missions in theatres stretching from Europe to the Indian Ocean, to the South Atlantic and the South Pacific. Their fleet have clear limitations in numbers of hulls and depth of capabilities, but national strategy propels expectations from their actions, individually or as part of multilateral formations, into a much wider context. France’s regular deployments well beyond European confines, as attested by the Jeanne d’Arc activity, or the more recent UK-led multinational carrier strike group deployment in 2021, are symptomatic of such attempts at balancing strategy, policy, and capabilities for the purpose of statecraft.

The ability to correlate the sovereign value of a warship to a national strategy defining the scope of a country’s foreign policy, underwritten by adequate capabilities, elevates naval statecraft to what I suggested is a form of art of shaping international affairs. To paraphrase the most recent UK integrated operating concept, naval statecraft is the manifestation of a specific form of ‘campaigning’ in which the sea defines the primary operating environment and naval activities lead the actions that meet national objectives.

Conclusions: The Case for Naval Statecraft

What does this all mean? Why do I set out to make a case for naval statecraft instead of naval diplomacy? Any meaningful conversation about what navies do when they do not fight has to start with a preliminary engagement with the meaning of today’s maritime century to national security. This is the first step to establish why and how national statecraft would benefit from naval activities. The naval contribution to a country’s diplomatic initiatives is inherently linked to why the country needs a navy in the first place. Such a strategic fluency will have also to recognise that the dependency of open societies on maritime connectivity represents a prime opportunity for authoritarian regimes to exert pressure and coercion.

This leads to a second conclusion. In a vulnerable global order at sea that has expanded the ways in which political objectives can be pursued, all naval capabilities – big, or small, for naval or law-enforcement missions – can elicit statecraft effects. In turn, this will demand navies to think about how to balance the need for ever increasing greater availability against established preferences for fewer multipurpose platforms. Indeed, the character of the global order at sea suggests that more mass is needed, and not all of it needs to be heavily armed. Crucially, in peacetime activities, crewed platform will remain central to make the most of platform sovereignty, inviting caution towards the temptation for uncrewed assets.

The above conclusions lead to a third and final observation. Non-warfighting naval activities are not just part of a broader military toolbox contributing to diplomatic action. They reflect the naval contribution to national statecraft, one in which the sea is both a primary space for foreign policy action and an inherent component of how national strategy is formulated. Such an intellectual shift is crucial to assess how to best link operational access to available resources. It is only if such a shift is implemented that campaigning to shape security will incorporate the extent to which the sea is an enabling feature of national action. It is only if this shift takes place that naval statecraft will transform diplomacy in the art of shaping international affairs.

Keynote delivered on 08 November 2023 at the Royal Australian Navy Indo-Pacific Seapower Conference 2023, International Convention Centre, Sydney Harbor, Australia.

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Alessio Patalano

Alessio Patalano

Professor of War & Strategy in East Asia

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