Sunday, 1 September 2013

August 2013 Thoughts: Naval Diplomacy – from the Amerigo Vespucci to a Royal Yacht

In August of this year the Amerigo Vespucci, one of the Italian’s navy’s three sail training ships (the others being the Italia and the Palinuro[1]), docked in South Quay near Canary Warf its purpose was multi-layered. The most obvious reasons being a nice stop for the officer cadets and crew, a visit to an allied major/capital city to strengthen ties, and in the name of those ties to hosting a series of tours, dinners and talks. In broad terms it was exactly what the Royal Yacht used to be used for by British governments, but trading on Italian chic rather than the majesty of British royalty. This was the colourful pageantry side of naval diplomacy at work (as was highlighted by the Captain as its primary role), and it was good; the Italian navy pulling out all the stops to accomplish the missions that are the bread and butter of these vessels, and highlighting all the good the ship does, the Marina Militare does, and Italy does & produces.

What is Naval Diplomacy?

In one sentence its ‘diplomacy which is carried out from the sea or upon the sea’; the trouble is that one sentence whilst accurate, also covers so much but gives so little. For starters whilst it encompasses that which is usually considered Maritime Diplomacy & the Law of the Sea, i.e. what happens at sea, it in fact goes further as it also includes the use of the sea as a medium to convey an effect on the land. Broadly speaking naval diplomacy fits into four areas, which define not only how the approach the type of vessel which is best:

Presence is about making it known that your nation has an interest in the events that are taking place it that area; the larger the steak a nation has in the events the more significant the presence required.
Deterrence is about achieving a level of force present that will make any actions country to the will of the nation deploying that force, either likely to take too high a losses or be defeated entirely.
Presence is about ‘Gunboats’ but it can grow as it moves from a watching/waving the flag role to a more forceful ‘no’ which will require ships of greater ‘potential’.
Furthermore larger ships should have spaces aboard for conferences – after all holding talks to prevent a conflict aboard a warship at sea, could not be on more neutral ground or in a more secure space.
When ships pass at sea they acknowledge each other; even at the height of the Cold War the ships of the rival alliances would still say interact. These contacts will often grow when vessels find themselves working nearby each other- perhaps conducting counter-piracy or some other similar mission. These interactions build bridges which the pomp, formality, rigidity and posturing of land borders do not – a fact which is sometimes ascribed to the simple truth that all sailors risk more from the sea than enemy action.
Any ship will do, but warships are usually better for interacting with other warships on an ‘equivalency’.
These can vary from simple accords to full treaty organisations; but whatever the form they require maintenance like any relationship. They require exercises to keep allies familiar and up to standard that operational co-operation/co-ordination is already practiced so as to allow for smooth operation.
Again it’s a combination in that a constant regional presence by a single vessel, with regular visits by more powerful vessels for training.
A ship turning up and hosting events can draw interest in the goods of the nation that sends it. When the Royal Yacht motored into port, even without any royalty aboard, it would host contract signing events, trade fares and lots of meet & greet events. At the Amerigo Vespucci everything is done to make visits memorable, the food, the drink and the ceremonies are all of the highest quality Italian products.
For this status is everything, a flagship such as an aircraft carrier, or a ship which has cache because it’s special – i.e. a Royal Yacht or sail training ship, are best as they will garner the most attention, interest and most importantly attendance.

Despite the fact that it can be fit into just four rough areas, Naval Diplomacy is one of the most subtle forms of international relations as a single gesture can carry multiple messages on different levels of analysis; which in turn have a differing impact/weight depending upon the tool used to do it. A warship hosting an event will have a different impact from an auxiliary, and again to a geo-strategic/tactical or status ship; the latter group will always carry the most weight although depending on which they are that can be read differently. A status ship will usually be seen as a projection of power but with less militaristic overtones – usually more friendly so is excellent for building economic alliances, supporting trade and making ‘first contact’. Whereas a geo-strategic/tactical vessel such as an aircraft carrier will always have the visible ‘potential’ for military action, so whilst again it can be used to support trade by hosting suitable events, it is excellent when used for building strategic alliances and for highlighting intent for action. Smaller ships are again capable of these things, but of course on a smaller scale; a single helicopter popping around a country with some personnel in can highlight presence, multiple helicopters makes that presence tangible – but also represents the commitment of a large volume of resources.  

How Maritimes & International Law affect Naval Diplomacy

In the modern world nothing exists in a complete vacuum from words and even the sea has some rules & regulations; however the vast majority of international law has yet to be written, and international maritime law is even more sparsely populated. This is mainly due to the difficulty of having to get every nation to agree to it; even the United Nations has only accomplished so much. The main laws that affect naval diplomacy, and using naval forces for conventional deterrence are the those which effect the Territorial Waters (TW), those which affect the Contiguous Zone (CZ) and those affecting the Exclusive Economic Zone(EEZ); all but the first 12 nautical miles from the coast, the TW, are considered International Waters under which access of vessels cannot be restricted accept under circumstance of war.

EEZs cover the area of water out to 200nautical miles from the coast, although it can also extend further if the continental shelf is proved to be contiguous to a nation’s EEZ. Within this area that nation has complete authority over all resources contained in the sea or under it. Put like this it sounds simple, but most countries EEZs are to a greater or lesser extent comprises or contested; the current troubles in the South China Sea, the Cod Wars in the North Atlantic, some of the current issues over Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands are about nations wanting the resources (fish, fossil fuels, ores and all the rest) that are under the sea around them.  TW and the CZ are where a nation can enforce civil laws as well as control resources; TW as has been said are where freedom of the seas do not apply, and a ship needs permission to enter. It was a figure fixed before the missile age, before 12 nautical miles was no longer a barrier to enemy attack and which was the area visible from land by the naked eye so was therefore considered to be ‘practical’.

Monitoring and exercising control over these areas requires more than just a cursory glance on occasion; for starters the shear area they cover makes a constant presence necessary. For example the UK has an EEZ of 6,805,586km2 (not including Gibraltar or any Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus)[2] compared to a Total Internal Area (basically the land + plus lakes) of just 242,900km2, or in simple terms the sea area which is the responsibility of the British government is a little over 28x the size of the land under its charge[3]. It is the responsibility of the government to monitor fishing & fish stocks, study & preserve the ecology & bio-diversity, prevent piracy and basically police the waters; furthermore considering the level of resources contained within, protect it from avaricious neighbours. Presence is therefore not only about supporting allies, but also key to protecting national ‘territory’ & interests.  

What makes the Sea special?

The sea is next to impossible to construct anything on so it cannot be held in a conventional sense the same way land can, even the mightiest warships can be driven from their stations by fierce storms that can ravage oceans. The resources are very difficult and expensive to get to and fish stocks are depleted. So there is a reasonable case for why bother?

Well, for starters whilst the resources are difficult & expensive to get at, they are reachable, technology is improving every day and the market is such that the profit from getting to them is more than worth it. Furthermore, whilst the sea may make the internet look positively controllable in terms of a medium for flow of information it also carries 70% of the world’s surface. Plus unlike the internet which is restricted to data movement, the sea also allows for the physical movement of goods and people between nations, i.e. trade. In fact, more trade and goods go buy sea than any other method, principally because as a sheer function cost & volume sea trade is worth it.  Fish stocks are improving, as better management is put in place; and whilst construction of a ‘border’ is not really possible, and whilst it can be argued that countries don’t own the sea merely act as it’s guardians.

It’s special because whilst all the above and on the previous pages is true, the fact is the sea is an international free for all; which is why ships of opposing nations bump into each other and can’t ignore each other so have to behave in cordial manner.


Naval diplomacy is not just about the sea, although it’s the sea which gives it a lot of its capabilities; at its heart naval diplomacy is about utilising the advantages of the sea for strategic national gains, whether that is selling a nations goods or selling a nation as an ally. However, like conventional deterrence it is something which is best built on firm foundations rather than sand; a sufficiently supported program of naval diplomacy can provide bountiful opportunities for the country that wields it. Deploying a land force can be expensive, complicated and binding, a ship just docking on it way past is just maximising the opportunity; but to do it well the ships and embassies have to be prepared for it.

For example if Nation 1 wishes to maximise the effect of one of it’s destroyers (chosen for the example as it’s a large escort, but not a geo-strategic/tactical vessel or a status vessel) visiting Nation 2 then the embassy of Nation 1 must have an up to date a list of ministers/opposition, dignitaries, business people and opinion formers ready to go so that invites can be issued – not just to locals from Nation 2, but from other nations diplomatic corps and of course representatives of Nation 1’s firms that have dealings in the area, turning each ship visit into a must attend opportunity for great food, great opportunity and great experience; all things navies as a tradition do well. The result of such an evening will be closer relationships built between Nation 1’s diplomatic corps & navy and all of the visiting persons, if handled right this will not only provide what the 2012 Olympics provided the UK with (on a smaller scale of course) – the general feeling that Nation 1 is really quite good, but also provide contacts which lead to orders of Nation 1’s goods, boosting Nation 1’s industry and providing employment at home[4]. Which is at the end of the day one of the core duties of government, keeping the economy as strong as possible, it’s that and defending its citizens/realm from attack.


[2] All figures obtained from (18/08/2013)
[3] The French government oversees an area nearly 18x the size of its land, the Seychelles is nearly 2,938x the size of it’s land
[4] During one trip to Bombay without a member of the Royal Family aboard her, the Royal Yacht Britain got £1.1 billion worth of contracts that had been sitting around not moving forward, signed. (18/08/2013)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thankyou for taking the time to comment, I endeavour to reply to every comment that I can within the constraints of time