Juan L Suárez-de Vivero
University of Seville
Department of Human Geography

The extended continental shelf delimitation process which began over a decade ago is ushering in a new world geopolitical configuration. This is due to reasons such as: i) it introduces changes that affect the territorial basis of a significant number of states and their economic potential, at the same time that it opens up a new area of territorial dispute due to the changes in borders both between states, and between states and international spaces; ii) it alters the balance between national and international jurisdictions appreciably; iii) it accentuates the complexity of the state jurisdiction structure.

The importance of this process is reflected by some of the data in this summary: it includes (to date) 24 million square kilometres (twice the area of the continent of antarctica) and could expand by a further 4 million square kilometres. It involves an important part of the international community: 55 states have submitted the full report and another 40, preliminary information.

Claims submitted to date include numerous cases of overlaps (thus far 44 cases that affect 35 different countries and a surface area of almost 2.5 million square kilometres). As a result of this, in the coming years a number of border disputes will have to be resolved, either through agreements between the states involved or by submission to international arbitration, and this will mean that the jurisdictional map of the oceans will not be finalised for a long period of time.

It is interesting to see how this jurisdictional expansion process affects the general balance between national and international jurisdictions in global terms. This diagram shows the whole planet. the red outer strip represents the surface area of land and sea under state jurisdiction (63.09%); this means that 37% is not under state control. With respect to the seas and the oceans, about 48% has been nationalised. this first wave of continental shelf expansion is equal to nearly 4.5% of the surface area of the earth and 6.5% of the surface area of marine basins.

Forthcoming declarations on the expansion of the continental shelf will lead to the current surface area of the area being  reduced, although the high seas, which are overlying the water column, remain unalterable. One first reading of this in geopolitical terms shows that the area subject to state jurisdiction increases at the same time that what is generically referred to as the “global commons” is reduced in size. It remains to be seen what the implications of this will be for future marine governance.

A regional view of the geographical consequences of delimiting the continental margin shows that distribution is very irregular, although this map is not complete as some major reports are still outstanding, including Canada and the United States. For the time being, over 50% of the extended continental shelf is concentrated in four regions in the southern hemisphere. This is logical in geographical terms, given that the southern hemisphere is mostly covered by sea, although this is an area that is practically unpopulated.

In socio-economic terms, an anomaly has been recorded that still might become more acute: although smaller in number and in population, the developed countries gain access to a larger expansion of continental margin than the developing countries with 58% of the surface area despite the latter possessing a greater area of exclusive economic zone.

From a regional perspective, the polar ice-caps acquire new geopolitical value and become an important part of the jurisdictional expansion process. In the Arctic region jurisdictional rights over the continental margin combine with the effect of global warming to allow access to areas that had up till now been protected. In the Antarctic region the pressure on territory that is controlled by non-local states -Norway, Australia, the United Kingdom- becomes patent.  

Seven countries that are signatories of the Antarctic treaty have territorial claims to the continent: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Norway, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Five of these are among the top-ten countries by size of their extended continental shelf.

A great majority of the international community have some interest in the delimitation of the outer edge of the continental margin. This becomes evident if we look at the map of initiatives taken by states, with the submission of either full or provisional reports. The map also reflects aspects relating to the distribution of the continental margin’s geological features, which are circumstances of an economic nature, in the case of Africa, for example.

To date a total of ninety-five states have prepared reports to determine the limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 miles. 65 submissions have been presented to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf by 55 states (those shown in pink on the slide) along with 44 preliminary reports presented by 40 countries (those in green, the majority of which are in Africa).

If we restrict ourselves to full reports (65), the total surface area claimed is over 26 million square kilometres, although this includes almost 2.5 million km2 of overlapping claims in 44 cases affecting 35 states.
These data are an indicator of the potential for conflict as, in general terms, at some undefined time the borders will be defined accurately, although bilateral or multilateral agreements are also possible in shared areas.
Excluding the overlapping areas, the surface area claimed to date can be estimated at less than 24 million km2.  This means that all states as a whole have extended their rights of jurisdiction by almost 16% of the entire exclusive economic zone in the world. Logically, as the preliminary reports are finalised, so this number will increase. This means an average of almost half a million square kilometres per state and that the seabed not subject to national jurisdiction –referred to as the area in jurisdictional terms- will be reduced by over 6%.

The results are very irregular for states in terms of territorial gains. On the national scale there are enormous differences in the individual results by state: Australia, with a land surface area of 7.7 million km2, is in first place by size of extended continental shelf with over three million km2, while in second place is Portugal, with over 2 million km2 and a land surface area of less than 100,000 km2.

In other words, under this concept Australia increases its sovereignty by 28.5% of the area of its EEZ, while Portugal does so by 109.9%. However, Sri Lanka, which is in sixth spot in the top-ten ranking, does so by 240.2%.

When we take into account the size of states’ EEZs, the end result (EEZ plus extended continental shelf) gives rise to a ranking headed by Australia and France and which includes six developed states. Notwithstanding, the United States’ report is still pending submission, and the US EEZ is over 12 million km2.
It is estimated that the US’ extended continental shelf could reach a million km2. In relative terms, the states with medium-to-low land surface areas (under a million km2) clearly benefit from expanding their rights of sovereignty over maritime space, and this is further enhanced by the possibility of extending their sovereign rights over the continental margin beyond 200 nm.

Of the 55 states that have submitted delimitations, 24 are islands and together their total extended continental shelf is 12 million km2 (52 %). The regions that lead this new jurisdictional expansion by size are characterised by the presence of islands, and this is reflected in the top-ten ranking, where among the first four states are one mixed state (Portugal) and two island states (New Zealand and Sri Lanka), all of which are characterised by their small size. in the case of the United States, seven of the fifteen areas of interest identified are small islands or islets according to the extended continental shelf project.

Islands and islets are acquiring high strategic value. They enable the old colonial powers to retain a global presence. The colonial remains of European Union member countries enable the EU to extend its jurisdictional rights throughout all the oceans. 

The current process to delimit the outer edge of the continental margin runs parallel with the formulation of new maritime policies. This practice began to become more widespread in the last decade of the twentieth century.
In general terms, the goal of laying the foundations for a new understanding of the role of the oceans and the way that states draw on the seas to contend with new world challenges is encouraging: it could be said that the awareness of a new territoriality dominated by the nation-state is being stated.
In broad terms, when the process to delimit the outer edge of the continental margin is concluded, the maritime area under national jurisdiction could be increased by 25% of the whole of the exclusive economic zone as it is today.

These circumstances would involve a number of effects, of which the following can be highlighted:
-The extension of rights of sovereignty to greater depths,
-The nationalisation of the polar icecaps,
-The shifting of the geostrategic centre of gravity to the southern hemisphere and
-The emergence of new geopolitical scenarios,
-The transformation of states’ territorial bases and,
-In general, a reduction in the “global commons”.