eli5 – How are official borders defined in the water for countries neighbouring a sea?

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I saw an article about China and its claims over the entire South China Sea and ensuing aggression despite some legal ruling that it is international waters. What organization gets to rule on these matters for the world?

You don’t really see the boundaries for example on Google Maps of the borders of the country in the water that they might consider their own territory. They exist anyway and the respective countries have regular patrols of what they understand to be their waters. I think the term, ‘economic zone’, was used also in the article to define the boundary in the water. What does that mean? Thank you in advance for your time.

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6 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

Territorial waters and what a country is allowed to claim or do or prohibit in their territorial waters are defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was adopted in the early 1980s – https://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf

That being said, the UN is not the most effective at enforcing international agreements, even agreements its own body accepts. This is how you end up in situations where a country like China becomes very aggressive and ends up laying claim to things it has no right to claim, or operating ships in sanctioned North Korean waters, without any real repercussions.

edit: Territorial waters are typically 12 nautical miles out from the country’s coastline. This is like your backyard – people gotta get permission to enter in many cases. There’s the contiguous zone which is another 12 nautical miles out from *that* (so up to 24 nm from the coast). And then the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends up to 200 nm from the coastline, and that’s where the country has the sole right to do things like fish, explore and develop natural resource deposits, build infrastructure, etc. They can allow other countries or companies from other countries to develop out there, but the other country can’t just go and start mining for oil without that permission within this zone.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Territorial waters and what a country is allowed to claim or do or prohibit in their territorial waters are defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was adopted in the early 1980s – https://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf

That being said, the UN is not the most effective at enforcing international agreements, even agreements its own body accepts. This is how you end up in situations where a country like China becomes very aggressive and ends up laying claim to things it has no right to claim, or operating ships in sanctioned North Korean waters, without any real repercussions.

edit: Territorial waters are typically 12 nautical miles out from the country’s coastline. This is like your backyard – people gotta get permission to enter in many cases. There’s the contiguous zone which is another 12 nautical miles out from *that* (so up to 24 nm from the coast). And then the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends up to 200 nm from the coastline, and that’s where the country has the sole right to do things like fish, explore and develop natural resource deposits, build infrastructure, etc. They can allow other countries or companies from other countries to develop out there, but the other country can’t just go and start mining for oil without that permission within this zone.

Anonymous 0 Comments

There is a broad general consensus embodied in the UNCLOS (UN convention on the law of the seas)

Generally speaking 12 miles from the coast is the “territorial waters” of the country and 200 miles from the coast is the “exclusive economic zone”. So ships not allowed to enter within the 12 mile zone without violating borders but allowed to pass within the 200 mile zone as long as they do not undertake economic activity (fishing, oil exploration etc)

For narrow bodies of water, the broad rule is to “split the difference” although the countries involved can negotiate their own agreements.

For countries that share a coast, the line is normally drawn about 90 degrees from the coast line ie “your side and my side”.

The most problematic in some areas are outlying islands. What counts as an island (and therefore has the 12 mile and 200 mile EEZ) can be disputed. Who does the island belong to when it is uninhabited? etc etc.

Anonymous 0 Comments

There is a broad general consensus embodied in the UNCLOS (UN convention on the law of the seas)

Generally speaking 12 miles from the coast is the “territorial waters” of the country and 200 miles from the coast is the “exclusive economic zone”. So ships not allowed to enter within the 12 mile zone without violating borders but allowed to pass within the 200 mile zone as long as they do not undertake economic activity (fishing, oil exploration etc)

For narrow bodies of water, the broad rule is to “split the difference” although the countries involved can negotiate their own agreements.

For countries that share a coast, the line is normally drawn about 90 degrees from the coast line ie “your side and my side”.

The most problematic in some areas are outlying islands. What counts as an island (and therefore has the 12 mile and 200 mile EEZ) can be disputed. Who does the island belong to when it is uninhabited? etc etc.

Anonymous 0 Comments

All boarders are set by treaties between the two countries, even in the ocean. There are however some recommended guidelines for how to do this. The UNCLOS treaty say that as a starting point for negotiations the boarders should be in the middle between the closest natural land controlled by the two countries.

The issues in the South China Sea is that there is a few islands which are naturally too small to be inhabited. They even sometimes submerge. So the countries do not agree on who owns them or if they are even to be considered land.

Anonymous 0 Comments

All boarders are set by treaties between the two countries, even in the ocean. There are however some recommended guidelines for how to do this. The UNCLOS treaty say that as a starting point for negotiations the boarders should be in the middle between the closest natural land controlled by the two countries.

The issues in the South China Sea is that there is a few islands which are naturally too small to be inhabited. They even sometimes submerge. So the countries do not agree on who owns them or if they are even to be considered land.