The Murky Business Of Territorial Waters

The thought of international waters conjures images of shady dealings, pirate radio and lawless seas, but the claimed areas of water bordering these oceans have questionable origins, too. Territorial waters appear straight-forward on the surface, but peering into their depths often leads to a sea of murkiness surrounding politics, natural resources and importantly, trade. In a world where natural resources are becoming ever-more depleted and in conjunction with the departure of Britain from the European Union, these waters will become even more important.

Defining Territorial Waters

In international law, territorial waters are defined as the areas of water directly adjacent to a state, and are subsequently subject to the jurisdiction of that state. This means that the adjacent state has sovereignty to the water, the seabed below, and the airspace above. Other states may only enter this body of water for “innocent passage”, with foreign aircraft or submarines not permitted to pass through. Due to this, fishing rights are not extended to the trawlers and fishermen of foreign nations, although the Common Fisheries Policy of the E.U. is an exception to this.

While this is perfectly reasonable regarding a nation’s immediate borders, the laws can and have been bent to meet a nation’s needs in a variety of ways. For example, Chile and Peru claim their territorial waters reach as far as their continental shelf: an area of submerged land still connected to the continent with relatively shallow waters, which lies directly before the much deeper ocean floor- much like the steps leading to a deeper swimming pool. This gives these nations an additional 370 kilometers of offshore territory, and more importantly, access and ownership to natural resources such as oil and gas.

Similarly, Russia has made claims that an ocean ridge on its northern coast stretches into the Arctic circle, allowing them to lay claim to the huge reserves of oil and gas estimated at $2 billion, which for millennia had been protected from mankind due to the difficulty in its extraction due to harsh weather conditions in the Arctic. With global warming melting these obstacles to harvesting, Russia has staked its claim to the Arctic seafloor, in the form of a Russian flag being planted by a miniature submarine on the North Pole seabed. This region of the world is very susceptible to ecological harm and any type of oil extraction poses as a serious threat to the climate and wildlife of the region. The indigenous Saami tribe of the area are threatened from the potential claim, with their culture and livelihoods at stake.

Colonial Claims

France’s territorial waters are the largest of any nation with nearly 10,760,500 km2 under the 5th republic’s governance. This initially seems odd, given the size of France (643,801 km2), but taking a look at the country’s colonial history gives an explanation. The embers of a once great French Empire lay scattered across the globe in the form of small inhabited islands, archipelagos and atolls stretching from la France métropolitaine to Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean, further still to Antarctica and across to the Caribbean islands of the French West Indies.  While many of these once subjugated islands were granted independence, many still belong to France, leading to a situation where France’s longest land border lies not with Belgium or Germany, but rather between French Guiana and Brazil, 7,216 kilometers from Paris. These satellite dominions give France a global presence in terms of military activity and natural resource exploitation. The huge swathes of ocean associated with these areas also gives great opportunity to the French fishing industry.

Chinese Island Construction

China has come under fire recently due to its decision to engage in “island-building” in the south China sea in order to bolster its territorial claims. China has built on sandbanks and small uninhabited islands in the region, transforming them from scraps of land into military installations, strengthening its presence in the area. While China isn’t the first to engage in such practices in the region, the rate at which it is aggressively pursuing this course is a cause of concern for many parties. A third of the word’s trade flows through the South China Sea. With China having the potential to effectively control this trade route, many states fear that sanctions may be imposed, and restricted movements enforced by the Chinese government. The actions would cripple industry and business within their respective economies.

How A Small Island Can Play A Huge Role

While the points above highlight the role these island outcrops can play, one could still be forgiven for questioning how important a small island may be on a world-wide scale. One can look toward the small island chain of French Polynesia. The micro-state only possesses a population of 270,000. With the main industries consisting of agriculture and handicrafts, it’s clear that it is far from an industrial powerhouse. However, the importance of French Polynesia is best highlighted in terms of its waters, whose combined area exceeds 4.7 million kilometers2. For context, this is comparable to the entire landmass of the European union.

This ability for small plots of land to hold huge strategic importance can be highlighted a lot closer to home. The basalt outcrop of Rockall has long been a source of contention between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. The uninhabited rock lies 370 kilometers north of the Donegal coast and 300 kilometers west of the Scottish island of St. Kilda. Officially incorporated into the United Kingdom through an act of Westminster in 1972, following its annexation by the British navy in 1955, Britain’s claim to the island is still yet to be recognized by the Irish government. Presently the fishing rights around Rockall belong to Scotland, and with Britain’s departure from the European Union, the tension surrounding the Rock is bound to escalate further. This is best highlighted in the Scottish Secretary for Economy’s threat to deploy naval vessels to the area to enforce Scotland’s exclusive fishing rights to the waters surrounding Rockall. The fishing industry is vital to County Donegal and many of its fishermen risk being wiped out if they are denied access to fishing in Rockall’s waters, highlighting how large an influence a now-extinct volcanic island can possess.

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