It seems odd for revolutions to start over something as trivial as geography. However, when protests in Crimea began in February 2014, protesters argued that Crimea had greater historical ties to Moscow than Kiev, and therefore Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine was a historical anomaly caused by power politics between the United States and Russia. Since the end of the Cold War, it has been fashionable to argue that history has ended, and that the borders of the world are settled in a de facto, if not always de jure manner. However, when Crimea’s status came in to doubt, it joined a list of disputed territories far larger than many realize. Far from being aberrations, disputed territories are common today, symbols of the contemporary world order’s inability to mediate disputes and bring about order in a chaotic world.
In 1956, a group of 40 men landed in a remote group of islands in the South Pacific and deemed them the Free Territory of Freedomland. Led by Admiral Tomás Cloma, the territory claimed independence for the next ten years, until Admiral Cloma sold the rights to Freedomland to the Philippines in 1970 for the modern equivalent of US$1.52.
The Phillipines now claims the Spratly Islands (which Freedomland was a part of) in part based on the acquisition of Freedomland. The People’s Republic of China bases a claim in part thanks to a 1958 North Vietnamese diplomatic note, and the Republic of China (also known as Taiwan) bases its claim to the region in part on its successful 1956 invasion of one of the islands of Freedomland. Malaysia and Vietnam also have historical claims in the region. The Spratly Islands lie in the center of the South China Sea, a region contested by the emerging nations of East Asia. The story of Freedomland illustrates how complex the many claims to the region are, yet the territorial dispute remains unresolved.
The unresolved nature of the territorial dispute speaks less to the complexity of the issue, and more to international malaise in regard to territorial disputes. One of the foremost attempts in international law in this regard, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, has been weakly en- forced, and many countries (notably, the United States) have not signed it at all. Attempts to adjudicate these disputes are usually brought before the International Court of Justice, if at all—many disputes, like the dispute of the Dokdo/Takeshima islands or the Pinnacle/Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have not been brought for international adjudication because the risk of losing such a dispute is too great, and to even acknowledge that such an issue could be adjudicated would weaken a state’s case. The International Court of Justice typically adjudicates these disputes by determining which claimant has had a presence on the islands longer. A dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia was settled in Malaysia’s favor on the basis of a scientific survey of sea turtles constituting “presence”.
The International Court of Justice’s involvement in these cases is the exception, rather than the norm, because states are reluctant to risk losing territory on the basis of contentious international law. The interest of states comes first in these disputes, with international law taking a backseat in many of these negotiations. In the thawing Arctic, exploratory teams of international law experts are not on scene to determine the proper distribution of rights in the region. Rather, militarized ships from the US, Canada, and Russia patrol the region, laying a claim based on force rather than legal theory.
In the South China Sea, nations are scrambling to fortify positions in the region, regardless of their significance. In several instances, pieces of land that are usually submerged have been occupied by an Asian army and fortified, in order to secure a claim to land which is usually not, in fact, land.
Perhaps the most striking example of militarization in the face of international inattention lies in the Western Sahara. In this region, some of the remote and sparsely populated land in the world, territorial claims are built around a fortified line of permanence unheard of since the time of Hadrian. The territory is split by a sand berm, fortified in places. On one side of the berm lies territory claimed by Morocco, on the other side lies territory administered by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, a rebel group that has laid claim to a significant amount of territory in the
Western Sahara for years. The Sahrawi Republic is run out of an Algerian refugee camp, while the Moroccan claim is run out of Rabat.
Both sides possess military forces that seek to enforce the stalemate, with the aid of one of the world’s largest minefields. Where codified and clear borders end, fortifications and armies emerge.
In the contemporary world, nations from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the Kingdom of Norway rhetorically allude to international norms, institutions, and principles. The principles of a new world order, built on international law and the United Nations, are rhetorically appealing, and are presented as sacrosanct guiding principles for statecraft and conduct in the 21st century.
In practice, however, nations do not adhere to these principles. Territorial disputes mark where the principles of the international order end, and cold-cut analysis of state interest begins. While states do at times make reference to international principles in regards to territorial disputes, if these principles end up going against the interest of the state, these references mysteriously disappear.
At first glance, it seems that the boundaries of the world are relatively set, but upon closer examination the status of substantial parts of the world is undetermined. Similarly, states frequently claim to respect international norms. However, upon closer inspection of territorial issues, it becomes clear that claims to respect of international norms are largely rhetorical.