9 Modern (And Relatively Calm) Territorial Disputes

Some territorial spats don't make the headlines. (Photo: Ollyy/Shutterstock).

Modern-day territorial disputes can dominate the news and inspire strong opinions. However, situations where lands are claimed by more than one country are far more common than most people think, though they rarely lead to an ongoing military conflict. Some of these geographic tug o' wars take place between countries that are normally on friendly terms with one another. For example, there are currently multiple instances of both the United States and Canada claiming the same places as their own.

Here are nine interesting modern-day disputed territories that rarely make headlines.

1. Beaufort Sea

Beaufort Sea
Beaufort Sea with the Brooks Range in the background. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

One of the world's least-known territorial disputes involves two countries that have a famously friendly relationship. Both the United States and Canada claim a pie-slice-shaped piece of the Beaufort Sea, which is located above Alaska and Canada's Yukon Territory. This is a barren and frigid place, but the Beaufort's icy waters cover large oil and gas reserves.

Canada's claims are backed up by a 19th century treaty that established a border between Russia and Great Britain, the countries that controlled Alaska and Canada (respectively) at that time. The U.S. claim is based on the principle of equidistance, where the border is drawn as a straight line perpendicular to the coast. The Beaufort is one of several examples of world powers seeking to lay claim to resource-rich sections of the Arctic. Unlike Antarctica, which is governed by a treaty that does not allow expansion or land claims, the northernmost part of the world is, more or less, up for grabs.

2. Machias Seal Island

Machias Seal Island puffins
Machias Seal Island is famous for its puffins.  

Thomas O'Neil/Wikimedia Commons)

Far away from the disputed waters of the Beaufort Sea lies another place claimed by both the U.S. and Canada. Machias Seal Island is about 10 miles from the coast of Maine and 11 miles from the Canadian province of New Brunswick. A lighthouse, run by the Canadian Coast Guard and by British colonial authorities before them, has been located on the island since 1832. This constant presence is the main reason for Canada's claims.

Unlike the Beaufort dispute, there are no valuable oil or gas reserves in this portion of the Gulf of Maine, though the island is one of the best places in North America for bird-watchers to see puffins. However, local fishermen from both Maine and Canada are driving the dispute because the waters around the island are rich with lobster.

3. Falkland Islands

Flakland Islands
Goose Green settlement on East Falkland. (Photo:.


People who are old enough may remember the Falkland Islands War, a conflict between England and Argentina that took place in the early 1980s. Despite their proximity to Argentina, the Falklands remain under British control. Negotiations have taken place over the decades, but these have failed to resolve the dispute.

The Falkland Islands enjoy a large degree of autonomy as a self-governing British Overseas Territory. Residents were given control of their islands' future status in a recent referendum. They overwhelming chose the status quo, voting to retain their position as a British Overseas Territory. However, Argentina still claims the islands, and the dispute has no end in sight, with England saying no further negotiations will be undertaken for the foreseeable future.

4. Ceuta

Perspective view of the Strait of Gibraltar: Spain and Gibraltar on the left, Morocco and Ceuta on the right.  


Sitting directly across the Strait of Gibraltar from the southernmost point of mainland Spain, Ceuta is an autonomous Spanish enclave that is surrounded by Morocco. The North African nation has repeatedly requested that Spain hand over control of Ceuta and its sister city, Melilla. They consider these enclaves (known as "presidios" in Spanish) to be remnants of a colonial past that has no place in the modern world. However, Spain argues that it has controlled these areas since the 15th century, long before Morocco gained independence from France.

Along with the Western Sahara, Ceuta and Melilla are the focus of a nationalistic movement within Morocco. However, the United Nations actually sides with Spain in this dispute. It does not consider either of the cities to be colonies, and has excluded them from its list of “non-self-governing territories.” Since Ceuta is a popular duty-free shopping destination for Europeans, local residents, even those of Moroccan origin, generally favor retaining the status quo for economic reasons.

5. Liancourt Rocks

Liancourth Rocks
The reflection of Liancourt Rock's East Islet in a tidal pool on the West Islet. (Photo:.

Ulleungdont/Wikimedia Commons)

The Liancourt Rocks have different names. They are known as Dokdo to South Koreans and as Takeshima in Japan. Both countries claim these windswept islets, which lay in the Sea of Japan, almost equidistant from the two countries' mainlands. Their total area is less than 50 acres. Tourist occasionally visit the two main islets, but only a few residents (as well as members of South Korea's police force) live there permanently.

South Korea's claims date back to medieval documents, though it is unclear, as Japan likes to point out, if the islands referred to in these historic manuscripts are actually the Liancourt Rocks. Both countries made claims to the island in the 20th century, and a recent visit by South Korea's president drew protests from both Japanese diplomats and the public. As recently as 2012, South Korea rejected a Japanese offer to let an international court settle the dispute.

6. Spratly Islands

Spratly Islands
A view from Amboyna Cay in the Spratly Islands. Ha petit/Wikimedia Commons

Though they have not been the site of a major armed conflict yet, the Spratly Islands are at the center of one of the most contested areas on Earth. No less than six nations claim control over a portion of these land masses, which dot the South China Sea. In total, the Spratlys consist of more than 700 islands, islets, sand bars and atolls. Almost all of the islands are uninhabited and most lack a fresh water source.

Because of this, the land masses themselves are relatively worthless. It is the resource-rich and strategically-important waters around the islands that the six nations want to control. Boats from multiple countries fish here, and there are major shipping channels that run through the region. Most importantly, there have been significant gas and oil discoveries. Both China and Taiwan claim sovereignty over portions of the Spratlys, as do Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which are geographically closer to the region. Malaysia and Brunei also have claims in the Spratlys. With so many players, a complete resolution of the dispute is virtually impossible.

7. The isthmus between Spain and Gibraltar

Aerial photo of Gibraltar,  looking northwest towards San Roque. (Photo:.


Gibraltar, which is under British control, is connected to mainland Spain by a half-mile-long isthmus. Spain has disputed British sovereignty over Gibraltar, but Gibraltar's residents have rejected Spanish rule in several referendums and have always voted to keep their autonomous status.

The isthmus that connects Gibraltar to Spain lies in more of a grey area. It has become an important part of the territory, but Spain claims that it never officially ceded the strip of land to the British. The territory's airport is located on the isthmus, as is a stadium and several housing developments. England claims that Spain never rejected its use of the isthmus, and therefore it controls the land by the law of prescription.

8. Navassa Island

Navassa Island
Aerial photo showing the steep rocky coast of Navassa Island. USGS/Wikimedia Commons

Navassa Island is an uninhabited landmass in the Caribbean about 50 miles from Haiti and 100 miles from the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. First discovered in the 1500s by members of one of Christopher Columbus's early expeditions to the region, the island was ignored for centuries because of its lack of potable water. Nonetheless, it was first claimed by Haiti in 1801 and has also been considered an unofficial territory of the U.S. since the 1850s.

To this day, both nations continue to claim the island as their own. Navassa became a center for guano mining (for the fertilizer industry) in the 1800s and received a permanent lighthouse from the U.S. Coast Guard when the Panama Canal was built. The light made it possible for ships to avoid Navassa's treacherous rocky shores as they moved across the Caribbean to and from the canal. Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates a nature preserve on the island, and Haitian fisherman will sometimes camp there, but there is no permanent settlement.

9. Lake Constance

Lake Constance
Ufenau Island in Lake Constance. Loreta Conte/Flickr

Occasionally, the lack of borders does not lead to a open dispute between countries, though local disputes and a general sense of confusion about rules do crop up. This is the case with Lake Constance, which lies in the Alps between Switzerland, Austria and Germany.

There is no officially recognized border on the lake. Switzerland is of the opinion that the borders run through the middle of the lake, while Austria has a vague “joint ownership” view of the waters. Germany has remained, perhaps purposefully, ambiguous about which portions of the water belong to which country. Locally, there have been issues with the rights to fish or moor boats in a certain area of the lake. The source of these problems is the fact that different agreements and treaties provide rules for different activities on the lake.