5 Maritime Disputes in 2018
From Azov to South China
There is no dull day at sea! The Ukraine-Russia dispute over the Strait of Kerch and access to the Sea of Azov is reaching new lows following clashes between the two countries’ navies. Ukraine is seeking to impose martial law in response, setting the stage for further conflict in the near future.
This, however, is not the only ongoing dispute over maritime territory in the world.
Sea of Azov – Russia/Ukraine
This week, the Russian Navy seized three vessels belonging to the Ukrainian navy that were trying to cross under the Russian bridge over the Strait of Kerch.
According to official reports, a cargo ship was used to block the passage of two artillery boats and one tug boat belonging to Ukrainian Navy.
The three vessels were then taken by Russian forces, with 23 sailors taken captive and six wounded in an exchange of fire.
As a result, the Ukrainian political leadership has proposed the implementation of martial law for a period of up to 60 days.
This is only the latest event in a series of mounting tensions between the two countries since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014 in a move seen as illegal by the international community.
The Strait of Kerch is of strategic geographic relevance, as it is the only maritime access point to the Sea of Azov, on the shores of which stand many important industrial areas of Ukraine.
In March this year, Ukraine detained a Russian fishing boat in the area.
Since then, the Russian military has started to carry out regular inspections on boats crossing the strait to the Ukrainian ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol.
According to a 2003 treaty between Moscow and Kiev, the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov are shared territorial waters.
Following the seizure of this boat, Nato has asked both parties to de-escalate tensions. Traffic through the strait has since resumed, but the conflict is far from over.
Caspian Sea – Kazakhstan/Iran/Azerbaijan/Turkmenistan/Russia
About 1,000km east of the Sea of Azov stands another strategically important “sea.”
The Caspian Sea borders Kazakhstan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Russia, and while a landmark agreement reached in August 2018 seems to have allayed many of the concerns of these five nations, a final resolution does not appear imminent.
For 22 years, the Caspian sea has been at the center of a dispute anchored in the legal definition of the massive body of water.
Different laws apply to the various possible legal definitions (sea, lake etc), and these would subsequently have an impact on the division of underwater resources among the coastal nations.
In August, the nations agreed that the Caspian is neither a sea nor a lake, creating a new special status for it that divides the water surface as if it was a sea, but establishes special provisions for the sea bed and its resources.
Notably, the new agreement established that no country but the five Caspian states may have a military presence in the area, guaranteeing that the US will never have a military foothold in the region.
Another issue has to do with oil and gas pipelines, which can now be established without the approval of states where the pipeline does not cross. This opens up the door for the development of a Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan pipeline that would allow it to reach European markets, something Russia and Iran have long opposed.
Despite the agreement, many issues of contention remain over the Caspian territory and the estimated 48 billion barrels of oil and 8.7 trillion cubic meters of natural gas it holds.
South China Sea – China/Vietnam/The Philippines/Taiwan/Indonesia/Brunei/Malaysia
Perhaps the most well-known maritime dispute in recent times is that of the South China Sea.
A group of small archipelagos comprising sparse, mostly unpopulated islands is disputed by China, Vietnam, The Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia. The seven Asian nations all have claims to different parts of the region, but China has by far the most ambitious claim, stating that the whole of the South China Sea falls under its jurisdiction.
The US Energy Information Administration states the region may contain undiscovered oil reserves of around 11 billion barrels. Other sources indicate this figure could be much higher.
The sea’s fishing resources as well as control of important trade routes are also at stake.
There is also a military element to the dispute.
While China has repeatedly stated that it has no expansionist intentions in the region, it has been occupying some of the islands with military infrastructure, as well as building new artificial islands.
In May, it successfully landed a long-range H-6K bomber on one of the disputed islands, which should allow it to “reach all territory.”
There has been little progress in the way of negotiations. China dismisses the jurisdiction of international tribunals on this matter and favors bilateral conflict resolution with its neighbors.
In August 2018, during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, a draft document was concluded that outlines the base for further negotiations on the establishment of a code of conduct (COC) that would oversee territorial matters in the region. China has since stated that it would take up to three years to reach consensus on the COC.
While the US declines involvement in territorial disputes between foreign nations, it has deployed its navy to the region and sailed several times close to the Chinese “occupied” islands to guarantee that shipping routes are not disturbed. This continues to create friction between the US and China.
North Sea – UK/European Union
If strategic military and trade relevance as well as oil and gas deposits are normally the driving forces behind maritime disputes, another ocean resource, fish, can also be the cause of international tension. This is the case between the UK and its EU neighbors for decades.
It is surprising that the fishing industry, which accounts for less than 0.5% of the UK’s GDP, can have such a strong impact in the country’s foreign relations, however, fishing communities are particularly vocal about their rights and have managed to place considerable social pressure on politicians throughout the Brexit campaign.
The issue of control of maritime territories and fishing stock is thought to have had a considerable impact on the Brexit referendum.
British fishermen accuse the EU of imposing over-restrictive fishing quotas on them while allowing French, Spanish, and Portuguese fishing fleets to fish in the Channel, which holds one of the continent’s biggest fishing reserves.
This has led to political as well as physical conflict between the two sides. The September 2018 “Scallop wars” took place in French waters, after British fishermen were barred from fishing for scallops in the Baie de Seine due to measures aimed at restoring scallop stocks. The decision ignited protests from both sides. Eventually, French authorities conceded to compensation for British fishermen affected by the temporary ban.
During the Brexit campaign, fishermen in England were promised an extended exclusive fishing zone; bigger offshore quotas for UK fleets, and restrictions on foreign vessels fishing in British waters. It seems, however, that the current agreement that was accepted by the 27 member states of the EU, and which will now face a vote in the British parliament, will not include any mention of an agreement on fishing.
It is expected that this sector will only be discussed at a later stage during the implementation of Brexit. However, if member-states like France make access to British waters a condition for the UK’s access to the European single market, it might be very hard for British politicians to sustain those promises, and the conflict over the fishing stock of the channel will continue.
Eastern Mediterranean Sea — Turkey/Egypt/Cyprus/Lebanon/Israel
Finally we come to the Eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea. This haven of warm waters and paradisal beaches is also host to considerable international tension involving Turkey, Egypt, Cyprus, Lebanon, and Israel.
While this area has been under dispute for a long time, the recent discovery of large quantities of natural gas has exacerbated tensions. Cyprus was the first to find natural gas. Almost immediately, Turkey moved in to block exploration of those resources. A drilling rig owned by Italian oil and gas company ENI was twice blocked from reaching its drilling site.
The reason for this is that Turkey is protecting the rights of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot region of Northern Cyprus. In fact, Turkey is the only country in the world to recognize Northern Cypriot Sovereignty, and it refuses to allow Cyprus to explore until deals for joint exploration of the resources between Greek and Turkish Cypriots are made.
The situation remains tense to this day.
A bit further north, Lebanon and Israel are also stuck in a maritime dispute. The two countries had never settled on a conclusive maritime border, and when Israel found the Tamar and Leviathan natural gas fields, which, at 26 trillion cubic feet of reserves could power Israel for decades to come, tensions rose.
Lebanon claims that part of the Leviathan field stands in its own territorial waters and that has led to heated exchanges between the leadership of both countries. Both navies have also been deployed to the region. In the meantime, all this tension is blocking the development of potentially lucrative deals, including an agreement signed between Israel and Egypt for the sale of Israeli gas.
Turkish officials have also sparked fury in Cairo as they questioned a 2013 border agreement signed between Egypt and Cyprus establishing the conditions for oil and gas exploration in the area. It is unlikely that the conflict will find a peaceful resolution soon, to the disappointment of European leaders wishing to create a natural gas hub in the Mediterranean that could free the EU bloc from its dependence on Russian natural gas.