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Maritime spaces faced with the triptych of competition-contestation-clash.

In October 2021, General Burkhard, Chief of the Defence Staff, presented his "strategic vision". He warned of a profound change in the strategic context, in which the notion of conflict is becoming more complex, diffuse and permanent: "Conflicts used to be based on a 'peace-crisis-war' model. Nowadays, it's more like a triptych of 'competition-contestation-clash' (...). Through this analysis, General Burkhard points to the need to adapt our defence tools to forms of conflict that break with the model for which our armies were calibrated.
Because of their specific nature and growing importance, maritime areas are at the forefront of this new dynamic of power relations, where a multitude of players are using hybrid strategies to upset existing balances, without necessarily resorting to open conflict.


Maritime areas have major economic and scientific potential. 90% of world trade is carried out by sea. The same proportion of digital flows transit via undersea cables. Fisheries resources are playing an increasingly important role in meeting the food needs of a constantly growing world population. Finally, as land-based resources become increasingly scarce, exploration and exploitation of the deep seabed and renewable maritime energies are set to play a growing role.

All these issues are giving the seas and oceans a new status, making them coveted areas. This competition for maritime space was theorised in 1983 by historian Hervé Coutau-Bégarie : " From being a theatre of conflict, the sea has become an object of conflict. ". But over the last 10 years, this phenomenon has accelerated to the point of becoming a major aspect of the return of the logic of power.

Forty years ago, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was adopted in Montego Bay.. Its aim was to strike the right balance between freedom of navigation and the sovereignty of coastal states over their maritime areas. It distinguishes between three types of territory at sea: territorial waters, which extend out to 12 nautical miles, where a state has total sovereignty. In the contiguous zone between 12 and 24 nautical miles, it can prevent and repress any infringement, particularly in the areas of customs, health or migration. Finally, between 24 and 200 nautical miles is the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Control of an EEZ gives coastal states rights toThese include environmental protection and search and rescue operations at sea.

Freedom of navigation is maintained for all ships, including in the territorial sea.within the framework defined by the "innocuous right of way" agreement.

Based on these principles defined by UNCLOS, States are free to define the limits of their maritime boundaries. Where another State may express competing claims, the delimitations must be agreed between the two parties concerned.

Given the exclusive rights to exploit the resources it provides, the EEZ is a major geopolitical issue for many countries and a source of conflict over its control. This is all the more true given that the nature of the competition for control of maritime areas is profoundly influenced by the specific nature of the environment in which it takes place.

Like space or cyberspace, the sea is a common space where the environment is global, fluid and without obvious borders. In these three common spaces, the dynamics of competition follow the same logic. Whoever has the technology imposes use and ultimately imposes the law. In this respect, the issue of controlling the deep seabed is particularly significant. Whoever finds a viable refining technology will impose it on others and impose their standards.

Access to resources and the freedom to navigate and act at sea encompass economic, sovereignty and power interests. As long as States act within the limits of the principles laid down by UNCLOS, this race to conquer maritime spaces is a competitive dynamic. But given the importance of what is at stake, challenges to the law by force are multiplying, to the point of transforming the sea into an area of contestation.


The Strategic Defence and National Security Review, published in 2017, spoke of an unstable and unpredictable strategic context, marked by the military assertiveness of established or emerging powers and the weakening of multilateral frameworks. At the time, this observation was motivated by the return of the logic of power, based on the contestation of the established order at the end of the Second World War and the desire to upset the balances created by the end of the Cold War. Since then, the use of force to challenge the rule of law has continued to grow, and violations of international law have become widespread.

This is particularly the case in the South China Sea, where China claims ownership of most of the islands and archipelagos there. These claims, which are contested by neighbouring countries, enable China to establish its EEZ over almost all of this maritime space. Secondly, it is challenging the principle of freedom of navigation as set out in UNCLOS, by contesting the fact that it can be applied to ships and military activities. Through this two-pronged challenge, it intends to establish a wide area of prohibition around its coasts to guarantee its security.

Turkey's attempts to explore and drill in Cyprus' EEZ are part of the same dynamic of unilateral appropriation of maritime space by force, since the exploration vessels are escorted by military vessels.

Finally, Russia's control of the Black Sea is a major strategic and economic component of the current conflict in Ukraine. The blockade strategy developed by the Russian naval forces aims to deprive the Ukrainians of reinforcement possibilities and export capacities by sea.

These three examples merely reflect a more global dynamic that is now developing on all the world's seas to varying degrees of intensity. This generalisation of efforts to challenge the established order is logically accompanied by a vast movement to rearm naval forces around the world, described by the French Navy's Chief of Staff, Admiral Pierre Vandier, as "staggering and without parallel except perhaps in the 1930s". The extraordinary rise of China's naval power, which aims to achieve global intervention capability by 2049, is clearly the most convincing example of this dynamic. But several emerging powers to the south of the Mediterranean are also part of this policy. Today, Western domination of the seas is being profoundly challenged, to the extent that in the current context of competition and contestation, the possibility of a high-intensity confrontation over maritime spaces can no longer be ignored.


The hypothesis of a high-intensity conflict at sea must also be considered through the notion of common space, which is specific to maritime domains. Unlike the terrestrial environment, the naval air forces of different states are in constant contact in areas open to freedom of navigation.

In the current context, where the dynamics of competition and contestation are exacerbated, this ability to stare each other down in intimidating postures can quickly degenerate into a high-intensity confrontation. The latter may simply be the result of a misinterpretation, however slight, of the opponent's behaviour. But it can also be the result of a competitor doubting our determination to the point where they think they can gain the upper hand.

For the French Navy, the return to confrontation at sea calls for a two-stage adaptation strategy.

Firstly, we need to ensure that the forces currently in service are capable of immediately rising to the level of a high-intensity confrontation. This means preparing them for combat at sea in the most appropriate way possible. On this subject, Captain Alexandre Marchis, head of the Navy's information and public relations department, talks about the importance of training without rules to get as close as possible to the dynamics of real combat: " Exercise Polaris 21 was the first major step in this development. It lasted 16 days and involved a carrier battle group, 24 ships, 65 aircraft and 6,000 military personnel, including 4,000 sailors. A single rule: "no rules", just like in real combat. When a ship was sunk, it returned to port. If its ammunition bunkers were empty, it had to continue fighting, but in a different way. This created emulation among the crews and gave rise to original and relevant ideas for better preparation".

Secondly, we need to think about the Navy's preparations for 2030-2040. For the French Navy's Chief of Staff, Admiral Pierre Vandier, this long-term vision is necessary. It allows us to take into account the incompressible nature of programme and skills times," he says. which require a minimum of 15 years to build heavy capabilities such as a submarine or aircraft carrier, and 25 years to train their commanders". 

We need to anticipate future technical revolutions so that we can make the right choices. That's the whole point of the policy of innovation in favour of a cutting-edge Navy pursued in recent years, to equip it with capabilities that are better adapted to the demands of modern combat.