We live in a world which is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. One may call our era the Age of Acceleration, an age where the only constant seems to be the certainty of even more change.
Laptops have become part of the modern society. Many of us have lived through an era where there was no television, let alone computers, mobile phones or the internet. And yet today, we cannot conceive of a modern economy in which cyber space is not an indispensable and pervasive reality.
WHAT explains this constant flux that now rules our lives? It is mainly the acceleration we witness in technological advancement. The computing power of a micro-chip in our mobile phones is equivalent to several acres of main–frame computers that would have been required a generation ago. The volume of data and the speed with which it can move across vast spaces is difficult to comprehend. And yet, scientists tell us, we are still far from reaching the limits of this technology. There are other domains where potentially disruptive technologies are in the making. These include nano-technology, advanced materials, bio-sciences and artificial intelligence. These developments are pushing the frontiers of knowledge into largely uncharted territory.
We do not know how they will interact with social, political and psychological systems that change only slowly. Human beings are seduced by novelty, but they are reassured by familiarity. Technological change has altered our global landscape. The recent global financial and economic crisis was, in a real sense, caused by the mismatch between the scale of technological change and the adaptability of institutions of both domestic and global governance. What is worth noting is that recovery can never be a return to the pre-crisis terrain. And yet that is what we seem to be seeking. Unless we find new instruments of governance, we are doomed to suffer similar crises in the future, perhaps even worse than the last. An altered landscape, which is still in the throes of further change, is no longer amenable to being managed by the tools that were fashioned to deal with an altogether different environment. Yet our predisposition to familiarity and precedent makes us reluctant to down these tools and look for new ones.
The emerging landscape
Let me point to some of the characteristics of the emerging landscape. It is, in my view, dominated by three critical domains, a terrestrial domain that is increasingly defined by the maritime space, an extra-terrestrial domain which is space-related and lastly, extending both along the terrestrial and extra-terrestrial, cyber space.
As a globalized economy has become more entrenched, as the interconnectedness and integration of economies across the world continues apace, the maritime sphere becomes a critical factor, impacting directly on the overall security of nations. Ocean-going trade now constitutes well over 90% of total trade. The dependence on maritime trade is even more compelling, if we consider the movement of energy resources, particularly oil, and other strategic commodities such as iron ore, coal and, more recently, rare earths. Resource security is now integrally linked to maritime security.
The maritime domain
The maritime domain is also in flux. The melting of Arctic ice due to global warming, for example, is opening up new and much shorter sea routes between Europe and Asia, reducing shipping distance by over 40%. From just over 4 cargo vessels in 2010, the number using the North-East passage along the Russian Arctic coast reached over 200 last summer. New ports and infrastructure are planned along the Russian and Norwegian Arctic coasts. If the current trends continue, it is estimated that over 25% of world shipping may be traversing this route, instead of traditional passage through the Suez Canal by 2030.The Arctic may also hold over 40% of the world’s known energy and mineral resources, which the melting of ice is making accessible. The economic profile of the Arctic littoral countries, in particular, the US, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark, would increase and so will their strategic importance. Whether this will retard or even reverse the current ongoing shift in the centre of gravity of global power to the Asia and Pacific region, remains to be seen, but cannot be ruled out.
The critical role of the maritime domain also implies that countries which can deploy significant maritime capabilities and which can project power over vast ocean spaces, will be the more influential nations of the future, not those who continue to allocate resources to large and increasingly less effective land forces and weaponry.
The domain of space
Let me now turn to the domain of space. Much of the world’s communication systems, its information and media infrastructure, navigation and surveillance systems and resource survey platforms are based in space. The number of operational satellites orbiting in space has grown from just a handful 50 years ago to about 5,000 now. These space-based assets are indispensable to modern economies, but they are also vulnerable. This was brought home to the world by China’s unannounced ASAT test in 2007. The space domain is now completely woven into the fabric of our lives on earth, though few of us fully comprehend this reality. In the none too distant future, space travel may become as ubiquitous as air travel today. The colonization of other planets, the exploitation of rich and rare minerals that lie buried in their soil and their use as remote platforms for future explorations of outer space, are no longer in the realm of fantasy. It stands to reason that countries that have mastery in space sciences and ambitions programmes for future growth, will be significant players in any future world order.
Let me now turn to cyber space, which is a complex hybrid of both terrestrial as well as extra-terrestrial domains. It is terrestrial in the sense that it is dependent upon a vast and dense network of fibre-optic cables that gird our planet, embedded both in land as well as under sea. It is extra-territorial because it is also connected to all the space-based systems referred to earlier. The virtual reality which cyber space creates and maintains, depends upon both land (including maritime) based and space based platforms which are interconnected and enmeshed in a complex and continually expanding system. Again, it is difficult to comprehend how much our day-to-day living and functioning currently is dependent upon this interconnected cyber space. And yet it is only a little over 50 years since the satellite age was born and only 30 years since personal computers and portable phones came into existence. The worldwide internet which created a global cyber-space is only a little over a generation old. Many of us have lived through an era where there were no televisions, let alone computers, mobile phones or the internet. And yet today, we cannot conceive of a modern economy and a modern society in which cyber space is not an indispensable and pervasive reality.