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International Relations

Maritime Disputes

  • 15 Apr 2024
  • 22 min read

What are Maritime Disputes?

  • Maritime disputes are conflicts or disagreements between countries or entities over territory, resources, or rights in maritime areas such as oceans, seas, or coastal regions.
  • These disputes can arise due to competing claims over maritime boundaries, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), fishing rights, oil and gas exploration, navigation routes, or the use of natural resources.
  • Maritime disputes often involve complex legal, historical, political, and economic factors and may lead to tensions, diplomatic negotiations, legal proceedings, or even military confrontations if not resolved peacefully.

How Many Oceans are there in the World?

  • The Earth's vast ocean, covering 71% of its surface, is divided into distinct regions for various reasons like history, culture, geography, and science.
  • Originally, there were four oceans: Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, and Arctic Ocean, but now many countries recognize the Southern (Antarctic) Ocean as the fifth.
  • The Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans are the most well-known.
  • The Southern Ocean extends from Antarctica to the 60-degree South latitude.

What are the Maritime Disputes of India with Different Nations?

  • India and Bangladesh:
    • Bangladesh pursued arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) regarding its maritime boundary with India, starting on 8 October , 2009.
    • The hearings concluded on 18 December, 2013, in The Hague, focusing on various issues like the location of land boundary terminus, delimitation of territorial sea, EEZs, and continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles.
    • The verdict, delivered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague marked a significant milestone.
    • The UN Tribunal awarded Bangladesh 19,467 sq km of the disputed 25,602 sq km area in the Bay of Bengal.
    • This delineated the maritime boundary line between India and Bangladesh across territorial sea, EEZ, and continental shelf within and beyond 200 nm.
    • Following the ruling, Bangladesh's maritime boundary has been extended by 118,813 sq km, including a 12 nm territorial sea and an EEZ extending up to 200 nm into the high seas.
    • Additionally, the ruling recognised Bangladesh's sovereign rights over undersea resources in the continental shelf, extending as far as 345 nm from the Chittagong coast.
  • India and Sri Lanka:
    • The Indian Ocean's dynamics carry significant economic and political implications, particularly for South Asia, where it has historically been a battleground for power struggles.
    • Given its strategic location, any instability in the Indian Ocean poses a threat to India's security.
    • India and Sri Lanka share maritime boundaries, and despite having signed maritime agreements in 1974 and 1976, maritime issues persist.
    • One major issue revolves around the status of Kachchativu, a small uninhabited island in the Palk Bay area.
    • While India acknowledges Sri Lankan sovereignty over the island, certain arrangements were made to allow Indian fishermen restricted access for fishing purposes.
    • The 1974 and 1976 agreements do not explicitly prohibit Indian fishermen from fishing beyond the Indian maritime zone, though Sri Lanka's sovereign rights over its part of the zone concerning fishing are undisputed.
    • This issue has become highly sensitive as it directly impacts the livelihoods of a large number of fishermen.
    • Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project: Another maritime challenge hindering progress is the delay in implementing the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project. This project aims to construct a navigable ship channel by dredging and excavating through Adam's Bridge, sections of Palk Bay, and Palk Strait to accommodate vessels of various draughts.
      • This project was initiated by the Government of India in 2004 which was revived in 2014.
    • In 2010, issues relating to maritime security and piracy were proposed to be included in the negotiations of SAARC. For both India and Sri Lanka, the surrounding maritime environment continues to contribute to national interest.
    • Given the slow progress of maritime cooperation among the SAARC, the maritime issues between India and Sri Lanka must be resolved by the nations on a bilateral basis.
    • Both countries must come up with a mechanism for resolving such issues focusing on areas of maritime security, piracy, naval cooperation.
  • India and China:
    • China has expanded its presence in the Indian Ocean region which has heightened India’s concerns.
    • Chinese argue that their activity in the region is commercially motivated with the intention to protect its interest and people abroad.
    • China has deployed a huge number of naval forces to support counter-piracy operations in the western Indian Ocean region and invests and sells arms to India’s neighbors.
    • The main aim of China is to take hold of economic and investment projects with Indian Ocean nations to secure ports where its military forces could set up naval facilities.
    • India had increased diplomatic, security, and economic ties with Indian Ocean Region maritime states as a means to strengthen India’s economy and for regional growth, and simultaneously diminish the growing appeal of China.
    • India has spent billions to build up its navy, military bases, modernized fleets and equipment, and the expansion of security ties.
    • It has sent vessels to visit the South China Sea and called for freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes as part of its Act East Policy.

What are the Other Major Maritime Disputes of the World?

  • Major Disputes in the South China Sea:
    • Territorial disputes in the South China Sea involve both island and maritime claims among several sovereign states within the region, namely Brunei, the People's Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
    • There are disputes concerning both the Spratly and the Paracel islands, as well as maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin.
    • There is a further dispute in the waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands.
    • The interests of different nations include acquiring fishing areas around the two archipelagos. The potential exploitation of suspected crude oil and natural gas under the waters of various parts of the South China Sea.
    • The strategic control of important shipping lanes.
    • Shangri-La Dialogue serves as the "Track One" exchange forum on the security issues surrounding the Asia-Pacific region including Territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
    • Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific is the "Track Two" dialogue on security issues of Asia-Pacific.
  • Israel and Lebanon:
    • Lebanon and Israel have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948 and both countries claim some 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea.
    • There have been decades-old tensions between Israel and Lebanon’s competing claims over offshore gas fields in the region, which contains part of the Karish gas field and Qana, a prospective gas field.
      • The Karish gas field, being developed by Israel, came under threat from Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful political and militant group backed by Iran.
    • The two countries declared overlapping boundaries in 2011 in the Mediterranean Sea.
    • Since both countries have been technically at war, the United Nations was asked to mediate.
      • The issue gained significance after Israel discovered two gas fields off its coast a decade ago, which can help turn it into an energy exporter.
  • Greece and Turkey:
    • Greece and Turkey have had a maritime dispute in the Aegean Sea since 1973.
    • The Aegean Sea maritime dispute comprises three main issues: the breadth of the territorial sea, the presence of islands and the delimitation of the continental shelves between the two States.
    • Since 1936, Greece has claimed a 6 nautical-mile (nm) territorial sea. Turkey also claims a 6-nm territorial sea in the Aegean. However, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) allows States to extend their territorial sea up to 12 nm from the shore.
    • Greece has adopted the Convention, but Turkey has not, holding different approaches in different regions.
    • The dispute involves territorial claims, airspace claims, the use of the continental shelf, and tourism.
    • The dispute has been exacerbated by a lack of diplomacy.
    • Treaty of Lausanne:
      • Under the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, Eastern Anatolia became part of modern-day Turkey, in exchange for Turkey's relinquishing Ottoman-era claims to the oil-rich Arab lands.
  • Russia and Norway:
    • The conflict first arose in the 1970s over fishing rights, but it has since expanded to encompass potential oil and gas resources. Both the Russian and Norwegian sectors are believed to hold significant petroleum reserves.
    • This dispute is over their maritime limits in the Barent's Sea, which is important for shipping, oil, and fisheries.
  • European Union and Norway:
    • This dispute is over fishing rights. Norway claims that the EU has independently issued fishing licenses and set catch quotas for its member states in the waters surrounding Svalbard, exceeding the quota agreed upon between Norway and the EU without prior consultation. This action is seen as a violation of Norway's rights to manage resources within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
  • UK and Spain:
    • The Gibraltar dispute is between the UK and Spain, and Spain's residents voted to reject any shared sovereignty arrangement.
    • The UK claims a three-mile limit in the territorial waters around Gibraltar, while Spain claims maritime rights to all areas except inside the ports on Gibraltar. Spain also claims the airfield is occupied illegally by the UK.
    • Spain contests the UK's sovereignty over the entire Gibraltarian territory. Spain points to the region's historic ties with Spain, as Gibraltar was part of the Kingdom of Castile, and later Spain, from 1492 until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.
    • The Treaty of Utrecht was a peace agreement signed in 1713 between Britain and France.
    • It was part of a series of treaties that ended the War of the Spanish Succession, which lasted from 1701–1714.
      • The war involved several European countries, including France, Great Britain, the Dutch Republic, and Austria.
      • France agreed to compensate the Hudson's Bay Company for losses.
      • France recognized the British claim to the Hudson Bay and ceded mainland Acadia to Britain.
      • Britain acquired Gibraltar and Minorca, valuable trading concessions in Spanish America, and the island of St. Kitt's in the West Indies.
  • Canada and Denmark:
    • Canada and Denmark have had a maritime dispute over Hans Island since 1973, when the two countries attempted to establish a border through the Nares Strait.
    • The island is uninhabited and has no mineral resources.
    • The dispute, also known as the "Whiskey War" or the "Liquor Wars", was a bloodless war that never amounted to direct conflict or violence.
  • UK and Argentina:
    • Argentina asserts that the Falkland Islands were unlawfully taken from it in 1833 and was invaded by British forces in 1982, leading to the Falklands War.
    • Despite the cessation of hostilities in 1982, the dispute remained unresolved, prompting calls for renewed bilateral dialogue.
    • Argentina is pursuing diplomatic channels through India, advocating for negotiations with the United Kingdom to address the territorial dispute concerning the Islas Malvinas, also known as the Falkland Islands.
    • This initiative coincides with the 40th anniversary of the conflict between the UK and Argentina, which culminated in the restoration of British governance over the archipelago.

What are the Global Maritime Dispute Resolution Mechanism?

  • The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1982 is an international agreement that establishes the legal framework for marine and maritime activities.
  • It is also known as Law of the Sea. It divides marine areas into five main zones namely, Internal Waters, Territorial Sea, Contiguous Zone, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the High Seas.
  • It is the only international convention which stipulates a framework for state jurisdiction in maritime spaces. It provides a different legal status to different maritime zones.
  • It provides the backbone for offshore governance by coastal states and those navigating the oceans.
  • It not only zones coastal states’ offshore areas but also provides specific guidance for states’ rights and responsibilities in the five concentric zones.

What is India’s Initiative for Maritime Disputes?

  • Coastal Security of India is Governed by a Three-tiered Structure:
    • The Indian Navy patrols the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL),
    • The Indian Coast Guard (ICG) is mandated to do patrolling and surveillance up to 200 nautical miles (i.e., Exclusive Economic Zone).
    • The State Coastal/Marine Police (SCP/SMP) performs boat patrolling in shallow coastal areas.
      • The SCP have jurisdiction up to 12 nautical miles from the coast; and the ICG and the Indian Navy have jurisdiction over the entire maritime zone (up to 200 nautical miles), including the territorial waters (with the SMP).
  • Security and Growth for All (SAGAR) Policy:
    • India’s SAGAR policy is an integrated regional framework, unveiled by the Indian Prime Minister during a visit to Mauritius in March 2015. The pillars of SAGAR are:
      • India’s role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region (IOR).
      • India would continue to enhance the maritime security capacities and economic resilience of friendly countries in IOR.
      • A more integrated and cooperative focus on the future of the IOR, which would enhance the prospects for the sustainable development of all countries in the region.
      • The primary responsibility for peace, stability and prosperity in the IOR would be on those “who live in this region”.
  • Abiding by the International Law:
    • India has time and again reiterated its commitment to respecting the rights of all nations as per the UNCLOS 1982.
  • Data Sharing:
    • Sharing data on threats to commercial shipping is an important component of enhancing maritime security.
    • In this context, India established an International Fusion Centre (IFC) for the Indian Ocean region in Gurugram in 2018.
      • IFC is jointly administered by the Indian Navy and ICG.
      • IFC serves the objective of generating Maritime Domain Awareness on safety and security issues.
  • Anti-Piracy Operations:
    • Faced with the increased threat from piracy originating off the coast of Somalia since 2007 to shipping in the western Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy participated robustly as part of a UNSC mandated 60-country Contact Group on Piracy off the coast of Somalia.
  • Other Related Government Policy:


Maritime disputes are complex and multifaceted conflicts that arise between nations over territory, resources, and rights in maritime areas. These disputes, which can have significant geopolitical, economic, and environmental implications, require careful navigation and resolution mechanisms to ensure stability and cooperation among nations. From the South China Sea to the waters surrounding India and Sri Lanka, these disputes demand attention and diplomatic efforts to promote peace, security, and sustainable development. With the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) providing a legal framework for maritime activities and dispute resolution, coupled with initiatives such as India's Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) policy and anti-piracy operations, there are avenues for addressing maritime disputes and promoting cooperation among nations.

UPSC Civil Services Examination, Previous Year Questions (PYQs)


Q. With reference to the ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership’, consider the following statements: (2016)

  1. It is an agreement among all the Pacific Rim countries except China and Russia.
  2. It is a strategic alliance for the purpose of maritime security only.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

(a) 1 only
(b) 2 only
(c) Both 1 and 2
(d) Neither 1 nor 2

Ans: (d)

Q. With reference to ‘Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC)’, consider the following statements: (2015)

  1. It was established very recently in response to incidents of piracy and accidents of oil spills.
  2. It is an alliance meant for maritime security only.

Which of the statements given above is/ are correct?

(a) 1 only
(b) 2 only
(c) Both 1 and 2
(d) Neither 1 nor 2

Ans: (d)


Q. With respect to the South China sea, maritime territorial disputes and rising tension affirm the need for safeguarding maritime security to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region. In this context, discuss the bilateral issues between India and China. (2014)

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