Since September 2012, the Western media have been filled with reports about China’s high-profile dispute with Japan over a group of tiny uninhabited islands, the Diaoyu (in Chinese) or Senkaku (in Japanese), on the edge of the South China Sea. The media have made frequent reference to Beijing’s territorial claims there, widely held to be part of a pattern of ‘bullying behaviour’ in the region; some commentators have suggested that the dispute may even trigger a new Peloponnesian War in the Pacific.footnote1 The territory in question is of historical and strategic significance, and it may well possess substantial natural resources, to which the prc would gain access if its claims were successful. However, the resources of the South China Sea need to be seen in comparative perspective with those obtained by the us and the former European colonial powers through the enactment of the un Convention on the Law of the Sea (unclos).

The Convention was agreed in 1982 after nine years of negotiations, and established a legal framework to govern all uses of the world’s oceans. International interest in property rights in the oceans had intensified from the 1970s onwards, as concerns mounted over the perceived decline in stocks of exhaustible resources—the most obvious being rapidly falling fish populations.footnote2 Technical progress had also opened up the possibility for greatly increased extraction of fossil fuels from deep-water and climatically challenging areas. Prior to unclos, maritime states had sovereign authority over their territorial waters, which extended to a distance of 22 kilometres (12 nautical miles) from the shore. Many disputes developed about the extent and nature of rights beyond the 12-mile limit. unclos effected a revolutionary change in the law of the sea by allowing countries to establish a new resource zone called the ‘exclusive economic zone’ (eez) adjacent to their territorial sea, and which extends 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the territorial sea is measured.footnote3 Within the eez, coastal states have sovereign rights to explore and exploit the natural resources of the waters immediately above the seabed, as well as those of the seabed itself and its subsoil; they also have rights to other forms of exploitation of the zone, such as producing energy from the water, currents and winds.

By 2011, 161 individual states and the European Union were parties to unclos. Once a state becomes a party to the Convention, it is under obligation to bring its maritime claims and national laws into conformity with it. The dispute over the South China Sea revolves primarily around the extent of the exclusive economic zone claimed by the prc compared with that of the countries with which it is in dispute. Five of the parties involved—China, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam—had ratified unclos by 1996. (The other disputant, Taiwan, could not ratify unclos as it is not a member of the United Nations, but it brought its own internal legislation into line with the Convention.) Yet while the complex contention between China and its neighbours over maritime resources has dominated Western discussions, the colossal resource grab by former colonial powers that unclos facilitated has almost entirely escaped international attention.

A critically important part of unclos is the provision that islands are entitled to the same maritime zones as land territory, with each allowed an eez of 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres). Although the colonial empires were largely dismantled between the late 1940s and the early 1980s, their former masters have retained administrative control over ‘a few scattered remnants’ including numerous small islands, either as formal colonies or in other ways. They typically have a small land area—sometimes only a few square kilometres—and generally have tiny or non-existent human populations. Few people in their respective metropoles even know of these far-flung territories: how many Britons could point to ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’ on a map? How many French citizens could locate the Kerguelen Islands, or Americans identify the North Marianas? Some of these islands are exotic tourist destinations, others are wildlife reserves, others still house scientific research stations; many are regarded as eccentric anachronisms.footnote4 However, these ‘scattered remnants’ of the old colonial empires turned out to be far more significant than most people realize. These far-distant territories are often of immense strategic significance, with many of them containing American naval and air-force bases, as well as reconnaissance facilities. Under unclos, they have also become important in the allocation of legally enforceable property rights over the world’s natural resources. Many of these territories consist of groups of small islands stretching across large expanses of ocean, which allows the powers that control them to claim sole authority over access to the resources within their vast exclusive economic zone. This authority is frequently enforced by their respective armed forces, including the us’s huge coastguard and naval fleets.

Thanks to their island holdings, the eezs of the us, uk and France dominate enormous stretches of the Pacific, Indian and South Atlantic Oceans; these three, together with Australia, New Zealand and Russia, are the six countries with the largest exclusive economic zones. Each of them is a developed former colonial country, with a mainly white population. Their total population is 604 million, compared with 1,338 million for China. Each of them established the territorial basis of their vast overseas eezs during the colonial era, from the fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Their total eez amounts to 54 million square kilometres, of which almost three-quarters (39 million square kilometres) is separate from their home territory. Indeed, the overseas eezs of the United States, France and the uk vastly exceed those of their home territories (Table 1, below). Moreover, the very existence of the ‘home territory’ of the United States, Australia and New Zealand is due to settlement by white European colonists, who forcibly and often violently deprived the indigenous people of their resources.

China has only around 900,000 square kilometres of undisputed exclusive economic zone adjacent to the mainland—the size of one of the smaller overseas eez areas of the us, France or uk. There is a further area of probably less than 2 million square kilometres of eez that Beijing claims in the South China Sea.footnote5 Even if it succeeds in all cases, its total eez is unlikely to be more than 3 million square kilometres. Apart from its South China Sea claims, which are vigorously disputed by countries in the region, and the adjacent island of Taiwan, China has no overseas island territories over which it asserts sovereignty. In sharp contrast to the European powers and their colonial-settler descendents, China did not seek to construct an overseas empire. This difference has had profound consequences for the global distribution of national property rights over the oceans’ resources, especially under unclos.

In the case of Britain, the eez attached to its overseas territories amounts to over 6 million square kilometres, which is eight times the total exclusive zone around the uk itself (Table 2, below). The largest concentration of Britain’s overseas eezs is in the South Atlantic, with a total area of over 3.6 million square kilometres. London first claimed sovereignty over the Falkland Islands/Malvinas in 1765, with Captain Cook commandeering South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands in 1775. When Thatcher went to war with Argentina in 1982, far more was at stake than the 16,000 square kilometres of windswept land in these three island groups: the exclusive economic zone of the Falklands, South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands amounts to 2 million square kilometres, nearly three times that of the uk itself. St Helena, meanwhile, came under the control of the East India Company in 1659—Cromwell had granted the Company a charter to govern the island two years earlier—and later became a British colony. Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha were colonized at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. These three South Atlantic territories have a total land area of just 417 square kilometres and a population of 5,400—the equivalent of a medium-sized English village. However, due to the fact that each of them consists of numerous widely distributed islands, their total eez amounts to 1.64 million square kilometres.