NUS Centre for International Law series
Edited by S. Jayakumar, Tommy Koh and Robert Beckman
Chapter 1: Offshore features subject to claims of sovereignty
The question of whether, and to what extent, the sea is subject to claims of sovereignty is an ancient one. Different answers prevailed at different times in different places. Those answers often reflected the rise and fall of great empires, and efforts to extend those empires either by use of the sea or by attempting to control the use of the sea by others, or both. For much of human history, the debate primarily centered on navigation. The sea was the object of the debate, but the underlying interests concerned the land. Some imperial powers made claims of control over the sea in order to limit foreigners’ access to land territory, presumably to enhance the dominance of the imperial power over those land areas. From a lawyer’s perspective, the most important historical example of rebellion against such pretensions is the resistance of the Netherlands to Iberian claims of vast control over the sea. The Dutch resistance prompted Grotius to develop the thesis of mare liberum, which eventually triumphed with the support of many nations. Fisheries are of course an ancient exception to the view that the law of the sea is about navigation. But sea fisheries were abundant until relatively recently. The pressure to assert control over them in order to limit competition has existed for a long time, but its effects were limited.
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