Contested Borders: Effects and Implications

Contested Borders: Effects and Implications

Contested borders around the world have unique and sometimes surprising implications for many different areas of life, both within and beyond the two countries' borders.


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UN Peackeepers at the Golan Heights

The Middle East's Golan Heights, which is occupied by Israel, is a disputed territory. UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights in April 2018.

Science Photo Library/Science Source
The Middle East's Golan Heights, which is occupied by Israel, is a disputed territory. UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights in April 2018.
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The world's land areas have been well studied and documented. By now it seems like national borders would be clearly understood and marked. However, there are a surprising number of contested borders found all over the world. From tiny islands to massive land areas, many countries still dispute where their territory ends. Entire would-be countries are even claimed by other nations. The effects of contested borders are growing larger in our increasingly connected world. They lead to unique complications, even for countries far from the dispute.

Fighting—and Sometimes not Resolving—Wars

The most obvious effect of contested borders is conflict. Such disputes can range from political tensions to military action. Eastern Europe is one area where this instability is particularly evident. There, countries formerly under the control of the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) have gone to war over their new nations' boundaries. Some of these countries have plunged into civil war. Others have faced aggression from Russia, once the most powerful part of the Soviet Union. For example, Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2014. They seized control of a region known as Crimea. The territory, which has many residents who consider themselves Russian, voted to join Russia. However, the vote's legality has been questioned by Ukraine and some other nations.

Some border disputes are the result of past wars. In some cases, countries have refused to sign peace treaties because of their claims to the same land. For example, the Soviet Union invaded the Japanese-held Kuril Islands during World War II (1939-1945). The Yalta Agreements at the war's end gave all of the islands to the Soviets. Seventy-five years later, though, Japan still claims the southernmost islands. The Japanese government has never signed a treaty with Russia officially ending the war because of it. Another high-profile example is North Korea and South Korea, which fought in the Korean War (1950-1953). In 1958, the two countries signed an armistice officially ending the fighting between them. No peace treaty was signed, however. Ever since, there has been a demilitarized zone between the two countries. Only in 2018 did the two sides agree to formally end the war. An end to their military tensions and contested border, though, has yet to happen.

Sharing, or Fighting for, Significant Sites

Contested borders are often found near 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. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the Middle East is an example. Palestinians claimed land that was made into Israel after World War II. Israel's major cities contain sites that are holy for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Their historical and religious claims are why Jewish people wanted their own country there. Similar reasons explain why Palestinian Muslims did not want to give up their claims. Israel also occupies Gaza and the West Bank, two territories where Palestinians live. They are sources of ongoing conflict that impacts other countries.

Economic Concerns

Economics may lead to contested borders when valuable resources are at stake. One such area is the Spratly Islands, a group of small islands in the South China Sea. Six different countries lay claim to the islands: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, China, and Taiwan. These countries' overlapping claims are the result of decades of territorial disputes and redrawn maps. However, competition intensified after oil and natural gas reserves were found in the seabed there. These resources are estimated to be worth trillions of dollars. Such wealth motivates the countries to assert their rights.

Trouble with Maps

Modern technology makes it possible to create maps with great precision. Still, mapmakers face controversy when drawing contested borders. They may be accused of favoring one side or the other, even when there was no such intention. In 2014, for example, Google Maps showed Crimea differently depending on where the viewer lived. People in the United States and Ukraine saw a dotted line, indicating a contested state. Russians, though, saw a solid black line, marking Crimea as part of Russia. These details may seem insignificant. In world affairs, though, they send a message.

The message is so important it can drive political action. For example, people in the Palestinian territories have petitioned Google Maps to include "Palestine" on the map of the Middle East. Currently, the name does not appear on the web-mapping service, and the contested lands are shown as controlled by Israel. Most mapmakers try to steer clear of politics. However, drawing territories, states, and nations is more than a question of geography. Maps carry symbolic meaning that people may use to promote or defend their goals.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

August 12, 2022

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