Global shipping threat 'highest since Second World War'

UK minister raises concerns for maritime trade amid rising international tensions

HMS Queen Elizabeth leading a carrier strike group alongside US carriers and Japanese warships during exercises in 2021. AP
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Global shipping routes face a level of “threat and coercion” not seen since the Second World War, a UK foreign minister has said.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Britain's Minister for the Indo-Pacific, said the fight for resources and domination was having a dramatic effect on international shipping.

Speaking at the Seapower Conference in London, she said rivalry between leading maritime countries including Russia and China was undermining free trade in the Indo-Pacific.

She also warned of an environmental emergency, with the world needing to address a depletion of fish stocks that could lead to a collapse in livelihoods.

“The maritime domain is under increasing pressure from systemic competition driven by those resource needs and it is facing levels of threat and coercion not seen since the [Second World War],” she said.

Speaking to an audience of naval commanders, including the Royal Navy’s First Sea Lord, Ms Trevelyan said the world was “genuinely entering a new maritime century”, but without enough attention being paid to the threats created by rising global tensions.

“When Russian actions flout the UN conventions on the Law of the Sea this provides China with an excuse to disregard international norms to ignore the rules-based international system for their benefit, destroying the option of a free and open Indo-Pacific for all,” said the former trade secretary.

The “threats to global supply chains” and the “militarisation” of the high seas were more real than most people in Britain “can imagine”, she said.

The importance of the Indo-Pacific to Britain was emphasised in its Integrated Review of defence and security policy, and a number of its warships have visited the region, including the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, British foreign minister responsible for Indo-Pacific. PA

While it is a great distance from Europe, the impact from maritime trade can be felt in people’s ability to buy anything from washing machines to prawns, with 60 per cent of global shipping passing through the region.

Ms Trevelyan also highlighted environmental threats. “The degradation of fish docks and the precariousness of maritime livelihoods has the potential to wreak havoc with many nations' basic ability to feed people,” she said. “The sustainable harvesting of the seas' resources is critical.”

With China possessing the largest fleet in the world, recently overtaking the US, it is continuing to dominate large areas of the Pacific. Therefore, Britain and its allies in the Pacific area, including the US, Australia and Japan, need to work together to ensure the Indo Pacific remains “safe and free from coercion”, she said.

She reassured Britain’s allies in the region that the “UK stands firmly alongside our Indo Pacific neighbours to weather any storms”.

She added: “We must not turn away from what we must do, given the scale of the challenge.”

Alongside naval power, diplomatic efforts are needed to “amplify a willingness and capacity to protect our collective interests, whether in home waters or all across the world”, she concluded.

Updated: May 16, 2023, 2:21 PM

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