Author Archive

Post-Soviet Maritime Boundary Delimitation in the Baltic Sea

December 5, 2023
IMA Research Team

By Alex Marsh

The Baltic Sea, despite being comparatively well-delimited relative to other bodies of water, remains an interesting case study in the novel application of maritime boundary law, as well the effect of historical and geopolitical tensions on boundary negotiation. Many of the complexities related to maritime boundary delimitation in the Baltic Sea can be traced to a 1988 Agreement between the Kingdom of Sweden and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the subsequent collapse of the USSR a few years later.

Sweden’s 1988 Agreement with the USSR established a multi-purpose boundary between the two party’s continental shelves and fishery zones. Crucially, this agreement did not apportion separate boundaries for each soviet satellite state in the Baltic region (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, referred to hereafter as “the Baltic states”). Rather, the agreement created one boundary for the entirety of the USSR’s Baltic coast.

After the fall of the USSR in 1991, having regained their independence, the Baltic states argued that the maritime boundaries created for them by the USSR were not valid on the basis that the modern-day states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were not successors to the USSR member states of the same names, but to the preceding independent, pre-World War II republics. The Baltic states maintain they were illegally annexed by and incorporated into the USSR following World War II, and as such, international law should not treat boundaries negotiated by what was, in their view, an occupying power, as legitimate in light of their newfound independence.

Sweden (and to a lesser extent, Finland), maintained that the boundary negotiated with the USSR was valid and legitimate, a position strongly supported by the newly christened Russian Federation. Of note, the Russian Federation included language in their 2005 tripoint agreement with Lithuania and Sweden explicitly referring to the existence of the 1988 Agreement in support of this position. Sweden had no desire to renegotiate the existing boundary, which had resulted in a favorable resolution for Sweden, since it had taken a significant amount of time to agree upon the confines of the 1988 boundary due to disputes concerning fishery rights and the status of outlying islands between both parties.

Further complicating matters, the independence of the Baltic states necessitated the negotiation of bilateral maritime boundaries between those states, as well as tripoints where those new boundaries would inevitably intersect with existing boundaries, including the disputed Sweden–USSR boundary. With the Baltic states firmly against recognizing the Sweden–USSR boundary, and Sweden maintaining the boundary’s legitimacy, a workaround emerged that introduced a largely novel concept into the corpus (body) of international maritime law.

Typically, agreements creating or amending maritime boundaries are negotiated between the contracting parties by listing, at minimum, a set of coordinate points that make up the boundary, the method of connecting these points (i.e., a straight line, the arc of a great circle, etc..), and the datum used to list the coordinate points.

The Baltic states eschewed this procedure when negotiating tripoints with Sweden (specifically, the Sweden-Latvia-Lithuania and Sweden-Latvia-Estonia tripoints). Latvia negotiated bilateral agreements with Lithuania and Estonia, respectively, whose final points were not a defined coordinate. Instead, the agreement specified an azimuth along which the bilateral boundary would extend until encountering the maritime boundary of a “third state” (Sweden). By doing this, the Baltic states de facto recognized the existence of Sweden’s previously-defined maritime boundary without addressing the validity of the Sweden–USSR agreement, despite that agreement creating the same maritime boundary upon which the Latvia-Lithuania and Latvia-Estonia boundaries abut. The bilateral agreements and subsequent tripoint agreements between the Baltic states and Sweden do not make mention of the 1988 Sweden–USSR boundaries, with the Sweden-Latvia-Estonia tripoint agreement only listing a singular coordinate point to clarify the exact location of the tripoint. The Sweden-Lithuania-Russia tripoint, however, does note that the tripoint sits upon the historical 1988 Sweden–USSR boundary.

In another novel application of maritime boundary law, the entire maritime border between Sweden and Latvia does not appear to be explicitly acknowledged. Latvia’s bilateral agreements with Estonia and Lithuania use the aforementioned technique of specifying an azimuth which runs until encountering Sweden’s claimed maritime border. These two tripoints effectively serve as the de facto endpoints of the Sweden-Latvia maritime border, as no official agreement has been concluded between the two states, in part to avoid legitimizing the border drawn by the USSR. Even though Latvia is evidently content with the existing border on geographic and economic grounds, it is politically unfeasible for them to recognize a boundary drawn by the USSR, leading to the existing status quo. A bilateral agreement may eventually be concluded, but as of yet no efforts appear to have been made in this regard.

Ultimately, little changed in terms of the geographic location of the fateful 1988 Sweden–USSR boundary. Sweden prevailed in protecting the concessions it had gained during negotiations with the USSR, and maintained the boundary in its existing location. However, the Baltic states also largely prevailed in avoiding legitimizing the 1988 boundary. Bilateral and tripoint agreements exclusively between the Baltic states and Sweden used novel methods of delimitation to avoid acknowledgement of the 1988 border while still accomplishing (at least de facto) the delimitation of the new national boundaries in the area.

The Politics of Border Fences: Animal Edition

August 23, 2023
IMA Research Team

By Zander Bamford Brown

In the past few decades, the world has seen a dramatic increase in the construction of border walls and fences. Often, like in the case of the US-Mexico wall championed by Donald Trump, the barriers are built for political gain. As one analyst puts it: they benefit those in power because “they look great on television, they look strong and impenetrable, and it suggests to the viewer ‘We, the government, are protecting you from something.’” In the vast majority of cases, the ‘something’ the barriers are meant to protect against are people on the far side of the wall. It is widely understood that “nationalism is the central geopolitical fantasy that encourages, justifies and legitimates contemporary border walls.” There are, however, examples of border fences meant to prevent disease carrying animals from crossing between countries rather than humans. Examples of sanitary boundary fences can be observed in Botswana, Bulgaria, and Denmark.

Botswana built fences along two of its borders to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease (FMD) among cattle, a socially and economically important animal for rural Batswana. FMD is a long standing issue in much of southern Africa that weakens cattle, and to stop its spread, Botswana built a fence on the Namibian border in 1996 and on the Zimbabwean border in the early 2000s. In Europe, the construction of sanitary fences was motivated by the 2014 spread of African swine fever (ASF). The disease is often contracted by contact between wild boar and domesticated pigs, and it kills almost every infected pig within 10 days. Bulgaria completed a fence to stop wild boars entering the country from Romania in 2018. Denmark then constructed a fence along the German border in 2019 to keep out wild boars and protect its $1.7 billion pork industry. 

Extensive agriculture along the border between Denmark and Germany. Imagery from Esri’s World Basemap, boundary data from Sovereign Limits.

On the surface these undertakings have “more to do with sanitation than geopolitics” (taken from a BBC description of the Botswana–Zimbabwe fence) and may be seen as operating in a distinct sphere from human-oriented border barriers. Without a doubt the sanitary concern in all three countries was very real, and the spread of disease had the potential to harm livestock and cripple local economies. However, there is a resounding lack of evidence proving the effectiveness of these sorts of fences. In fact, in all cases, it was known that infected animals would easily be able to circumvent the barrier. Why then did the governments choose to implement this unusual, costly, possibly ineffective, and environmentally damaging solution with a high risk of international backlash? The answer, though not clearcut, certainly involves politics. At the very least, these fences may be used to tell citizens that ‘the government is protecting you from disease and financial ruin’. Yet, the strikingly similar contexts under which all of these barriers were built suggests that these fences may be the product of a specific set of political circumstances. 

The sanitary fence on the border between Bulgaria and Romania. Image from Romania Journal.ro.
A sanitary fence on the borders of Botswana. Image from Cornell University.

A central component of this is the interplay between these fences and local perceptions of nationhood. Academics have found that these barriers, like fences meant to block humans, help draw a line between the nation and an ‘other’. An analysis of Danish border regulations for humans and pigs crossing the German border found that the two are woven together to help define the boundary of the nation and emphasize the worth of people and pigs that are viewed as Danish. These conclusions are echoed in a paper about the Botswana–Zimbabwe fence which determined that the barrier, though officially meant to keep out animals, may manifest “the desire to distinguish citizens of Botswana from ‘others’”. The ‘others’ are largely seen to be Zimbabweans, and Batswana officials have even admitted that the fence is unofficially meant to stop people from entering the country outside of official crossing points. In Bulgaria, no research has been done on the socio-political impact of the wild boar fence on the Romanian border. However, Bulgaria had previously built a fence along its border with Turkey to prevent asylum seekers and other migrants from entering the country. Research on this barrier found that it bolsters “nationalist, exclusionary visions of [the] political community.” This fence can be seen as part of a larger project to encourage xenophobia that has been ​​spearheaded by the state’s political elite. This suggests that the Bulgarian government had the understanding and motivation to use the Romanian fence to harden the line between Bulgarian and an ‘other’. While the justification for these fences may be apolitical, the end result is likely similar to human-oriented fences: to harden the conceptual boundaries of the nation.

These fences have only ever manifested under a specific set of political conditions: a threat of disease carried by animals, a sharp rise in anti-immigrant sentiment before the fence was built, and shared membership in an intergovernmental organization (IGO) on both sides of the fence. IGOs are entities involving multiple countries that are meant to work on issues of common interest. With the increase of globalization and the interdependence of nations, they have come to play a significant role in international politics. Furthermore all the IGOs in question encourage the free movement of people over their borders. Denmark, Germany, Bulgaria, and Romania are part of the European Union which considers borders between member states to be internal. Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe are all in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) which promotes free movement of people between member states. It should be noted that despite their membership in the SADC, Botswana had tense relations with Zimbabwe and Namibia during the construction of the respective fences. 

All three countries also saw an uptick in anti-immigrant sentiment just before the construction of the sanitary fence. Denmark was once among “the most progressive in the world on asylum policy and refugee protection.” But the country saw a steep rise in anti-refugee sentiment in the 2010s, a shift clearly marked by the Prime Minister’s declaration that Denmark wanted ‘zero asylum seekers’ the same year the fence was constructed. A similar trend has been taking place in Bulgarian society, though the country was never known as particularly welcoming to refugees. In the years leading up to fence construction, xenophobia grew severe enough that the United Nations Human Rights Office expressed their concern about the situation. Botswana again stands out, this time because the government did not fan the anti-immigrant flames like the Danish and Bulgarian governments. Nevertheless, there has been a clear shift in opinion among Batswana. In the 1980s and early 90s Botswana was known as a “country of immigration”. Yet around the time the fence was constructed on the Namibian border, anti-immigrant sentiment began to rise, and six years later when the first fence posts were placed on the Zimbabwean border, surveys found that Batswana were ‘highly intolerant of outsiders’. 

Despite the official apolitical rationale for these fences, they only appear on relatively open borders where the governments and people have an antagonistic stance towards an ‘other’, whether it be the neighboring government or migrants. An argument could be made that these conditions encourage the construction of animal barriers. They can be seen as an attempt to manage the anti-other sentiment domestically while limiting backlash from an allied neighbor by providing a more neutral justification for its construction. Whether or not this can be proven, it would be extremely limiting to try to separate these fences from the political realities surrounding their construction. As border fences continue to be built and the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened awareness in the general public about the threat of spreading disease, these sorts of fences may become more common and have implications beyond their stated apolitical sanitations projects.

If you’re interested in learning more about other kinds of border fences, our friends at This American Life have a great story about “The Walls,” featuring a detailed interactive map made by us at International Mapping!

The North Sea Continental Shelf Cases

July 7, 2023
IMA Research Team

By Alex Marsh

Six states (the United Kingdom, France, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium) maintain continental shelf claims in the North Sea, a resource-rich and economically important body of water off the coast of western and northern Europe. Control of the continental shelf allows a State the exclusive rights to resource extraction from the seafloor, which is important in hydrocarbon rich regions such as the North Sea.

Figure 1. Established North Sea maritime boundaries.

Since the creation of the concept of a maritime boundary to divide marine natural resources, from fish to oil, delimitation disputes have been relatively common. Each country is incentivized to maximize their total claimed area in an effort to reap the most economic benefit. The North Sea Continental Shelf Cases (Denmark v. Germany & the Netherlands v. Germany) provide an interesting look at how supranational bodies like the International Court of Justice (ICJ) balance precedent, equity, and treaty obligations when resolving inter-state disputes apportioning maritime boundaries.

What was the dispute?

Germany’s continental shelf claims in the North Sea overlapped with those of the Netherlands and Denmark, since Germany measured their coastal baseline in a different manner than other states. The Netherlands and Denmark, located to the west and north of Germany, respectively, have convex coastlines, meaning their coastlines bulge outwards. Germany, on the other hand, has a concave North Sea coastline, meaning it dips inward. If the standard principle of equidistance was used to delimit the state’s continental shelf claims, Germany would end up being “squeezed in” and as a result be left with a smaller area of continental shelf.

Figure 2. Provisional equidistance lines in the North Sea.

With Germany’s preferred delimitation methodology differing so much from those of the Netherlands and Denmark, an area of disputed maritime territory arose. The Netherlands and Denmark wished to delimit the boundary according to the “C-D-E” and “A-B-E” lines in the map below, which are based on equidistance. On the contrary, Germany wished to delimit the boundary according to the “C-D-F” and “A-B-F” lines, arguing that a boundary based on equidistance from their concave coastline would deprive Germany of a continental shelf claim proportional to the size of their North Sea coastline.

Figure 3. Claim lines of Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Also at issue was the fact that, at the time, Germany was not party to the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf, while Denmark and the Netherlands were. The 1958 Convention calls for signatories to use the principle of equidistance when delimiting disputed continental shelf boundaries, which Denmark and the Netherlands wished to apply in this case. Denmark and the Netherlands argued that the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf, which specifically holds that such disputes should be resolved with the principle of equidistance, should be applied in this case. Having arrived at an impasse, Germany appealed to the ICJ to litigate the dispute. All states involved agreed to delimit their boundary according to the ruling of the Court. As such, they did not ask the Court to delimit the boundary, only to rule on the underlying assertion that Germany was bound by the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf.

The Decision

The ICJ first decided that Denmark’s and the Netherland’s originally separate cases against Germany should be joined, since they had a common interest. The Court held that Germany was not bound by the provisions of Article 6 of the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf because Germany was not a signatory to the agreement, and the convention was not yet a part of the “corpus” (body) of international law. Thus, Denmark and the Netherlands had no basis to compel Germany to delimit their disputed boundary via equidistance.

The Court stated that in order for a treaty to become a part of the “corpus” (body) of international law, states must have adhered extensively and almost universally to the principle in question. Furthermore, the Court held that the states in question must, in essence, feel that they are undertaking a legal obligation by adhering to the provisions of the treaty even if they haven’t signed it. The Court felt that, at the time of the case, neither the number of signatories to the 1958 convention (39 states) or the amount of time it was in force (11 years) suggested extensive or near universal adoption.

Lastly, the Court urged all the parties involved to mitigate the impact of “an incidental coastal feature” (Germany’s concave coastline) that could lead to an unjust apportionment of the continental shelf if the principle of equidistance is applied. As a result, Germany was granted most of the additional area they desired, which can be seen by comparing Figure 1 (current North Sea boundaries) to Figure 2 (equidistance). The three States were instructed by the Court to establish an equitable boundary, which was not necessarily based on equidistance but rather by a delimitation methodology agreed on by the states involved.

Impact

The Court ultimately found that equidistance was not, as claimed, a priori (customary) rule in international law. Rather, it was to be considered one delimitation option of many in the creation of equitable maritime boundaries. The Court also rejected Germany’s argument that apportionment should be done in such a way that the size of the continental shelf claim was proportional to a state’s coastline, as this would deny states the right to claim “the natural prolongation of their continental shelf.”

Instead, the Court proposed that delimitation should be done on the basis of “equitable principles,” taking multiple factors into account to ensure that each state was granted a fair portion of the contested claim. Following the Court’s ruling, Germany signed agreements with both Denmark and the Netherlands resolving their continental shelf dispute on January 28, 1971. Consequently, these agreements required the United Kingdom to adjust the endpoints of its continental shelf boundaries with Denmark and the Netherlands, which created a completely new continental shelf boundary with Germany, as the UK’s existing boundaries were based on the endpoints of the previous equidistance-based boundaries between Denmark and the Netherlands.

In all, the ICJ’s ruling in the North Sea Continental Shelf Cases (Federal Republic of Germany v. Netherlands & Federal Republic of Germany v. Denmark) was, and is, a significant ruling in international law because its findings relate to how conventions and agreements enter the corpus of the international legal framework. Equally significant was the Court’s holding that delimitation by equidistance was not necessarily customary in international law. Equidistance delimitation was, and is, still widely used, but the Court’s emphasis of equity over equidistance set a new precedent for boundary negotiations from 1969 onwards.

If you’re interested in learning more about the maritime boundaries delimited following the Court’s decision in North Sea Continental Shelf Cases check out our reports on the maritime boundaries of Germany–Netherlands and Denmark–Germany.

A Timeline of Control Over the Rafah Crossing Point

March 13, 2023
IMA Research Team

By Zander Bamford-Brown

Map showing the land boundary between Egypt and Gaza

The Rafah Crossing Point is the only official crossing for people between Egypt and the Palestinian territory of Gaza. The crossing is a lifeline for Gazans enduring the ongoing blockade by Israel and Egypt, and it is one of only two places where people can officially enter and exit the Gaza Strip. As with many aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this crossing has a complex history. Below we have produced a timeline of the groups that have had direct control over this crossing. It is important to note that this timeline is a macro-scale view of the diplomatic relations surrounding the control of the official crossing. The reality for people, especially Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, is far more intricate. There are other official, unofficial, and illicit levels of control that impact the movement of people through this crossing. For example, while the Rafah border crossing was closed, a system of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt allowed goods and people to cross the border illegally. Conversely, even during the most open times there were significant border closures and individual restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt on Gaza.

Zander wrote the code for this timeline as part of a class on the Geospatial Web at McGill University.

Background on the Gaza Strip and Palestine

The State of Palestine is a de jure state that has received recognition from a majority of United Nations member States. Palestine claims the discontiguous territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Gaza Strip is a densely populated Palestinian exclave between southwestern Israel and Egypt. The area has a population of over 2 million, roughly two thirds of whom are registered refugees. Prior to 1948, the territories of Palestine and Israel were part of the British Mandate of Palestine. The mandate’s boundary with Egypt was based on a 1906 Treaty (see our Egypt Palestine (Gaza) Boundary Brief for a detailed description and analysis of the boundary). In 1949, Egypt took control of Gaza which it occupied until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Israel directly occupied Gaza from 1967 until 2005. In 2005 Israel ‘disengaged’ from Gaza, however, Israel has maintained significant control over Gaza’s borders and is still widely considered by the international community to be an occupying force.

The Rafah Border Crossing in 2012. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim – Flickr/Wikipedia.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is the governing body that is tasked with the ‘municipal’ and internal affairs of Palestine. The PA has also come to take a role in representing Palestine internationally. Hamas is a militant Islamic Palestinian political party and organization. Hamas has been in control of Gaza since it won the PA legislative elections in 2006. In 2007 a violent conflict between Hamas and Fatah, the other large political party in the Palestinian legislature, led to Hamas gaining sole de facto control over Gaza while Fatah and the PA retained control of the West Bank. A handful of states, including Israel and the United States, consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization. Many other states consider Hamas’ military wing to be a terrorist organization.

A UN OCHA map of southwestern Gaza, including the location of the Rafah Crossing.

For more on the international boundary between Egypt and Palestine, check out our Boundary Brief.

Antarctica: Home to Ice, Penguins, and Boundary Disputes

November 29, 2022
IMA Research Team

By Alex Marsh

First discovered in 1840, Antarctica has long been the subject of intrigue in the international community. As the region’s ice continues to recede, increasing access to the area has prompted renewed scrutiny of states’ maritime and territorial claims.

Map from the 1933–1935 Second Byrd Antarctica Expedition, from the Library of Congress.

The Antarctic Treaty System

The Antarctic is unique in that it is the only continent on earth with no native human population, and therefore, no government. As interest in the region intensified in the mid-20th century, states recognized the need for international cooperation. As a result, Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, a collection of agreements and treaties that commits signatories to responsible and cooperative behavior in the region. The basis of the treaty system is a recognition by all states party to the treaty that, “it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” As of 2022, 54 states are party to the Antarctic Treaty System, including all states which maintain territorial claims (or the right to assert a claim) in Antarctica.

The portion of the Antarctic Treaty System that concerns territorial claims and sovereignty is contained in the system’s founding document, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. Despite the general spirit of cooperation in the Antarctic Treaty, Article 4 makes clear that those countries that had previously made territorial claims to Antarctica would not be renouncing them and that the agreement itself was in no way intended to establish any form of official recognition of any one countries claim.

Territorial Claims

A total of seven states have made land claims in Antarctica: France (Adélie Land), Argentina (Argentine Antarctica), Australia (Australian Antarctic Territory), the United Kingdom (British Antarctic Territory), Chile (Chilean Antarctic Territory), Norway (Peter I Island & Queen Maud Land), and New Zealand (Ross Dependency). These territorial claims are only recognized by the aforementioned seven states, and not unanimously. The United Kingdom, Argentina, and Chile have overlapping claims, and thus do not recognize each other’s claims. Land claims made by the seven states are conical in shape, extending outwards from the south pole to the Antarctic coast. The sole exception to this rule is the Norwegian claim, whose southern and northern limits remain undefined. The United States, Russia, Peru, and Uruguay have all reserved their right to make a claim, but as of 2022 have not done so.

The various claims to Antarctica.

Maritime Claims

Maritime claims in the Antarctic are the subject of some dispute. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and Antarctic Treaty System ostensibly clash in this area, with differing interpretations by different parties. Since the 1959 Antarctic Treaty only commits states to pausing “territorial” claims, some parties have argued it does not apply to maritime claims, or that it contradicts the rights of states to file extended continental shelf claims under Article 76 of UNCLOS. Historically, submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) by states with territorial claims in the Antarctic explicitly requested that the CLCS not consider data from Antarctica, so as to avoid antagonizing parties to the Antarctic Treaty System by making new claims.

Australia, however, included their claimed “Australian Antarctic Territory” in their 2004 submission to the CLCS. The CLCS found that Australia’s claim was scientifically valid, delimiting not only the Australian Antarctic Territory’s ECS boundaries, but also claimed limits for a territorial sea and 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone. Argentina and Norway followed suit in 2009 with submissions to the CLCS that included their antarctic claims, and the United Kingdom and Chile have also declared their intent to file similar claims.

A map from Australia’s ECS submission depicting its EEZ and ECS claims to the Australian Antarctic Territory.

If you’re interested in learning more about the boundary weirdness of the extended continental shelf, check out this blog, which includes information on the claims of Antarctica’s polar opposite.

Research Outposts

While they are not a form of territorial claim, there are nonetheless a significant number of research outposts in Antarctica. There are 92 seasonal and full-time research stations in Antarctica, operated by 42 states (all members of the Antarctic Treaty System) and a total crew ranging anywhere between 1,000–4,000 scientists and researchers. The operation of a research station does not constitute a territorial claim under the Antarctic Treaty System, which states, “No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica.” As such, many states operate research outposts in territory claimed by other states with no issues. Scientific cooperation in the Antarctic is another principle of the Antarctic Treaty System, so the construction and operation of these outposts are not typically cause for dispute.

As the global climate continues to change, interest in the Antarctic is only expected to increase. Numerous states that have reserved their right to make territorial claims have begun seriously examining the possibility, while others, such as Australia, test the boundaries of the Antarctic Treaty System’s constraints on sovereignty claims. The Antarctic will continue to be an area of global interest, territorial dispute, and scientific research.

More to Maritime Boundaries: The Extended Continental Shelf

February 4, 2022
IMA Research Team

By: Alex Marsh

Extended continental shelf (ECS) claims have become increasingly important to coastal states due to emerging technology and a changing climate that has opened new possibilities for resource extraction, but what exactly are these far out maritime features?

“Normal” continental shelf claims as defined in Article 76 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) are “the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond [a coastal state’s] territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured…” In other words, the continental shelf is the natural extension of a state’s landmass into the ocean, at a maximum distance of 200 nautical miles (M) from a state’s claimed baselines.

But there are many areas where the geography of the continental shelf extends beyond 200 M, and in these places, coastal states can submit an extended continental shelf claim for an area up to 350 nautical miles from their baselines if it can be proven that this area is still a natural extension of their land territory.

Continental shelf claims are valuable because of the rights they grant coastal states over the claimed area. Articles 77 and 81 of UNCLOS establish that a state entitled to an area of continental shelf retains the exclusive right to explore and exploit the natural resources located on or in the shelf. These rights extend to mineral/non-living resources as well as seabed organisms. Coastal states are not, however, granted sovereignty over the sea or airspace above a continental shelf entitlement.

If a state believes it is entitled to an area of continental shelf beyond 200 M, it will submit data and information supporting its claim to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), a UN body composed of scientific experts responsible for adjudicating extended continental shelf claims. After consideration of the submission, the CLCS will then issue a binding recommendation on the scientific validity of the state’s claim.

There are many scenarios where more than one state will lay claim to the same area of extended continental shelf. When this occurs, the states will submit their supporting data to the CLCS, who will then provide a recommendation on the validity of each state’s continental shelf claim. The CLCS does not, however, set the boundary between the two states but may only provide a recommendation on whether each state’s claim is scientifically valid. It is then up to the various claimants to negotiate an ECS boundary.

Coastal states have 10 years from the date they ratified UNCLOS to submit extended continental shelf claims. For example, Canada ratified UNCLOS in 2003, and needed to submit any extended continental shelf claims to the CLCS by 2013. A state may then later amend or supplement submissions. Canada deposited its initial ECS claims for the Atlantic Ocean in 2013 and added an area of Arctic Ocean ECS in 2019. States that are not signatories to UNCLOS, such as the United States, are unable to submit extended continental shelf claims to the CLCS, but they do still have ECS claims. The United States is currently working on its extended continental shelf claim.

Extended continental shelf claims involving only one state are typically non-controversial if they are deemed scientifically valid. For example, the area of high sea known as the “Peanut Hole” in the Sea of Okhotsk was declared part of the Russian continental shelf by the CLCS in 2014 without much fanfare.

Map from Russia’s non-controversial ECS claim in the “Peanut Hole”/Sea of Okhotsk, submitted to the CLCS in 2013.

Notable extended continental shelf claims in recent years have primarily involved areas of overlapping claims. Overlapping claims naturally receive more attention and can take far longer to resolve. Denmark (Faroe Islands), Norway (including Jan Mayen), and Iceland recently ratified agreements to delimit their extended continental shelf entitlements in an area of the Norwegian Sea known as the “Banana Hole.” All three states submitted their supporting information to the CLCS with the understanding that once it was confirmed that their claims were scientifically valid, they would establish boundaries according to a preliminary trilateral agreement negotiated in 2006 and made official in 2019 after the decision of the CLCS.

In three separate bilateral agreements in 2019, Denmark (on behalf of the Faroe Islands), Iceland, and Norway agreed to the delimitation of their ECS boundaries in the “banana hole.” This map is from Norway’s publication of their agreement with Denmark.

Another example of overlapping claims can be observed in the marine Ontong Java Plateau, located in the southern Pacific Ocean. Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands all have overlapping continental shelf claims in the area. Since all three small island states believe they are entitled to a portion of the area, they decided to pool their time and resources to make a joint submission to the CLCS to establish the outer limits of their overlapping claim rather than submit competing claims for portions of the plateau. Once the CLCS establishes the outer limits of the “claimable” area, the area will belong to all three states jointly until they choose to begin trilateral negotiations to delimit boundaries.

Map from the joint submission by the Federated States of Micronesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to the CLCS in 2009.

Perhaps the most prominent area of overlapping ECS claim are those in the Arctic Ocean. As climate change makes the region more accessible to economic activity, arctic coastal states are acting with increased urgency to ensure their access to large deposits of natural resources underneath the melting icecap. Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia have all made overlapping claims in the region, and the United States is working towards publishing its ECS claim in the disputed waters.

Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia have all made overlapping ECS claims in the Arctic Ocean. The United States will likely also lay claim to the disputed waters in the near future.

The extended continental shelf is very much the next frontier of maritime boundary delimitation as technology improves to allow for coastal states to exploit the distant continental shelf resources, climate change makes portions of the ECS more accessible, and the global reliance on fossil fuels leads to interest in extracting hydrocarbon resources from novel locations.

The “Quadripoint” Area

June 20, 2021
IMA Research Team

By Zander Bamford-Brown

The Kazungula Bridge, as if out of a fairytale, crosses the Zambezi River in a place that does not exist, at least not according to most maps. It is not in some remote mountainous area nor is it a unimportant bridge; it is the sole border crossing between Botswana and Zambia. Their border, nestled between Namibia and Zimbabwe on the Zambezi River, is the shortest in the world. It is so short that it can’t be depicted on smaller scale maps. 

An oblique perspective of the completed Kazungula Bridge taken from a plane leaving a Namibian airport. Image from Wikipedia.

Instead of depicting the Botswana–Zambia border, maps will instead show a single point where the countries of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe allegedly meet. This has led to the border being called a ‘quadripoint area,’ because it is currently the closest thing on earth to a quadripoint international boundary (where four countries meet). Though many maps, and the term quadripoint area, negate the presence of the Botswana–Zambia border, it does in fact exist.

A map of the Quadripoint Area. The bridge, which was under construction at the time of this imagery, has now been completed.

The 135 meters (443 feet) of river, just enough to fit the Kazungula Bridge, creates an economic block, disrupting trade between Zimbabwe and Namibia. Any travel between the two nations must first go through another country. Conversely, the Kazungula Bridge allows free trade between Zambia and Botswana. This has been a matter of contention for Zimbabwe. Before the construction of the bridge, most Botswana–Zambia trade was moved through Zimbabwe and was taxed by the government. The construction of the bridge, which was completed during the COVID-19 pandemic and opened in May 2021, once both nations reopened their border, means that Zimbabwe will lose that revenue. However, since the boundary is not a true quadripoint, Zimbabwe does not have the power to stop two nations from building a bridge over their shared border. 

For more information on the five international boundaries that meet at the “Quadripoint,” check out our Boundaries pages:

Botswana–Namibia, Botswana–Zambia, Botswana–Zimbabwe, Namibia–Zambia, and Zambia–Zimbabwe.

A Brief History of Point Roberts

May 28, 2021
IMA Research Team

And a Few Other Canada–United States Boundary Oddities

By Marissa Wood & Harrison Boyle

This blog was created using ArcGIS StoryMaps, and for the best viewing experience, we recommend visiting this page.

Understanding the South China Sea

January 26, 2021
IMA Research Team

A Very Brief Overview to an Incredibly Complex Region

By Zander Bamford-Brown

The global economic and geopolitical importance of the South China Sea (SCS) dispute far outpaces that of any other boundary dispute we have discussed to date. Half of all the fishing vessels in the world are located in the waters of the South China Sea. There are also large reserves of oil and natural gas and “some of the world’s most important shipping lanes;” these routes carry more than a fifth of all goods (by value) shipped each year. 

Seven states border the South China Sea: China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam. I list Taiwan as a separate state despite its disputed sovereignty because they have a unique claim in the South China Sea and independently occupy some of the disputed features. Each of the seven littoral countries have individual, overlapping, and disputed claim lines to South China Sea maritime territory.

There are five main groups of disputed islands in the South China Sea which are labeled on the map below. The largest (and most contested) are the Spratly Islands, which are a collection of hundreds of islets and reefs extending from near the coast of the Philippines and Borneo Island towards Vietnam. Then come the Paracel Islands which are located to the north between Vietnam and China, and far to their southeast is the completely submerged Macclesfield Bank, and yet further southeast is Scarborough Shoal. To the north, roughly equidistant from Hong Kong and Taiwan are the Pratas Islands. 

Map depicting the various claim lines of all of the states surrounding the South China Sea

Creating Islands

A 2016 Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled on a case concerning maritime entitlements of the disputed features in the South China Sea brought before it by the Philippines against China. This case set a precedent for how the South China Sea dispute should be examined under international law. The Tribunal determined that none of the features in the South China Sea could naturally sustain human habitation or economic life on their own and therefore could not generate a 200 nautical mile (M) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claim. This decision by the PCA should limit the claims from all high-tide features to a 12 M territorial sea. China refused to participate in the case and does not accept the ruling. Furthermore, all of the littoral states, except the Philippines, continue to claim that the features they occupy are in fact entitled to a 200 M EEZ. The Tribunal did not rule on international maritime boundaries.

While the Tribunal attempted to classify the features they reviewed based on their composition before they were impacted by humans, many features have been drastically altered to now be able to sustain human and economic life. China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan have transformed the features they occupy to include structures such as runways, buildings, deep harbors, military installations, and tourist attractions. Take for example the transformation of Fiery Cross Reef by China which can be seen below. From 2014 to 2020, China dredged and built up the reef which was formerly almost entirely submerged. Besides the runway and deep harbor, the reef now houses defense and administration buildings and energy production facilities. 

However, not all transformation projects are solely for military uses. Southwest Cay (Đảo Song Tử Tây) is occupied by Vietnam and though it has military structures the leafy island also has facilities for young children (visible on Google Maps photos). Malaysia in turn developed Swallow Reef (Pulau Layang-Layang) for the general public as a scuba diving destination fully equipped with an airport and a resort.

A Note on the Environmental Impact

Making the features, especially submerged reefs, habitable usually involves dredging, breaking up coral and covering coral reefs with sand and concrete. This can completely wipe out any ecosystem that existed on and around the feature and, by changing the seabed, can impact many other marine habitats. However, there are also environmental impacts caused by this dispute which are quotidian and less visible. 

The tactics used by the littoral states to solidify their claims include fishing, hydrocarbon extraction, and militarization. These three methods all have insidious impacts on the waters of the South China Sea. Overfishing is a serious problem in the disputed waters of the sea, fish stocks are now only between 5% and 30% of what they were in 1950. Since most of the fish is consumed locally, continued overfishing will not only have severe economic but also nutritional impacts.

Not only are military bases and vessels huge sources of greenhouse gasses but their runoff can pollute waters as well. Finally, hydrocarbon extraction can have localized impacts through the destructive process of drilling and, potentially, leaks and spills. While the impacts of this dispute may reverberate around the globe, we must also remember that it is having a local impact and that the people who live on its shores are the ones who will bear the brunt of the environmental impact.  

The Claims of Each State

China claims more of the South China Sea than any other nation. The “nine-dash line” claim, as it is called, is a set of nine line segments that, when connected, cover 90% of the marine area. Their claim overlaps with the claims of every other littoral state and includes the entirety of all five feature groups described above. They occupy the Paracel Islands and many features in the Spratly Islands.

Taiwan, which is claimed by China, has historically claimed all of China, and shares China’s claim to the waters of the South China Sea. The Taiwanese refer to the claim as the “U-shaped line.” Historically, Taiwan claimed sovereignty of all of the waters within the U-shaped line (as China does). However, they have recently adjusted the phrasing of their claim to instead be limited to the individual features within the SCS and the territorial waters generated by these features as would be compliant with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This may have been done with the intention of making their claim more valid in international courts and palatable to the international community. Taiwan occupies the Pratas Islands and Itu Aba Island in the Spratly Island Group.

Vietnam claims the Paracel Islands, Macclesfield Bank, and much of the Spratly Island Group.

They occupy many features in the Spratly Islands. Tensions between China and Vietnam over the disputed waters are often high, and China fishes and sends oil exploration teams in waters claimed by Vietnam, occasionally even sending ships very near the Vietnamese coast in a display of force. While the Vietnamese government has confronted China and even threatened to take them to an international court over the dispute, Vietnam shares close economic ties to China and will likely not escalate the dispute further.

The Philippines occupies nine features in the Spratly Islands, but they claim most of the island group. They also claim the unoccupied Scarborough Shoal which is within their 200 M EEZ and therefore should fall under their uncontested sovereignty according to the rules of UNCLOS. To complicate international relations further, they also claim the Malaysian state of Sabah

Malaysia, in turn, also claims a number of features within the Spratly Island Group some of which they occupy. One of the reefs they occupy is Swallow Reef (Pulau Layang-Layang), a renowned scuba diving spot

Brunei is enclaved by Malaysian territory and waters. The two nations have come to an agreement on their maritime boundaries and have agreed to a partnership on transboundary oil field explorations. All of the waters claimed by Brunei are also claimed by China and Taiwan.

Indonesia is unique in the fact that it does not claim any of the actual features in the South China Sea, only a section of the sea north of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. Part of this area falls within China’s nine-dash line claim, and Chinese law enforcement and fishing vessels have repeatedly entered the disputed area.

This post should only serve as an introduction to the incredibly complicated geopolitical, economic, and environmental picture of the South China Sea. Additional blogs could be written about the strategies for mapping such a disputed maritime region, how navies (including those of foreign nations) and fishing boats are being used in sovereignty claims, and provide greater details on the environmental catastrophe of island building. To end on an uplifting note, despite all of the tensions in the South China Sea there is a good deal of cooperation among the littoral states to manage the waters. Hopefully this cooperation can eventually be extended into a peaceful resolution of this dispute. 

For more information on the South China Sea dispute, check out our Sovereignty Analysis.

Enclaves and Exclaves

January 15, 2021
IMA Research Team

A Walk Through the World’s Weirdest Borders
By Safania Romas

For the full ArcGIS StoryMaps experience, check out this page.

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