GEOG 128
Geography of International Affairs

Territoriality of the Ocean and Territorial Disputes

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Watch the following video on East Asia’s maritime disputes (The Economist):

Click for a transcript of " Videographic: East Asia's Maritime Disputes Video" video.


The standoff between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea brings the two sides closer to armed conflict than at any time since the second world war. After the war the islands known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China were under American administration until they were 100 back to Japan in 1972. Japan says they have long been its territory and admits no dispute claiming also that China only started expressing an interest when it began to seem that oil and gas might lie under the sea. But China says they have always been part of China just what it says about Taiwan which also claims the Diaoyus. This is the most active and dangerous dispute, but not the only one in which Japan is embroiled. It was furious in 2012 when South Korea's president Lee Myung-bak visited the island South Koreans call Dokdo and Japan claims as Takeshima. It is a mirror Japan's dispute with China. South Korea is in control.

Then there are what Japan calls its northern territories. Occupied by the Soviet Union in the dying days of the war, these islands the southernmost four of the curel chain are still administered by Russia. Because of the dispute Japan and Russia have yet to sign a peace treaty ending the second world war. Maritime claims in southeast Asia even more complex and competition is made more intense by speculation that the South China Sea might be hugely rich in oil and gas. China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all say they have sovereignty over the Paracel Islands controlled by China since it evicted the Vietnamese from them in 1974. To the south the same three countries also claimed the Spratly archipelago, but there and elsewhere in the sea the Philippines also has a substantial claim. Malaysia also claims some islands even tiny Brunei has an interest.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS and its tribunal, is one form for tackling these disputes. But UNCLOS cannot rule over territorial disputes, just over the territorial waters and exclusive economic zone the owners a habitable islands are entitled to. And the claims of China and Taiwan may have nothing to do with UNCLOS. They point to a map published in the 1940s, showing a big U-shaped, 9-dashed line around the edge of the sea. That they say, is historically all China's. This has no basis in international law, and China often fails to clarify whether its claims are based on the 9-dashed line or claims to islands, rocks, and shoals. That lack of clarity alarms not just its neighbors and rival claimants, but the United States which says it has its own national interest in freedom navigation in a sea through which passes a huge chunk of global trade.

Similar to the examples in the text, the examples in the short clip illustrate how “territorial disputes over maritime boundaries are an intersection of material practices aimed at exploitation of natural resources and representations of the dispute that reference longstanding nationalist beliefs.” (Flint, 2012, p. 156)

How might these territorial disputes be tied to a country’s geopolitical code? How are discourses of national interest, identity and patriotism engaged to stake their claim on maritime territories?

Here is another short video clip on “Ocean Grabbing”:

Click for a transcript of "Stop Ocean Grabbing - Our Oceans are Not for Sale!" video.


Africa is a wealthy continent in terms of natural resources. However, it is rarely the African countries or the local communities who benefit from the wealth. Multinational companies are increasingly seizing control and ownership of African resources and the oceans are no exception. This is called ocean grabbing. Ocean grabbing means that the control of fish stocks that historically been of benefit to the local fishing communities are suddenly taken over by multinational companies and other power factors. For instance, through privatization of the oceans. As a result, small scale fishers lose their access and rights to resources and pawn, which their livelihood has traditionally depended on without ever being heard or included in the decision making process. Ocean grabbing has severe environmental and social consequences. In the pursuit of profit, overfishing reduces the biodiversity of the oceans. Industrial fisheries cause large amounts of bi-catch that end up as trash instead of food, and the money ends up in the hands of few while the local communities suffer the consequences: pollution, unemployment, poverty, and food insecurity. Ocean grabbing creates an unjust redistribution of the ocean resources with few winners and many losers. But fighting against ocean grabbing can pay off.

Take South Africa for example. When the government issued the privatization of the fishery resources, 45,000 small scale fishers lost access to the sea overnight while the large scale industry took over a majority of the countries fishery resources. But the local fishers joined forces and in the fight for their rights to the ocean's resources and through a difficult struggle over several years they succeeded in getting the government to listen to their rightful claims.

Worldwide, 800 million people depend on a small scale fishery, but ocean grabbing is gathering speed and threatening small scale fisheries and communities all over the world. With inspiration from South Africa, small scale fisheries are joining forces in an international network in order to fight against the global privatization push, so that the sale of our commons can be stopped before it's too late. Our oceans are not for sale. Let's stem together and support the fishers people's fight for a fair distribution of the ocean's resources.

This clip focuses less on territorial disputes made between countries and more on the privatization of the ocean which results in the exclusion of small scale fishermen and communities that rely on these smaller scale operations for their lives and livelihoods. The short clip highlights a multiple actors including fishermen and their communities, the national government, as well as multinational corporations. Although they focus on how national policy is used to privatize Ocean resources at the national scale, they also point out how this is a global trend.