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A World of Territorial Disputes

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

From space national boundaries are invisible.

From space national boundaries are invisible.

Incessant wars around the globe have led to national boundaries being drawn and redrawn causing controversy. The list of countries that don't have territorial disputes is shorter than the list of the ones that do.

The Spratly Islands

Six countries lay claim to some or all of more than 100 islands and reefs in the South China Sea. There's oil, natural gas, and rich fishing grounds at stake, and the islands are close to major shipping lanes.

The claimants are the People’s Republic of China (Beijing), the Republic of China (Taiwan), Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Indigenous peoples inhabited the islands as far back as 2,500 years ago and more recently Chinese and Vietnamese fishers have lived there. However, nobody made a serious claim to ownership of the territory until Tomás Cloma set foot there in 1956.

Along with 40 fellow Filipinos, Cloma arrived to “occupy and survey 'a territory in the China Sea outside of Philippine waters and not within the jurisdiction of any country' ” (Philippine Daily Inquirer). He renamed the islands Freedomland and said he was claiming them for the Philippine people rather than the government of The Philippines.

The action stirred all the other contestants into making their claims to the archipelago, which covers 400,000 square kilometres (154,441 square miles) of ocean. The Law of the Sea agreement establishes that maritime nations have Exclusive Economic Zones extending 200 nautical miles from their coastlines. That puts part of the Spratlys within Chinese, Philippine, Malaysian, and Vietnamese jurisdiction.

The United Nations has the unenviable task of sorting out who has legitimate claims to what part of the island chain. However, China has decided that might is right and has occupied some areas militarily, while conducting live-fire exercises at sea as a warning that other claimants can expect a robust, non-diplomatic, response.

Overlapping jurisdictions.

Overlapping jurisdictions.

Hans Island

From the somewhat menacing prospect of conflict over the Spratly Islands let's move on to an island dispute that has all the elements of a comic opera.

Hans Island is a barren stump of uninhabited rock in Nares Strait between Greenland (self-governing entity within the Kingdom of Denmark) and Ellesmere Island (Canada) in the High Arctic. It is just 1.3 square kilometres (half a square mile) in area and it's within the territorial waters of both nations.

Canada and Denmark have been arguing over this tiny slab of granite for more than a century. Then, in 1984, Denmark escalated the dispute.

The Danish Minister for Greenland, Tom Høyem, visited Hans Island where he planted the Danish flag and left behind a bottle of schnapps. He also left a note “Velkommen til den danske ø,” which means “Welcome to the Danish Island” in English.

No self-respecting nation is going to an affront of that magnitude lying down. So, the Canadian military showed up, planted a Canadian flag, and left a bottle of Canadian Club rye whiskey. The Danes returned with their flag and schnapps and this comical little “liquor war” continues as, periodically, each nation visits and changes the flag and hooch.

There's been talk of joint governance over the meaningless rock, but it would be a shame if this exchange of booze and flags were to come to an end. The world needs a few chuckles.

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In 2003, it was Denmark's turn to hoist its flag on Hans Island.

In 2003, it was Denmark's turn to hoist its flag on Hans Island.

Dahala Khagrabari

Atlas Obscura tells us that this is “a piece of India that until very recently was completely surrounded by a piece of Bangladesh, which itself was completely surrounded by India, which was again completely surrounded by Bangladesh.” Got it?

Dahala Khagrabari, all 1.7 acres of it, was one of 162 so-called enclaves along the border between India and Bangladesh. It was Indian land owned by an Bangladeshi jute farmer who had to cross through India to till his field.

An enclave is an area of one country entirely surrounded by another country; the tiny speck of land under discussion was a triple enclave, the only one of its kind in the world, known as a counter-counter enclave.

The Indo-Bangladeshi enclaves came about through complex historical agreements that followed wars, and became a bother following the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. In 1971, East Pakistan separated from West Pakistan to become the independent state of Bangladesh.

Living in an enclave caused problems for residents who had difficulty accessing education and health care.

Then, wise heads prevailed. In July 2015, the two countries swapped enclaves. The people living in these areas were asked which country they wanted to join; 111 chose Bangladesh and 51 picked India.

Residents were allowed to move, so that Indians who now found themselves living in Bangladesh could move to India if they wished, and vice versa. This was not as simple as it seems.

Most of the people in the former enclaves were small-plot farmers, who, of course, couldn't move their land if they chose to relocate. But, it worked out well for the jute farmer of Dahala Khagrabari; his land became part of Bangladesh so he no longer has to cross international boundaries to work his farm.

The tangled mess of the India-Bangladesh border before sanity prevailed.

The tangled mess of the India-Bangladesh border before sanity prevailed.

Jammu and Kashmir

Unfortunately, there is no sign of a peaceful solution to a territorial dispute on the other side of the Indian sub-continent. India and Pakistan have been contesting sovereignty over Kashmir for more than seven decades. It's a contest that has involved shots fired and tens of thousands of dead on both sides.

This gloriously beautiful land of mountains, meadows, and lakes covers 86,000 square miles (138 square kilometres).

When India became independent in 1947, the mostly Muslim areas of East and West Pakistan separated from mostly Hindu India. At the time of partition, Kashmir on the border between India and West Pakistan, was given the choice of which country it wanted to join. The local ruler, Maharajah Hari Singh decided on India which promised protection from incursions by Pakistani guerrillas.

Skirmishes continued and full-blown wars broke out in 1965 and 1999 in the shadow of both countries possessing nuclear arms.

The BBCreports that “Today, Delhi (India) and Islamabad (Pakistan) both claim Kashmir in full, but control only parts of it—territories recognised internationally as 'Indian-administered Kashmir' and 'Pakistan-administered Kashmir'.”

There are frequent outbreaks of fighting and the deep bitterness between the two countries makes a peaceful solution unlikely.

Marble Hill, New York

Not all border disputes are among nations; Marble Hill in Manhattan is a very local affair.

In 1895, the Harlem Ship Canal was opened to join the Harlem River with the Hudson River. The construction of the canal physically separated Marble Hill from Manhattan, and the Spuyten Duyvil Creek cut it off from the Bronx. Marble Hill became an island.

Luke J. Spencer writes in Atlas Obscura that “Marble Hill kept its proud island status until 1914, when the old creek was eventually filled in, making it physically part of the Bronx, but still legally part of Manhattan.”

A squabble over jurisdiction has pottered along ever since. In 1939, Bronx Borough President James Lyons marched into Marble Hill and planted his community's flag there claiming the area was part of the Bronx. The residents expressed their displeasure with Lyons and desire to remain part of Manhattan.

In 2014, a group of Bronx residents, calling themselves the Great and Glorious Grand Army of The Bronx, pulled the same stunt. This was all very much a tongue-in-cheek bit of fun. Join The Bronx, said members of the invading army, and Manhattanites would get “affordable-ish rents, humanely priced coffee at old-time coffee shops, good music, great food and real bars” (New York Daily News). Such inducements have yet to persuade the folks in Marble Hill to switch allegiance.

Marble Hill.

Marble Hill.

Bonus Factoids

  • A lump of rock in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean is claimed by Britain, Ireland, Iceland, and Denmark. It's not exactly prime real estate although it does boast spectacular sea views.
  • Italy and France are squabbling over who owns Europe's highest mountain. Is it Mont Blanc or Monte Bianco? Is one permitted to say “On s’en fout” or “Chi se ne frega” or “Who cares?”
  • In the Caribbean, the Prime Minister of Sint Maarten (Dutch) and the Prefect of Saint-Martin (French) have been having a spat over ownership of Oyster Pond.
  • Migingo Island is a tiny outcrop in Africa's Lake Victoria. It is claimed by both Uganda and Kenya. You can read more about it here.
  • By one count, there are 118 ongoing territorial disputes among members states of the United Nations.


  • “The Old Man and the Sea.” Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 25, 2015.
  • “Hans Island – Property of Canada or Denmark?” Jeremy Luedi,, May 28 2019.
  • “Dahala Khagrabari.” lewblank,, undated.
  • “Bronx Residents Attempt to Claim Manhattan's Marble Hill as Part of Borough. Denis Slattery, New York Daily News, May 7, 2014.
  • “Marble Hill.” Luke J. Spencer,, undated.
  • “Kashmir: Why India and Pakistan Fight over it.” BBC, August 8, 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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