Ocean Regions in an Era of Global Transformation – Colloquium Report

Posted on November 22, 2023

The Ocean Regions Programme in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria hosted its second Ocean Regions colloquium, Ocean Regions in an Era of Global Transformation, on 20-21 November 2023. The colloquium brought together academics, researchers and practitioners from South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius, Cameroon, Rwanda, Brazil, India, Greece, Portugal, Australia and the UK to discuss, under the Chatham House Rule, approaches to and experiences in ocean region-making and governance with a specific focus on Africa’s position, role and agency in an evolving oceanic landscape.

Both the Indo-Pacific and the South Atlantic are of political, economic and developmental concern to Africa, in particular to the littoral and island states of the continent. These ocean spaces also connect Africa to other states and communities in these evolving regions which are simultaneously attracting increasing attention from external actors in an era of geopolitical change and contestation. There is also the Southern Ocean, around the Antarctic continent, gaining in importance in the face of geopolitical shifts, climate change challenges and growing interest in its potentially rich energy and mineral resources.

The past several years have seen a dramatic and renewed interest in ‘oceanic worlds/regions’, most obvious of which are the maritime component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the evolution of the Indo-Pacific region, often perceived as being driven by the US, Japan, India and Australia (the ‘Quad’) and largely external actors. Although African states, and more generally, regional organisations, still tend to be terra-centric, oceans are not merely fringes, boundaries and margins, confined to being lanes of transport and communication. Rather, we are witnessing the development of the ‘century of the oceans’ and, many would say, this development is driven by Sino-American power rivalry, though, concomitantly, issues of interdependence also come into play. Beyond the Indo-Pacific, big and medium powers (the US, China and India, in particular) are also turning to the Atlantic, historically part of the NATO sphere of influence, as a theatre of interest and attention, with the US having launched a Partnership for Atlantic Cooperation in September 2023, and in the Southern Ocean there is evidence of growing Russian involvement.

Ocean spaces are being redefined strategically in terms of maritime perimeters as a means to project power and protect interests beyond continental vicinities; ocean regions are being actively constructed, turning spaces into places through discursive region-building strategies. The Indian Ocean, sharing with the South Atlantic the status of an UN-declared Zone of Peace, is heavily militarised, and the Eastern Southern Atlantic, along the coast of West Africa, is experiencing a continued increase in piracy, maritime terrorism and so-called blue crimes, whilst the littoral states and islands of the Indo-Pacific suffer from climate change and a host of ocean-related threats, not least of which is that of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, in many instances perpetrated by major extra-regional powers.

Despite these transformative impacts of, and on, international relations, the ocean regions remain vital trading networks for the global economy, sources of coastal community livelihoods and critical sites for marine species breeding and migration. The proliferation of national strategies to promulgate the blue economy and potential conflicts over Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), including deep sea resource mining and its disruptive potential, pose significant governance challenges for ocean regions.

Overall, there is little doubt that the evolution of ocean regions will continue to be a top priority of great and emerging powers, as well as of littoral and island states and regional and international organisations. The African continent faces a notable challenge in this regard, as both the African Union and several of its member states are seeking to position themselves in the rapidly changing environment on their various maritime shores.

The brief report (find below) on the colloquium follows the programme sequence, where presentations in the first five sessions served as catalysts for the rich deliberations of key issues over two days. The report was prepared by postgraduate students in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria who served as rapporteurs at the colloquium — Mosebetsi Khobotlo, Adam Louw and Carika Middelberg — and was edited by Hanlie Griesel, with critical input from Dr Robin Blake, Daniela Marggraff and Prof. Maxi Schoeman, also from the Department of Political Sciences.

The work of the Ocean Regions Programme is supported by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS). Opinions expressed in the report are those of the participants and the NIHSS accepts no liability in this regard.

- Author Maxi Schoeman

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