The territorial conflict in the South China Sea has shown the world how tensions still arise over unsettled border disputes. Whilst conflicts between some of the world’s powerful nations receive lots of attention, they are far from the only territorial conflicts out there. Here are some frightening, surprising and bizarre territorial disputes you’ve probably missed.

Australia & East Timor

The world’s interest in the conflict grew this year when thousands of protesters gathered outside the Australian embassy in Dili, the capital of East Timor. The main source of tensions have been the oil and natural gas fields in the sea outside Timor, which hold an estimated worth of above $40 billion. Today, the revenues from the fields are split equally between the nations. However, East Timor claims that in accordance to international border practice of the median line, the border should be drawn halfway between the nations, which would place most of the resources within its own territory.

Several political matters further increase the tensions: First, there is an inherent imbalance of power between Australia (12th largest economy in the world) and the newly independent East Timor (176th). Secondly, the current border deal was agreed upon in 2006 following the secession of East Timor from Indonesia. As part of the deal, the young nation is forbidden from raising the topic again for 50 years, something that prevents East Timor from consolidating its borders and thereby maintaining its sovereignty. As if the tensions weren’t already enough, allegations that the Australian Government, together with corporate involvement, bugged East Timor’s Prime Minister’s office have sparked outrage in East Timor.

With East Timor preparing to take the matter to the International Court of Justice, while the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejects formal talks on the matter, it may be quite a while before the tension from this border disputes dies down…

Spain & Portugal

Although the two nations actually have several territorial disputes, the village of Olivenza (Olivença in Portuguese) located in the middle of the long border between Spain and Portugal, is probably the most defining one. Olivenza is governed as an independent municipality of Spain, but Portugal has never given up claims to the village which they lost in 1801 during a brief Spanish military offensive. At the treaty of Vienna, Spain agreed to hand the town and its surrounding area to Portugal. However, two centuries later, this still has not happened.

Although Portugal has never accepted Olivenza as Spanish, many Portuguese cartographers have simply refrained from drawing a border in the region. On the other side, Spain has not capitalized on the fact that an alleged majority of the inhabitants prefer to remain Spanish, perhaps because this would set an unwanted precedent for Spain’s claim to Gibraltar (where the local population prefer to remain British).

Although the dispute rarely causes major problems between the two countries, it matters in diplomatic circles. Furthermore, it has occasionally yielded practical consequences, e.g. when Portugal, fearing to passively acknowledge the border, refused to build a bridge until the European Union agreed to co-finance it. A handover of Olivenza still seems far away, but then again, what else could be expected from a conflict that has already been going for two centuries?

Territorial conflicts often have diplomatic spill-over effects. Spain’s claim to Gibraltar (above) has complicated diplomacy in the case of Olivenza. Picture: Scott Wylie, Flickr

Colombia & Nicaragua

The disputed ownership over the archipelago of San Andrés stretches back almost two centuries, but took a new turn when Nicaragua brought the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2001. Nicaragua claimed that the 70+ year old treaty, putting the island and nearby ocean under Colombian control, was invalid. After 11 years the court finally delivered the verdict: although the islands were to remain Colombian, Nicaragua gained substantial maritime territory. The court ruling left Colombia shocked and outraged, and the country even withdrew from the pact of Bogotá, an agreement between American nations to settle territorial disputes through the ICJ.

Tensions further increased as plans to build a “new Panama Canal” through Nicaragua have been progressing. This second maritime shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would greatly increase traffic in the disputed region, and the wealth of the one controlling it. Lately however, the financing of the canal has been threatened following the fall of the Chinese stock exchange.

Cases may be settled in court, but the question is whether the same applies for conflicts. Except for increased military presence around the new ICJ-established border, both countries have subsequently filed new cases with the ICJ, hoping to further regain/expand their territory. With Colombia remaining outraged, this border dispute may be far from completely settled.

Canada & Denmark

Territorial disputes between NATO countries are a rarity, but then again, this Danish-Canadian conflict does not resemble any others. Hans Island is located in the strait between Canada and Greenland (under Danish rule since 1815). Without population or apparent natural resources, neither country has placed much value on the island. That is, until the other one claimed it as their own.

Since 1984, this light-hearted conflict has given rise to an odd tradition. When Canadian military forces visit the island, they replace the Danish flag with its Canadian counterpart and leave a bottle of Canadian whiskey. When Danish troops pass the island by, they too replace the flag, and substitute the whiskey with Danish brandy. “Welcome to …”-signs have frequently been raised by both nations in what has been termed the whiskey war.

But is this dispute, unsolved for more than three decades, really only a laughing matter? It’s been reported that the surprise visit from the Canadian defence minister sparked an angry reaction from the Danish Government over this “unannounced visit on Danish territory”. Furthermore, with powerful nations such as Russia, China and the U.S. intensifying their claim to the arctic, territorial claims in the region may prove valuable in a future resource race.

Despite lack of population or resources, Hans Island has still been sought after by both Canada and Denmark. Picture: Toubletap – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The above territorial disputes are not unique in their kind. The list of current conflicts is long and not getting shorter with time. Furthermore, as has previously reported, problems with territorial jurisdiction is not necessarily confined to earth either. Plunging into the topic begs the question of whether it’s simply in our nature; as long as there have been borders, there have been contested borders.

David Wästlund

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