Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 13:18 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 13:18 | SYDNEY

Law of the sea: Can readers help?


Sam Roggeveen


6 October 2010 11:37

Reader Julian has emailed me with a request for help that I am unqualified to meet, so I'm publishing his email to see if any readers can chime in.

Julian read this article about China's maritime ambitions, and wonders about China's claim to the South China Sea as a 'core interest' (which, in Beijing's lexicon, puts it on a par with Taiwan and Tibet). Julian's queries are as follows:

Does any other country successfully claim an expanse of blue ocean so distant from its land mass' Are there any such precedents, or is China pushing totally unrecognized definitions here'

Let's start with some easy examples, where a body of water is nearly enclosed by a territory (a 'lake' if you will). Doesn't the US virtually control the Gulf of Mexico' If there's an oil rig more than 200km from the US coast, is that in international waters' If so, who, if anyone, agrees on the oilfield's boundaries and the terms of the lease'

Taking the analogy further, isn't Brazil claiming ownership of its 'pre-salt' oil fields a long way off the coast (certainly more than 200km, see map) because quite simply no-one else is there to contradict its claim' Isn't this also true for Australia's Northwest Shelf' Or are these properties clearly within the respective territories of these nations'

I realize this is a complicated issue, with China submitting all manner of documentation to show historical inhabitation of the Spratly and Paracel Islands, around which surrounding ocean would thereby also be to China. But what I am asking about here is real 'blue water': can/does any country 'own' tracts of ocean very far from land' In absurd extremis, can the United States 'claim' the North Atlantic Ocean, or Australia the Southern Ocean, or India the Indian Ocean, simply because no-one practically is able to counter them'

The implication is obvious and dangerous: if China succeeds in winning one million square miles of blue ocean far from its shores, plus the shipping lanes to half the world's traffic, what's to stop a 'sea grab' by the US and Russia in the Arctic (which already appears to be ongoing), or Canada in the Northwest Passage, or the various signatories of the Antarctic Treaty to formally slice up the place with hard borders'

Or maybe this kind of thing has in fact already happened, and China is merely following the bad example of other powers' Are multilateral institutions (especially the UN) sturdy enough to deal with over-reaching claims by powerful countries'

Photo by Flickr user pericomart, used under a Creative Commons license.