Despertar naval en el Sur Global

Naval awakening in the Global South


08 | 06 | 2024


In addition to China and India, other countries such as Algeria, Brazil, Egypt, the Philippines, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria and Vietnam are developing their navies to gain naval power.

In the picture

International visitors in February 2024 on the deck of INS Vikrant, the first Indian-built aircraft carrier [Indian Navy].

After almost two decades relegated to the background by the war on terror, the seas are once again one of the centers of gravity in today's geopolitical thinking, and with them, naval power. This is mainly due to our society's increasing dependence on the sea: almost three quarters of the world's population lives within 50 kilometers of the coast, and more than 80% of world trade is transported by sea.

Moreover, a quick review of the three most important hotspots of conflict (and potential conflict) today-Ukraine, the Middle East and the South China Sea-reveals a substantial maritime and naval importance in all of them. In the case of the third, the ongoing tensions between China and its neighboring countries also add to Beijing's aspirations to "unify" Taiwan. Both circumstances threaten to ignite what could become an eminently maritime conflict with catastrophic global consequences.

However, beyond conflicts, in order to safeguard those economic interests provided to nations by the exploitation of the sea and its resources, navies are once again an indispensable tool to ensure the protection of all those national maritime activities; including critical undersea infrastructures, which are increasingly colonizing the seabed. The test of this change of mentality is particularly evident in the countries of the Global South, many of which have made significant investments in their naval capabilities in recent years.

China is undoubtedly the clearest example of the importance of using the sea to pursue its economic and military interests. During the last decades, and with special emphasis since Xi Jinping came to power, the Asian giant has made its navy (People's Liberation Army Navy or PLAN) one of its most important national priorities. So much so that it has transformed an eminently continental power into one of the most important naval powers in the world (with the largest navy in the world).

Driven by a shipping industry that far exceeds that of its U.S. antagonist, Beijing has sought to increase the size of its fleet with new destroyers, frigates, nuclear-powered submarines and amphibious assault ships, while expanding its presence in the Indo-Pacific with instructions in Djibouti and Ream (Cambodia). On the commercial front, China has established one of the largest maritime commercial projects in history: the String of Pearls.

On the other hand, as a result of Beijing's expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea region (in many cases contrary to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS), countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia have been forced to reinforce their means to deal with the constant incursions of Chinese Coast Guard vessels and maritime militias within their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and even in their territorial waters.

Along with China, India is another major emerging player in the Indo-Pacific region, and like the Asian giant, New Delhi also provides an example B of the importance of naval power and maritime thinking in its rise as a player core topic. Over the past decade, India's navy has progressively enhanced its credentials as a major regional force-precisely to meet the threat posed by Beijing's rise. In addition to already having a capable fleet (which includes two aircraft carriers, two ballistic missile submarines and an escort fleet with more than twenty active units), New Delhi has also sought to increase the issue of instructions naval aircraft around the Indian Ocean; the latest of which is in the Lakedives Islands in the southwest of the country. During the last few months, Indian naval forces have managed to thwart several attacks on merchant ships in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

On the American continent, Brazil has also stood out for its maritime aspirations in recent decades. The Brazilian Navy (Marinha do Brasil) is currently the largest naval force in all of Latin America, and has capabilities worthy of recognition. Among its latest acquisitions are the new frigates class Tamandaré, to be delivered between 2025 and 2028, which will provide its navy with greater projection capacity in the South Atlantic. Together with them, the helicopter carrier NAM Atlântico, and the four submarines class Scorpène acquired under the PROSUB program, put Brazil on the road to becoming a leading navy in the South Atlantic. In addition, other countries in the continent, such as Chile, Colombia and Peru, have also invested in their naval assets, mainly through the acquisition of frigates and patrol boats transferred by leading navies (mainly the United Kingdom, the United States and France). Others, such as Argentina, have also announced their intentions to do the same in the coming years.

In North Africa, Egypt and Algeria, among other countries, have invested great efforts to provide their naval forces with solid capabilities. The former, based on ship acquisitions from other Western navies, has eight attack submarines, seven corvettes (including two from the Ferrol-built class Descubierta), more than a dozen multipurpose frigates, and even a French amphibious helicopter carrier class Mistral. In addition, it cooperates assiduously with the Atlantic Alliance naval forces in various joint deployments and exercises. Algeria, for its part, has been consolidating its position as another of the most important navies on the African continent, helped in large part by Moscow. Although part of its fleet is based on old units from Cold War times, such as the attack submarines class Kilo or the frigates class Koni, the amphibious helicopter carrier class San Giorgio or the German MEKO A200 frigates make it an important player in the Western Mediterranean.

In the Gulf of Guinea, the Nigerian navy is also undergoing a remarkable modernization process. The bulk of its fleet consists of a German frigate and two offshore patrol vessels, in addition to several dozen smaller patrol vessels. Although some of them are inherited from the U.S. and Chinese navies, Nigeria plans to acquire some of the latest generation of amphibious units and offshore patrol vessels over the next few years. On the other hand, South Africa has also shown interest in their capabilities, having conducted several joint naval exercises with China and Russia (most recently in February 2024).

Finally, Iran deserves a special accredited specialization regarding its maritime activities. The Islamic Republic relies on the naval forces of its conventional navy and those of the Revolutionary Guard, which, although not particularly numerous, allow it to carry out what are known as maritime disruption campaigns. For this purpose, it generally employs small vessels and unmanned surface vehicles or USVs (whose use has proliferated in the Black Sea during the last two years), which allows it to keep status below the threshold of open conflict -within what is called the 'grey zone'. With a privileged geostrategic position, Tehran is in a position to cut off merchant traffic transiting through one of the most important maritime chokepoints in the world - the most important as far as oil traffic is concerned: the Strait of Hormuz. Moreover, reminiscent of the "tanker war" arising from the Iran-Iraq conflict in the 1980s, the Houthi attacks against maritime trade in the Red Sea since October 2023 are being made possible by Iranian support (both in material and weaponry and intelligence).

In the current context of confrontation between great powers, in which maritime dominance is becoming increasingly important, the change of mentality of these countries is a response to the ever more pressing need to protect national interests that they see as increasingly threatened. The maritime ambitions of all of them have for years been heralding a veritable naval awakening in the global south, which is preparing for what many already consider to be "the maritime century". They are also joined by Western nations, for whom the Red Sea crisis has highlighted the continuing importance of projecting effective deterrence at sea.