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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Although the world's land areas have been well studied and documented, 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 have unique implications, even for countries located far from the dispute.

Fighting—and Sometimes Not Resolving—Wars

The most obvious effect of contested borders is the many conflicts that arise. These disputes can range from political tensions to military actions to war. One area where this is particularly evident is in Eastern Europe. There, countries formerly under the control of the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) have gone to war over their new nations' boundaries. Some have plunged into civil war. Other countries have faced aggression from Russia, formerly the most powerful part of the Soviet Union, which broke apart around 1990. For example, Russians invaded and seized control of the southern Ukraine region known as Crimea in 2014. The territory, which has many people who consider themselves culturally Russian, voted to join Russia. However, 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 refused to sign peace treaties to officially end wars because they still claim the same land. 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. It has never signed a treaty officially ending the war because of it. Another high-profile example is North Korea and South Korea, which fought each other in the Korean War (1950-1953). In 1958, the two countries finally signed an armistice to end the fighting between them. No peace treaty was signed, though, resulting in a demilitarized zone between the two countries. Only in 2018 did they agree to formally end the war. Military tensions and a contested border, though, still remain.

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. One example of this is found in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. 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—but not the only reasons—explain why Palestinian Muslims did not want to give them up. The two contested areas, Gaza and the West Bank, are sources of the ongoing conflict for the Middle East that impacts the United States and other countries.

Elsewhere, other types of contested sites serve as flash points for conflicts. In Crimea, a major naval base called Sevastopol is an advantageous spot for the Russian Navy. When the U.S.S.R. broke up and Ukraine gained independence, Russia was left with limited access to the sea in the west. Ukraine and Russia split control of the fleet that was stationed there. Because tensions have escalated since the Ukraine crisis, Russia still has troops stationed in Sevastopol.

Economic Concerns

Economics also 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. These countries' overlapping claims were 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. The wealth of resources is estimated in the trillions of dollars, causing the countries to assert their rights.

Trouble with Maps

Even with modern technology, mapmakers still face controversy when marking contested borders. If a company defines an area in one way over another, it risks criticism about its politics, even when no such statement was meant. In 2014, for example, 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. In Russia, though, they saw a solid black line, marking Crimea as part of Russia and upsetting some Ukrainians. This situation is no quirky mistake. It is a message, one that people all over the world recognize as important.

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. Instead, the lands are shown as part of Israel with contested borders marked. Though most mapmakers aim to be apolitical, indicating territories, states, and nations in certain ways on maps is more than a question of geography. It carries a symbolic meaning that political forces can 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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