Although the world’s land areas have been well-studied and documented, and it seems like national borders should be clearly marked, there are a surprising number of contested borders all over the world. From tiny islands to massive land areas, many countries still dispute the size of their borders. Entire would-be countries are even claimed by other nations. The effects of contested borders are growing larger in our increasingly connected world, and have unique implications, even for countries uninvolved in the dispute.
Fighting—and Sometimes Not Resolving—Wars
The most obvious effect of contested borders is the many wars, military actions, and political tensions that arise from such disputes. One area where this is particularly evident is in Eastern Europe, where countries formerly under the control of the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) have descended into war over their new nation’s boundaries. Some of these countries engage in civil war, while others have faced aggression from Russia. For example, Russians invaded and seized control of the southern Ukraine region known as Crimea in 2014. The territory, which has many Russian speakers who consider themselves culturally Russian, voted to join Russia, but the referendum’s legality has been questioned by Ukraine and some other nations.
The ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia over Crimea continues to make the region unstable. Some countries with contested borders have even refused to sign peace treaties to officially end wars because of their claims on the same land. The Soviet Union invaded the Japanese-held Kuril Islands during World War II. Though the Yalta Agreements gave all of the islands to Russia, Japan still claims the southernmost islands—and has never signed a treaty officially ending the war because of it. Another high-profile example is North Korea and South Korea, who signed an armistice to end the fighting between them in 1958, but not a peace treaty, resulting in a demilitarized zone between the two countries. Only in 2018 did the two sides agree to formally end the war, yet an end to the military posturing between them remains to be seen.
Sharing, or Fighting for, Significant Sites
Contested borders are often found around sites that are important to two or more nations or people. Often, the special sites are the reason there is a contested border in the first place. One example of this is found within the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Palestinians had claim to land that was subsequently made into Israel as part of reparations of World War II. Some of Israel’s major cities contain sites that are holy for Jews, which is why Jewish people wanted their own country there. But these many of these same cities are also holy to Christians and Muslims. It's also part of the reason—but not the only reason—why Palestinian Muslims did not want to give the land that became Israel. The two contested areas, Gaza and the West Bank, are a source of conflict for the Middle East and other parts of the world.
Other types of sites serve as flashpoints for conflicts too: A major naval base in Crimea, called Sevastopol, is an advantageous spot for the Russians, who do not have a lot of access to sea waters. When the U.S.S.R. broke up, Ukraine and Russia split control of the fleet that was stationed there. Because tensions have escalated since the Ukraine crisis, Russian still has troops stationed in Sevastopol.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, economics plays a role in contested borders when there are areas with valuable resources. One such area is the Spratly Islands, a group of small islands in the South China Sea. Amazingly, six different countries lay claim to the islands: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, China, and Taiwan. Their overlapping borders from decades of differently demarcated maps and territorial disputes grew in significance after oil and natural gas reserves were found in the seabed. The wealth of resources located there is estimated in the trillions of dollars—so countries are continually asserting their rights to be there. And contested and redrawn borders can lead to economic pitfalls as well: Some economists believe the redrawing of European borders after World War I curtailed trading routes that had developed through the continent. This made it harder for nations, especially the new Eastern European countries, to bounce back economically from the war.
Trouble with Maps
Even in our technologically developed world, mapmakers still face controversy when marking contested borders. If a company delineates an area in one way over another, they risk facing criticism about their politics, even when no such statement was meant. For example, for a time in 2014, Google Maps showed Crimea differently depending on which country the viewer lived in. People in the United States and Ukraine saw a dotted line, indicating a contested state, while in Russia, they saw a solid black line, marking it as part of Russia. This situation is no quirky mistake—it is a message, one that people all over the world recognize as important. So important it can drive political action: People in the Palestinian territories have petitioned Google Maps to include “Palestine” on the map of the Middle East. Though most mapmakers aim to be apolitical, indicating territories, states, and nations in certain ways on maps can give legitimacy, and carries symbolic meaning that political actors can leverage into gains.