By Joe Spears

The 5th bi-annual Maritime Security Challenges 2012 conference was held in Victoria, British Columbia from October 1-3. Over the last ten years this conference has grown in popularity and importance, and for good reason. With Canada’s strategic position on the edge of the Indo-Pacific basin, this vast maritime area is growing in both complexity and economic power. The region is critical to Canada’s economic future. Marine security and defence issues in the region are as real as these waters, on which much of world’s trade is carried by ship, have seen the rapid rise of regional navies, including China’s which has just commissioned its first aircraft carrier. Sixty per cent of the world’s submarines now operate in Indo-Pacific waters. With potential exports of crude oil from Alberta oilsands and liquefied natural gas (LNG) adding to Canada’s exports of natural resources to Indo-Pacific countries, maritime issues are becoming increasingly important to Canada’s economic future.

The control of sea lanes and maritime security impacts global trade and commercial shipping patterns. Maritime Security Challenges 2012 addressed some of these challenges.

The wide-ranging three-day conference brought together senior leaders from the region’s Navies, as well as government officials, commercial interests and academics.

Vice Admiral Paul Maddison, Chief of Maritime Staff and head of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) presented the opening address. His thought-provoking comments set the tone of the conference:

“There are other parts of the world where strategic competition for oceanic resources is being driven by national interests towards confrontation rather than cooperation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the South China Sea. Much like the Arctic basin, the South China Sea is a region believed to be rich in seabed energy resources. Unlike the Arctic, the South China Sea today is critical to global commerce.”

“It remains to be seen whether or not the international consensus that lies behind the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) will continue to hold in the face of what may become existential pressures upon many states, both large and small. But there are few issues of greater importance in the second decade of the 21st century maritime century.”

“That is why the South China Sea matters to all of us, and not merely to the coastal states of Southeast Asia. It is also why the Arctic matters to all of you. Cooperation in the Arctic is not simply Canada’s vital national interest. Strategic cooperation reinforces the legal maritime order upon which our collective security and prosperity surely depends”.

The following two days of the conference various speakers dealt with the following subjects:

• decision-making during a crisis situation

• the state of global fisheries

• an update on the Brazilian Navy.

There were panels on topical maritime issues including the development of aircraft carriers, maritime applications of unmanned autonomous vehicles, security issues and the Gulf of Guinea, the illegal movement of people and illicit cargoes at sea and, importantly from the Canadian perspective, shipbuilding and future naval requirements. These panels were all followed by question-and-answer sessions. Some of the takeaways that became evident from the conference included diminishing budgets, the cost of new naval vessels, increasing use of drones, cyberspace capabilities of new weapons, and the challenges of interacting in a complex marine threat environment. The other reality that became quite clear is that navies still need to provide greater capabilities despite shrinking budgets, which is a real challenge when technology is changing rapidly.

Rear Admiral (Retired) Girouard had this to say: “This year’s conference took a more strategic approach.” He thought the insightful presentation by Dr. Pauly of the University of British Columbia, one of the world’s leading fisheries ecologists, was very relevant to tensions in a  21st century. “In the maritime security business, we often tend to think that the ocean is merely a highway but it is also a source of resources. Nations draw the resources from both the seabed and the water column.” Reflecting on Dr. Pauly’s comments about the state of the world’s fisheries, Rear Admiral Girouard noted “protecting the world’s diminishing protein sources in the form of fisheries is going to create regional tensions between states with declining stocks.” This will lead to regional conflicts and tensions, which we are already seeing in the South China Sea. The reality is these are not new issues, and a fisheries dispute with the United States in the early part of the 20th century was the rationale for the creation of the Canadian Naval Service, as it was then known.

The evening dinner speech at the Union Club was hosted by the First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope KCB, OBE, ADC and Chief of Naval Staff. Admiral Stanhope provided a forward-looking examination of the challenges maintaining a robust Navy at a time of fiscal restraint, and reported that the UK is pushing ahead with the construction of two aircraft carriers. The Royal Navy is long experienced in the importance of keeping sea lanes open to global trade and the need to maintain operational readiness by keeping ships at sea. The First Sea Lord’s frank comments were insightful and made it clear that we need to work together to meet challenges in a complex future.

The Canadian Chief of Maritime staff, Vice Admiral Maddison had this to say about the Canadian shipbuilding program:

“Propelling us forward is a new and, for Canada, unprecedented national shipbuilding procurement strategy. Through this strategic partnership with industry … and all with the stated intention of creating and sustaining a continuous program to build ships in Canada … is something I view as an extremely positive policy development for the Navy. Why? Because we’re going to need ships – perhaps never before have the world’s oceans been as important to national security and prosperity as they are today, as ocean politics both at home and abroad continues to intensify in this increasingly maritime 21st-century.”

The conference closed with the address by MARPAC commander Rear Adm. Bill Truelove who said “Being able to come together to discuss and debate the many maritime challenges facing us all, as well as being able to build on relationships that will help us navigate through increasingly uncertain times, I hope will prove tremendously helpful and that these experiences will yield dividends well beyond these past few days.

“As a maritime nation, Canada, like the twenty other countries represented in this room, has a profound interest and responsibility in ensuring the safety and security of the world’s oceans.”

Joe Spears has a long-standing interest in naval affairs and has family connections to the Royal Canadian Navy. His great-uncle Father Basil Martin of Ketch Harbor, Nova Scotia, was the RC Chaplain of the Fleet during World War II and was awarded an OBE for services. Two of his uncles also served at sea in the RCN in during the World War II. He spoke at the 2008 Maritime Security Conference in Victoria. He can be reached at