Conservation or Claim? The Motivations for Recent Marine Protected Areas
The creation of marine protected areas (“MPAs”) has for decades been an important mechanism for the conservation of offshore habitats and biodiversity. In recent years, huge swathes of ocean have been designated for protection as states announced successively larger MPAs. Where maritime territory is disputed, the unilateral declaration of MPAs can arouse suspicions that states have harnessed conservation as a continuation of geopolitics by other means. This paper identifies the combustible interplay between conservation and territorial and strategic competition, with particular reference to, first, the recent arbitration concerning the United Kingdom’s Chagos Archipelago MPA under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and, second, ongoing maritime territorial disputes in the Indo-Pacific region. The paper discusses what happens when states are accused of creating MPAs to serve a hidden agenda. The relationship of marine conservation with territorial competition emerges as a complex one, in which power differentials and strategic conditions are important determinants of state behavior. Moreover, the hard choices inherent in this area of policy will be exacerbated by climate change. The developments discussed in the paper challenge unilateral MPAs as a means of protecting marine ecosystems. As a response, the paper identifies the objective of reducing incentives for states to play geopolitics with conservation.