Cover Image
close this bookConflict over Natural Resources in South-East Asia and the Pacific (UNU, 1990, 256 pages)
close this folder6. Conflict over natural resources in the Pacific
View the document(introductory text...)
View the document6.1 The region and its resources
View the document6.2 Conflicts over marine space
View the document6.3 Conflicts over the marine environment
View the document6.4 Conflicting maritime claims
View the document6.5 Conflicts over pelagic resources
View the document6.6 Conflict over seabed mineral resources
View the document6.7 Conclusions
View the documentReferences

6.4 Conflicting maritime claims

In an area as large as the Pacific, with so many islands dotted across its surface and each extending its maritime jurisdiction by 200 nmi, conflicting maritime claims have inevitably arisen. There is no overt conflict at this time. The disputed claims and the principles on which they are based are well known; yet no substantive attempts have been made to resolve the contested issues.

The island states involved in the boundary demarcation problems are American Samoa, Western Samoa, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, and New Zealand. Details of the various claims and the legal and other principles on which they are based have been meticulously examined and documented (Broder and Van Dyke, 1982). Tonga's territorial claims were first promulgated in 1887, when 'all the islands, rocks, reefs, foreshores, and waters lying between 150 and 23030' South latitude, and between 1770 and 1730 West longitude' (Broder and Van Dyke, 1982: 9) were designated Tongan territory. These have come to be known as Tonga's historic claims. They were reaffirmed in 1968 when oil exploration began in this general area. Fiji and Tonga would have a substantial overlap of their respective 200-nmi EEZs if Tonga were to declare the limits of its historical claim as the base from which its EEZ is to be measured.

Recently Tonga has laid claim to the Minerva Reefs (or Teleki Tonga and Teleki Tokelau), two volcanic formations a few miles apart situated some 180 miles south-west of the nearest Tongan island. A 200-nmi Tongan EEZ around the Minerva Reefs would overlap with New Zealand's EEZ around the Kermadec Islands (a New Zealand dependency). In this case, the pivotal issue would be whether New Zealand would accept Teleki Tonga and Teleki Tokelau as base points.

In 1977 Fiji enacted a Marine Spaces Act (No. 18 of 1977), thus declaring itself to be an archipelagic state. Moreover, in 1965 Fiji had laid claim to a sand cay of 61/2 acres called Ceva-i-Ra, which is located 300 miles south-west of Kadavu, the nearest island within the Fijian archipelago. Because Ceva-i-Ra is naturally above water at high tide, it appears that it would be entitled to a territorial sea, contiguous zone, and EEZ. A Fijian EEZ for Ceva-i-Ra would overlap with the EEZ of either New Caledonia or Vanuatu, depending on which succeeds in establishing sovereignty over Matthew and Hunter islands (Broder and Van Dyke, 1982: 39-40). Both Matthew and Hunter islands would generate EEZs of 53,800 sq. nmi (Broder and Van Dyke, 1982: 40). Western Samoa passed the Economic Zone Act of 1977, which set an EEZ of 200 nmi from the baselines described in its Territorial Seas Act of 1971 (Broder and Van Dyke, 1982: 52). Western Samoa's claimed 200-nmi EEZ overlaps with that of Tonga and of American Samoa. Although they are not currently issues for the states concerned, such questions will have to be faced squarely at some point in the future and may provide a focal point for mischief-making by external powers coveting the natural wealth that may be in the disputed area.

In the context of extended maritime jurisdiction, there is a domestic issue that should not be neglected. Traditional land-owning units (clans) in the Pacific often own islands or clusters of islands. In some parts of Fiji, for example, these land-owning units are already demanding fishing fees from local non-indigenous fishermen. Might demands for other kinds of payment, such as for a percentage of the government revenue derived from taxing foreign fishermen, be made in the future by such owners or their representatives? Since these smaller islands or groups of islands are generally the rural, less developed sectors of these underdeveloped island states, might native customary owners demand a percentage of revenues from seabed mining when and if such activity were to begin, particularly if the mining sites were located in areas close to these islands? Speculative as this is (and even conceding its unlikelihood), it is a variation on the conflicting maritime claims theme to which scant attention has been paid. It opens up a domestic political dimension in extended jurisdiction sensitivities, particularly if there should be large amounts of revenue forthcoming from its oil or mineral development.

So far, conflicting maritime claims in the Pacific have two principal characteristics: they are latent, and they deal with what might be called 'demarcation issues', such as establishment of baselines and ownership of islands. It remains to be seen how these issues will be resolved and even when they are settled, other conflicts will no doubt arise, particularly in the wake of seabed mineral exploitation. Reliance on some glamorous slogan like 'tine Pacific way' as a means of solving problems may be illusory when the interests of outside powers are threatened and large amounts of money are at stake. In a generation or two, what now appears to be a comfortable consensus may turn out to be paper-thin and brittle indeed.