As it stands, there are well over 150 territorial disputes around the globe, some more urgent than others. Here are 10 you need to know about — and that could redefine the world map.
Top photo: Russian T-90 tanks on parade in Red Square on May 9, 2014 in celebration of WWII Victory Day. (ID1974/Shutterstock)
Items are not listed in any particular order.
1. Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk
The map of Europe has been surprisingly fluid since the end of the Second World War and then again after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Last year's Crimean crisis resulted in the most significant redrawing of borders since the early 1990s.
In early 2014, Russian-backed forces seized control of Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula on the northern coast of the Black Sea. Since then, cartographers have agonized over whether or not to recognize it as a part of Russia. But seeing as Putin's federation has complete control over the region, and that many of its inhabitants support the annexation, it'll eventually have to be recognized as a part of Russia.
Crimea became a part of Russia back in 1783 when it was annexed during the reign of Catherine the Great. It was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 under Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev. Last year, Russia re-claimed the peninsula after Ukraine made it known that it wants to strengthen economic ties with the European Union. Some observers contend that Russia simply wants unhindered access to Sevastopol, which hosts a major naval base and has served as home to the Black Sea Fleet since Soviet times. Russia claims that it's merely protecting the largely Russian-speaking majority from Ukrainian influence.
Meanwhile, along the Russia-Ukraine border, the Luhansk and Donetsk regions are marred in conflict as separatists try to take control. As of December, Russia has said that it doesn't want to absorb these "states" into Russia itself, preferring instead that they become autonomous regions within Ukraine.
Some people are now wondering if the Crimean Crisis could cause the thawing of a "frozen" conflict in a small region west of Ukraine.
Transnistria, or what its inhabitants call the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, is a breakaway state is located on a strip of land between the Dniester River and the eastern Moldovan border with Ukraine. Moldova is situated between between Ukraine and Romania.
Following the collapse and dissolution of the USSR, and in an effort to resist inclusion with Moldova, Transnistria declared itself an independent state, though it's not recognized by any United Nations member state. Its allegiance is towards Moscow, and despite this being a "frozen conflict," there are now concerns that the Crimea conflict could embolden the Russian Federation into claiming this strip of land for itself.
3. The South and East China Sea Disputes
Things have been heating up in the South and East China seas as several countries vie for control over a number of strategically important islands.
There are two groups of islands in the South China Sea that are claimed by China: the Paracel Islands — which are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam — and the Spratly Islands — which are also claimed by ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
(Council on Foreign Relations)
At the same time, the U.S. military is keen to safeguard its commercial and military interests by ensuring that routes which pass through this region remain open; China, on the other hand, is interpreting this as U.S. meddling in a dispute that's none of its business. To date, Vietnam and the Philippines have been most aggressive in their territorial disputes with China, including confrontations by naval forces in the area.
Meanwhile in the East China Sea, Japan and China are arguing over the Senkaku Islands. Back in 2010, a confrontation between the two countries over a Chinese fishing trawler's presence in the region nearly escalated into a major diplomatic crisis. The United States says the Islands fall under the protection of the U.S-Japan security treaty, which China contests.
4. The North Pole
Now that Arctic ice is melting and the Northwest Passage is open for commercial, scientific, and military vessels, a number of countries have jumped at the opportunity to claim the North Pole for themselves, including Canada, Russia, Norway, the United States and Denmark.
Back in 2007, Russia planted a titanium Russian flag in the seabed under the North Pole, while Canada has embarked on a plan to map a giant undersea mountain range the country claims will secure the sea floor under the pole. And last month, Denmark submitted a claim to the UN citing scientific data showing that Greenland's continental shelf is connected to a ridge that runs under the Arctic Ocean and through the North Pole.
The CBC explains why so many countries want the North Pole:
The Arctic has increasingly become an area of interest for oil and gas exploration. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2008 that as much as 22 per cent of the world's undiscovered and recoverable resources lay in the Arctic.
As well, the gradual warming of Arctic waters has made the region increasingly attractive for shipping lanes.
Inuuteq Olsen, the minister for Greenland at the Danish embassy in Washington, D.C., says "very little is known at this point" about what lies in the seabed under the North Pole, largely because of the "challenges of doing scientific work in an ice-filled area."
He acknowledges "there could be minerals as well as oil and gas, but it's a big but, because it's an unexplored area when it comes to geology and natural resources."
Territorial claims are typically governed by the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), who now appear to have their hands full with this one.
5. Hans Island
The North Pole is not the only Arctic-related territorial dispute. Canada and Denmark are currently bickering over who owns a small island in the Kennedy Channel separating Canada's Ellesmere Island from Greenland.
Tyler Dawson of O Canada goes over some recent history:
Starting in the 1980s, Danes and Canadians waged a passive-aggressive "battle of the bottles," over the island, where territory was marked by bottles of Canadian Club whisky and Akvavit, a Scandinavian liquor. However, this tension escalated when Danish navy vessels began landing on the island to place Danish flags in the early 2000s.
In July 2005, a contingent of Canadian soldiers descended on Hans Island in an operation code-named Exercise Frozen Beaver, and erected a 12-foot flagpole and an Inukshuk. Tensions settled shortly thereafter when a statement was issued jointly by the Danish and Canadian governments stating that "all contact by either side with Hans Island will be carried out in a low key and restrained manner."
Danish soldiers stand with their country's flag on Hans Island between Greenland and Canada in this undated photo. (Royal Danish Navy/AFP/Getty)
Both countries are now trying to work on a less bellicose and "mutually agreeable" solution.
Other territorial disputes involving Canada include the Beaufort Sea, the Dixon Entrance, the Juan de Fuca Strait, and Machias Seal Island (all between Canada and the U.S.). You can find good summaries about these disputes here.
6. Western Sahara
It may look like a barren patch of land in north-west Africa, but Western Sahara is a region rich in phosphate and its offshore areas likely contain oil deposits.
For the past several decades, the borders of the region have been contested by Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front. Most of Western Sahara has been under Moroccan control since the mid 1970s. National Geographic has a nice summary of the situation:
Morocco says its sovereignty over Western Sahara is not negotiable, though no nation recognizes its rule and the International Court of Justice stated in 1976 that Morocco has no legitimate claim to the territory. Since 1991 a cease-fire, monitored by UN peacekeepers, has halted fighting between Moroccan troops and guerrillas of the Polisario Front, though a referendum on independence promised as part of the cease-fire agreement never took place. In 2007 Morocco and the Polisario Front began a series of negotiations on the territory's future, but made no progress toward resolving the dispute. Morocco is offering inhabitants of the territory autonomy under its rule; the Polisario Front insists that the people of Western Sahara be allowed to choose between autonomy, independence, or the status quo.
The UN Security Council is now urging both sides to reach a mutually acceptable solution that provides self-determination for the people of Western Sahara.
7. Jammu and Kashmir
For the past 60 years, this mountainous region has provided the stage for some extremely tense moments between Pakistan and India, leading some observers to contend that it's "one of the most dangerous disputes in the world — which in the worst-case scenario could trigger a nuclear conflict."
After Pakistan and India won their independence from Britain in 1947, and after the Indian Independence Act, Kashmir was free to join either India or Pakistan. Its Maharaja wanted to stay independent, but eventually acceded to India in return for military aid and a referendum. Since that time, the territory has witnessed two of the three India-Pakistan wars (1947-8 and 1965). Fifteen years ago, India fought against Pakistani-backed forces who had entered into Indian-controlled territory in the Kargil area.
CNN provides a summary of the situation from the Indian and Pakistani perspectives:
Islamabad has always maintained that majority-Muslim Kashmir should have been a part of Pakistan. A United Nations' resolution adopted after the first war called for a referendum allowing the people of Kashmir to choose which country they wanted to join, but that vote for self-determination has never been held. Pakistan wants that referendum to take place.
India claims that Pakistan lends support to separatist groups fighting against government control and argues that a 1972 agreement — signed after the Bangladesh war — mandates a resolution to the Kashmir dispute through bilateral talks.
Neither country wants Kashmir to become an independent nation.
8. South Ossetia
This mountainous region between Georgia and North Ossetia was home to a full-blown war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Now, ten months after annexing Crimea, it appears that Vladimir Putin — as early as this week — will take control of South Ossetia, a break-away region of Georgia. Russia and South Osettia are poised to sign a "Treaty of Alliance and Integration." In other words, it's being swallowed up.
(All World Wars)
Writing for the Carnegie Moscow Center, Thomas de Waal explains:
The treaty should come as no surprise. Moscow has been fully in control of South Ossetia since it recognized it as independent in 2008. Compared to Abkhazia, the population is tiny. South Ossetia had 100,000 citizens in 1989 but, after years of conflict and the flight of most of the Georgian population, just 21,000 people voted in the parliamentary election last June. The anomaly represented by South Ossetia's supposed independent statehood, while North Ossetia, with a population of 700,000 is a mere autonomous region of Russia, has never been so glaring.
Most of the Ossetian public is happy with the treaty, particularly because Articles 8 and 9 of the draft stipulate that government salaries and pensions in South Ossetia will be raised to the level of those received in the Russian North Caucasus.
For the elite, it is the best of both worlds, as they will keep their nominal independence, with all the trappings and perks that brings, while getting closer to Russia.
You may be surprised to learn that there are two countries claiming to be China: the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), otherwise known as Taiwan. Neither country recognizes the other, and both claim the same territory.
Taiwan and China from space (NASA)
The reason for this goes back to the end of World War II and the establishment of communist China. The PRC declared itself as the official successor of the Republic of China after establishing control of the mainland, while the ROC was forced into exile on Taiwan.
10. Israel, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, and West Bank
The modern Israeli state was founded after the first Middle East war in 1948-49, but its borders are still very much in dispute. Settlements established by Israel in the wake of the 1967 Six Days War have become a matter of great controversy.
Israel claims that it is legally and morally entitled to live on the land that was historically inhabited by Jews. Those in opposition see it as an occupation and believe that peace can only be obtained through the creation of a neighboring Palestinian state on all the land claimed by Israel in 1967. It's a dispute that won't be settled any time soon.
Update: Not surprisingly, this interpretation is a matter of contention. As noted by io9 reader ZT205:
The Israeli government has never claimed that is is "that it is legally and morally entitled to live on the land that was historically inhabited by Jews," (which, by the way, would include land outside parts of Jordan and Syria outside Israel proper and the occupied territories) though that is a common political stance. The Israeli government's official legal justification is that the occupation of Palestinian territories is not illegal because they were never part of a state, and because Egypt and Jordan renounced their claims. As a practical matter, Israeli politicians cite security concerns more often than they cite religious claims; it is pretty misleading to present religion as the primary motive. Especially since the majority of Israeli political parties are not religious parties.
It is also wrong to claim that "those in opposition see it as an occupation and believe that peace can only be obtained through the creation of a neighboring Palestinian state on all the land claimed by Israel in 1967," when many people who oppose the occupation have supported territorial compromises. Moreover, "all the land claimed by Israel in 1967" includes the Sinai Peninsula (which was returned to Egypt as part of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty) and the Golan Heights, which is still occupied by Israel. Neither the Sinai nor the Golan were ever part of a proposed Palestinian state.