The world’s oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth. They have been and still are an integral part of human history, our food chain and environment. Yet, most geopolitical discussions nowadays are focused on land based territorial disputes. This article hence, will offer an insight on the geopolitics of the oceans, particularly, how and which powers rule various parts of it. It will also touch upon how China’s claim of the archipelagos in South China Sea has dominated the media discussions, as compared to the less brought up fact that vast areas of oceans are controlled by United States, France and United Kingdom, among others.
In terms of simple geography, and according to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), oceans are a key element for the existence of life on Earth. 97% of all the water and 99% of habitable space on this planet, is in the oceans. Over 50% of the world’s population live within 100km of the coast, while 1/10th of the planet’s population live within 10km of the coast. However when we ‘dig a little deeper’, we also find innumerable parts of the oceans highly rich in fossil fuels and minerals. Hence, making it even more significant in the world of geopolitics.
So how do states get to these resources? The answer is provided by United Nations Convention on the Law Of the Sea (UNCLOS), signed on 10th December, 1982. It is a legal framework provided by UN and signed by most member states to govern all uses of world’s oceans. UNCLOS allowed countries to establish what is known as Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) that provided them the sole sovereign right to explore and exploit natural resources of the oceans up to 200 nautical miles from their respective coastal baselines. This was a major addition as compared to the previous 12 nautical mile radius that they were authorized with.
As to this day, there are 167 parties and 157 signatories to UNCLOS. Once a state becomes a party to the convention, it is under obligation to bring its maritime claims and national laws into conformity with it. Although the United States recognizes the UNCLOS, it has however yet to ratify the UNCLOS. The most interesting clause of UNCLOS, and perhaps the most critical one too, is that small islands and archipelagos are granted the same EEZs, no matter how small they are in size. Due to this, imperialist power like United States and former colonial powers such as United Kingdom and France got awarded vast amount of EEZs as part of their administrative regions in the oceans. These three, together with Australia, New Zealand and Russia are the six countries with the largest exclusive economic zones. Their total EEZ amounts to 54 million sq. km, of which almost three-quarters (39 million sq. km) is separate from their home territory. The highest among them is of United States with over 12 million sq. km, followed by France with just over 11 million sq. km. The lowest among the six is of New Zealand with almost 6.7 million sq. km.
Now in contrast, when we look at China’s undisputed EEZ, it is just 900,000 sq. km. Even after adding the disputed EEZ in the South China Sea, it is still unlikely to be more than 3 million sq. km in total. Yet it is China and its attempt to take over barely 2 million sq. km worth of archipelagos that has dominated the media discussions, while ‘colossal resource grab by former colonial powers that UNCLOS facilitated has almost entirely escaped the international attention’.
Just to highlight the geopolitical significance of these small pieces of lands in the oceans, we look at the main British overseas territory in the Pacific Ocean, the Pitcairn Islands. With a total land area of 47 sq. km and an indigenous population of less than 70 people, the Pitcairn Islands enjoy a total of 836,000 sq. km exclusive economic zone. That is around the same size as China’s undisputed EEZ.
In the southern Indian Ocean, France’s Tromelin Island consists of one large sand bank that is only 1.7km in length and less than a kilometre wide. However, it has an EEZ of 270,000 sq. km in total.
Apart from having the advantage to exploit resources within these vast exclusive economic zones, powerful states like the US and UK also get to take advantage of their overseas territories’ strategic locations. For example, the British overseas territory of Diego Garcia in the centre of Indian Ocean provides unique strategic location for a US naval base there, and is being further developed by the US military as a regional hub.
There are multiple examples one can find in the oceans which accentuates the geopolitical significance of the archipelagos. However, the attention and one sided nature of media covering the South China Sea territorial disputes is surely very strange. I would hence like to conclude with a quote by Professor Peter Nolan of University of Cambridge, “It is as though the Western media have succeeded in focusing the minds of their population on a mouse, when a might elephant stands behind them unnoticed.”