Political Geographies of the Sea

Historically, when human geographers have studied the ocean, they most often have looked to the sea as a space of politics and, in particular, as an arena for geopolitical conflict. The ocean has been viewed as a space in which the forces of land based states meet as each attempts to control crucial areas of the sea (e.g., choke points on shipping lanes or particularly productive fishing grounds) or to use the ocean as a platform from which power can be projected onto land. Increasingly, however, political geographers (especially those who associate themselves with the critical geopolitics movement) are criticizing this model of the world as one in which states with unambiguously bounded insides interact with each other on a preexisting (and presocial) spatial platform. Instead, the discursive bounding of states and the construction of the world as a universe of mutually exclusive territorial states is seen as an act of politics that itself is worthy of study. It follows from this critique that there is no a priori distinction between a state’s ‘inside’ (its territory) and its ‘outside’ (space that is outside state territory). Thus, the ocean, historically viewed by political geographers as a space wherein political actors battle each other, is now recognized as a space in which politics (and political territories) are created.

Some of the work in this area queries the division of the sea into three distinct zones that is enshrined in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: the territorial sea (which extends to 12 nautical miles from shore), in which states have complete territorial authority except that they must allow free passage to foreign ships that are deemed to have ‘innocent’ intentions; the high seas (the area beyond 200 nautical miles from shore), in which coastal states have no authority and in which state authority is limited to the power that a state has over ships that are flying its flag; and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ; roughly the space between territorial waters and the high seas), in which high seas freedoms of the sea prevail except that coastal states have exclusive rights to marine and seabed resources. While the implementation of this regime can be traced to the power politics of global treaty negotiations, it can also be traced to structural contradictions within the spatiality of capitalism: the need to invent new investment sites (expressed in the territorial seas regime), the need to move capital and commodities at ever greater speeds (expressed in the high seas regime), and the need to steward nature so as to forestall capitalism’s tendency to exploit it at an unsustainable rate (expressed in the EEZ regime).

The interplay of these forces not only constructs these three distinct legal zones but it also constructs other sociospatial patterns that reflect and reproduce the unevenness of political power and nature in the marine environment. Consider, for instance, the ease with which Japan (driven by domestic considerations) is able to use its economic leverage over cash poor but whale rich countries to win their votes in the International Whaling Commission. The resulting whaling regulations both reflect and transform relations of power and distributions of nature, at sea and on land. When viewed from this perspective, the ocean is seen not simply as an arena wherein political actors compete with each other but rather as a space within which the political structures of the world-system are constructed.

In a similar vein, historical geographers of empire have begun turning to the sea in their attempts at understanding the relationship between the ordering of space and the ordering of peoples. If the ideology of ocean crossing has a special role in the discourses of global reach that have characterized modern empires (and perhaps ancient ones as well), then the ocean is itself a constructed space of politics. In particular, the British Empire with its strong ideological emphasis on sea power, has been subject to examination by Anglo-American human geographers. Like the empire’s colonies, the ocean was not only constructed as a space that was of the empire but that was also conceived of as one step removed from the essential space and character of the British (or English) nation. Thus, ocean space, like colonial space, not only in the British Empire, but also in others – particularly the Portuguese – was constructed through an ideology that combined elements of both universalism (or cosmopolitanism) and particularism (or chauvinism).

Finally, the recognition of the ocean as a space wherein politics is not only enacted but also constructed has led some to direct their attention to political actors in ocean space who directly challenge the norms of terrestrial political geography and the spatiality of the state system. From the eighteenth and nineteenth-century pirate societies to the twentieth and twenty first century global shipping companies that fly under flags of convenience, these actors employ state signifiers and organize space in complex ways that simultaneously challenge, modify, and reproduce the land based system of sovereign, territorial nation states.